A staple topic of conversation among athletics fans is the discussion of the greatest of all-time in any event and this weekend seems a pertinent time to discuss the ‘GOAT’ in the women’s marathon. Comparing athletes from different eras can be akin to that of applies and oranges and the marathon has the added complication of the fastest marathon-runners not always winning (or even contesting) the major events and vice-versa but despite these difficulties, here’s my run-down on the greatest women’s marathon-runners of all-time.
1. Grete Waitz (Norway)
Waitz had never raced a half-marathon or even trained beyond 13-miles before her marathon debut in New York in 1978 but her name was soon to become synonymous with a marathon she won no less than a record nine times in the next ten years.
The Norwegian was the true pioneer of women’s marathon-running. On her debut, she improved the world record from 2:34:47 to 2:32:30 which she eventually lowered to a still world-class 2:25:29 and this was in the days before warm-weather trips and stints at high-altitude comprised the regular make-up of an athlete’s training. Indeed, Waitz still worked full-time as a geography teacher in 1978 and her evening meal the night before her debut consisted of a shrimp cocktail followed by a filet mignon, such was the paucity of scientific knowledge in marathon-running at that time.
Waitz, who won the inaugural world marathon title in 1983, passed away after a six-year fight to cancer in April 2011. Her legacy was to inspire many of the current generation of elite marathon-runners as well as helping to bring women’s distance running away from the periphery to the mainstream at both elite and club-runner level.
- Personal best – 2:24:54 (1986)
- Big city marathon wins – New York 1978-80, 1982-86, 1988, London 1983, 1986
- Major championships honours – world champion 1983, Olympic silver 1984
2. Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain)
Rather like Waitz, Radcliffe lacked the raw change of pace to outsprint her rivals for global track titles but her victories at the World Cross Country Championships and World Half-Marathon Championships demonstrated her potential at the marathon.
While some athletes struggle to make the transition from the shorter road-racing distances, Radcliffe immediately found her niche over 26.2-miles. She ran the second fastest time ever of 2:18:56 on her debut in London in 2002 followed by a world record of 2:17:18 in Chicago.
She was at the height of her powers in 2003 when she lowered the world record down to 2:15:25. Her record hasn’t been remotely threatened since it was set a decade ago and the magnitude of Radcliffe’s performance was such that her time was faster than anything set by a British man – including two-time Olympic fourth-placer Jon Brown – that year!
Her lack of Olympic medalware has been thoroughly documented but Radcliffe filled her major championships void in 2005. Against an Olympic-calibre field at the World Championships in Helsinki, Radcliffe ran the fastest ever time in a championships of 2:20:57 which was faster than when her idol Emil Zatopek won the Olympic marathon in the Finnish capital in 1952
- Personal best – 2:15:25 (2003)
- Big city marathon wins – London 2002-03, 2005, New York 2004, 2007-08, Chicago 2002
- Major championships honours – world champion 2005
3. Catherine Ndereba (Kenya)
After finishing sixth on her debut in Boston in 1999, Ndereba finished no lower than second in a marathon again until New York in 2006 when she placed third.
Such impeccable consistency meant she was aptly monikered ‘Catherine The Great’ in the United States where she’s been a perennial figure on the road-racing circuit since the mid-1990s. Ndereba, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and Kenya, won a record four Boston Marathon titles and became the first woman to break the 2:19-barrier during this seven year period.
Her relationship with the Kenyan Federation wasn’t particularly acrimonious. She was omitted from the team for the Sydney Olympics despite winning Boston in the build-up but Ndereba finally made her championships debut at the age of 31 at the 2003 World Championships which she duly won. She then became the first athlete to win two world marathon titles in 2007.
Ndereba also won Olympic silver medals in 2004 and 2008 and despite a tactical faux pas in the latter when she didn’t realise eventual champion Constantina Dita escaped from the pack, the Kenyan has won more than enough silverware to prove her repertoire includes being a superb racer as well as one of the fastest runners of all-time.
- Personal best – 2:18:47 (2001)
- Big city marathon wins – Boston 2000-01, 2004-05, Chicago 2000-01
- Major championships honours – world champion 2003, 2007, Olympic silver 2004, 2008, world silver 2005
4. Rosa Mota (Portugal)
Rather like Waitz, Mota was a novice when she made her marathon debut at the 1982 European Championships in Athens but her gold medal in the very first championships marathon women contested was the start of an unparalleled career in the major events.
At a time when most of the world’s leading long-distance runners hailed from Europe, her trio of continental gold medals was a meritorious achievement. Her winning margin of seven minutes and twenty-one seconds at the 1987 World Championships in Rome is by far the largest in history and she remains the only woman who has both world and Olympic marathon titles to her credit.
