How long will Radcliffe’s record stand?

April 13 will mark a decade since Paula Radcliffe set the still-standing world marathon record. After a succession of near misses on the track where Radcliffe lacked the raw sprinting speed to stay in contention on the last lap burn-up, her victories at the World Cross Country Championships and World Half Marathon Championships demonstrated her vast potential for the 26.2-miles.

Radcliffe immediately found her niche at the 2002 London Marathon where she ran the second fastest time ever of 2:18:56, closing with 67:52 for the second half. After winning gold medals on the track at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, Radcliffe turned her attention back to the roads for the Chicago Marathon and despite the hindrance of a strong headwind in the closing stages, Radcliffe still improved Catherine Ndereba’s record from 2:18:47 to 2:17:18. This was faster than when Jim Peters broke the men’s record less than half a century earlier in 1954 when women didn’t even run 800m at the Olympics.

This record only stood for a matter of months as Radcliffe decimated her own mark at the 2003 London Marathon. The Bedford & County athlete crossed the line in 2:15:25 and the magnitude of the performance was such that no British man ran faster than Radcliffe that year! This record was recently brought under scrutiny as the IAAF retroactively demoted it to a world-best as it was judged Radcliffe received unfair assistance as her time was achieved with the aid of male pacemakers, even though they weren’t implemented at her request.

Common sense prevailed and Radcliffe’s mark was rightfully restored but a new ruling introduced by the governing body suggests an assault on the world marathon record could prove an even tougher assignment for future aspirants. What constitutes unfair assistance still remains a grey area but it appears mixed races can no longer count for record purposes and world records can only be set exclusively in women’s only races.

Not wanting to detract from the record but Radcliffe must have benefited in some capacity from having the pacemakers alongside her for most, if not at all times in Chicago and London. This is not to say the assistance should be viewed as pushing the boundaries to gain an unfair advantage as they didn’t act in the normal manner of a pacemaker in big-city marathons. They didn’t assist her at the drink stations, which can sometimes disrupt the racer’s rhythm, and they ran to the side of Radcliffe, offering very little in the way of wind-resistance which, ironically, was lavishly provided by a phalanx of pacemakers for Geoffrey Mutai’s world record attempt in Berlin last year, yet deemed perfectly legal. However, the point is the competitive element was intact from gun to tape and this can no longer be fostered under the new rules. 

Radcliffe is by no means the only female marathoner to post her best times in this sort of racing environment though, and she is still head and shoulders ahead of her contemporaries. The sub-2:20 barrier, almost a mile slower than Radcliffe’s world record, is still viewed as the landmark time in women’s marathon-running and only fourteen athletes have achieved this since Radcliffe’s first sub-2:20 clocking a decade ago. Only three of them have gone sub 2:19 too.

The most relevant aspect to draw from this statistic though is half of these times, as well as the three sub-2:19 performances, have all been achieved within the last eighteen months. This is a telling indication the depth at the highest level is beginning to improve, particularly as the Kenyan and Ethiopian women are getting to grips with the marathon en masse. Mirroring the recent trends of men’s marathon-running, the women are further revising conventional running wisdom by shunning the track and specialising at the marathon at an earlier age – no doubt inspired by the greater cash incentives on offer – and clearly with great effect too if the improvements in depth are used as a gauge.

One athlete who looks set to join this clique is two-time Olympic 10,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba, who is due to make her marathon debut at some point this year. Her track credentials are superior to Radcliffe’s and her world 15km record, as well as her debut victory at the Great North Run over world and Olympic marathon champions Edna Kiplagat and Tiki Gelana augurs well as she transitions towards the marathon. In theory, Dibaba – more so than her contemporaries – has the ammunition to get down towards Radcliffe’s mark but even if she makes a good transition which some track runners don’t, will she share Radcliffe’s obsessive urge to chase fast times? While Radcliffe’s forte is her front-running, Dibaba’s sprinting speed is such she’s often content to settle for the win with the clock being immaterial.

Radcliffe is rapidly approaching Ingrid Kristiansen’s record for longest spell as world marathon record-holder as the Norwegian’s 2:21:06 record from 1985 lasted for thirteen years and while the depth gradually improves in the 2:18-2:19 range, these times are still about half-a-mile slower than 2:15. Similarly, Radcliffe’s world 10km and half-marathon records have gone largely unscathed which is further testament to the potential future longevity of her record. There’s no doubt the Kenyans and Ethiopians are tightening their stranglehold on the marathon but despite the greater prevalence of sub-2:20 clockings, 2:15:25 still remains a flicker on the horizon. The brilliance of Radcliffe’s record means this same question could be reignited in another decade for now.

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