- Personal best – 2:23:29 (1985)
- Big city marathon wins – Boston 1987-88, 1990, Chicago 1983-84, London 1991
- Major championships honours – Olympic champion 1988, world champion 1987, European champion 1982, 1986, 1990, Olympic bronze 1984
5. Ingrid Kristiansen (Norway)
Kristiansen still merits a top-five ranking despite the sparsity of major championship medals. She missed the inaugural World Championships through pregnancy and she admits, in hindsight, the Olympic marathon in 1984, where she finished fourth, was the one race in her career she wished she approached differently. The conditions in Rome and Seoul convinced her to focus on the newly-introduced 10,000m at major championships while plying her trade in the autumn and spring road-racing circuit instead.
She did this with great success and the Norwegian is the only woman who has won the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons which are largely viewed as the Grand Slams of marathon-running. Even though Radcliffe looks set to surpass this longevity record, nobody has yet held the world marathon record for as long as Kristiansen as her ground-breaking 2:21:06 mark from the 1985 London Marathon stood until 1998.
- Personal best – 2:21:06 (1985)
- Big city marathon wins – Boston 1986, 1989, London 1984-85, 1987-88 Chicago 1986, New York 1989
- Major championships honours – European bronze 1982
6. Joan Benoit Samuelson (United States)
Her career at the very highest level was abbreviated by injuries but Samuelson assumed the mantle of the world’s leading marathoner from Waitz in the mid-1980s. Despite undergoing knee surgery just three weeks before the US Trials, Samuelson comfortably qualified for the team before taking a gun-to-tape victory in the inaugural Olympic marathon on home-soil ahead of Waitz, Mota and Kristiansen. The manner of her victory was laudable given the calibre of opposition and her winning time of 2:24:52 would have even won the men’s marathon at the 1956 Olympic Games.
The last hurrah at this level came the following year in the Chicago Marathon. Samuelson overcame a bad patch mid-race to clock the second fastest time ever of 2:21:21 to defeat Kristiansen and Mota again and this time stood as a US record at the turn of the millennium.
While her elite career lacked longevity, Samuelson still competes at a level many British male club-runners would envy. Just one month before her 54th birthday, Samuelson ran 2:51:29 for 26.2-miles in Boston last year.
- Personal best – 2:21:21 (1985)
- Big city marathon wins – Boston 1979, 1983, Chicago 1985
- Major championships honours – Olympic champion 1984
7. Naoko Takahashi (Japan)
The notion of a woman running sub-2:20 for the marathon was viewed as an inconceivable concept even just twenty years before Takahashi became the first to achieve this feat in 2001. Her world record, as well as her Olympic gold medal from 2000, has earned her David Beckham-like fame in her homeland where marathon-running is almost an institution.
- Personal best – 2:19:46 (2001)
- Big city marathon wins – Berlin 2001-02
- Major championships honours – Olympic champion 2000, Asian Games champion 1998
8. Mizuki Noguchi (Japan)
Noguchi’s career followed a very similar trajectory to Takahashi’s. After winning the Olympic title in 2004, Noguchi went to the German capital the following year where she improved Takahashi’s Asian record to 2:19:12 which still ranks sixth on the world all-time rankings.
- Personal best – 2:19:12 (2005)
- Big city marathon wins – Berlin 2005
- Major championships honours – Olympic champion 2004, world silver 2003
9. Tegla Loroupe (Kenya)
At four-foot eleven and forty kilograms, Loroupe is diminutive even by women’s marathon-running standards but the Kenyan was renowned for an indomitable resolve and raced with the heart of a lioness. This was apparent when she claimed her second New York Marathon title in 1995 the week after the death of her sister Albina, who was Loroupe’s perennial source of encouragement in a patriarchal society which strongly discouraged women from competing in sport.
Despite requiring back surgery in 1997, Loroupe broke Kristiansen’s iconic world record in Rotterdam the following year, becoming the first woman to break the 2:21-barrier with 2:20:47. She improved her record by four seconds in Berlin but for all of her record-breaking exploits, the lack of silverware prevents Loroupe from claiming a higher ranking.
The world record-holder was favoured to claim the Olympic gold medal in 2000 but a bout of food poisoning left her weakened on race-day. She still finished inside the top-15 and somehow found the strength to place fifth in the Olympic 10,000m final later in the Games but these performances weren’t representative of her true ability.
Loroupe was guilty of over-racing in her hey-day and her schedule in the late-90s would be unthinkable for most of today’s current elite and this is likely to have contributed to her rapid decline but her performances in the 1990s helped to place Kenyan women on the running map after decades of invisibility.
- Personal best – 2:20:43 (1999)
- Big city marathon wins – London 2000, New York 1994-95, Berlin 1999
- Major championships honours – none
10. Katrin Dörre-Heinig (East Germany/Germany)
Dörre-Heinig was a prolific racer who amassed no less than twenty-four career victories from her forty-four marathons. The highlights included an unprecedented hat-trick of London Marathon victories in the mid-1990s as well as three successive top-five finishes in the Olympic Games. She surely would have achieved a fourth if it wasn’t for the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics.
- Personal best – 2:24:35 (1999)
- Big city marathon wins – London 1992-94, Berlin 1994
- Major championships honours – Olympic bronze 1988, world bronze 1991, World Cup champion 1985, World Cup bronze 1987