Saturday, January 15, 2005

Runners are not as fast as they used to be...

My previous post on performance fabrics got me to thinking about how my level of performance in the past would stack-up today. One might expect that with better shoes, diet and training regimens; runners could be faster today than they were in the past. I have only run one marathon and so my time is etched in memory: 3:18:23. Actually, I am not that petty: I ususally just remember 3:18 and some seconds--I looked up the 23 part. I decided to look-up the times and placements of the most recent Seattle marathon to compare my ranking with the ranking that time would produce now. My place was 646 out of 2101 starters (only 1743 finished) which means that I was in about the top 30% of those who entered the race. The most current results from 2004 show that I would have come in 188th out of 2277 finishers or about the top 9% of the field. More people are participating in the marathon now than in 1980 and yet there are far fewer really fast runners. The top runner from our group: Mike Hadway, came in 4th with a time of 2:25:54. He would have won the race in 2004 by over 3 minutes. In case one might think that conditions were more favorable in 1980, they were not! The 1980 race featured gale-force winds, rain and sleet. This may be part of the reason why 358 runners (17% of the starters) never finished the 1980 race. I could not find the weather information or the ratio of starters to finishers for recent Seattle marathons, but did look at top finishing times and they are similar from year-to-year. If any readers have a theory as to why performance level has declined over the years, I would be interested to hear it. dbp

Added: Malcolm Gladwell apparently agrees with me:

LADWELL: It’s a great question. Impossible to answer in the time that I have, but if I can use my favorite subject of running as an example. If you look at times in the marathon today and compare them to times from 30 years ago, we are radically slower today. I’m not talking about the elite level, I’m talking about at the sub-elite level. The number of Americans, for example, who can break three hours in a marathon today is a fraction of what it was in 1980 or 1985. And that goes to this point: In order to extract running talent from the general population, you need to have a really, really broad base and the broad base is gone.

There is still elite running that produces really good, fast runners. But in 1980, there was this many people running the kind of mileage necessary to run a marathon properly, and today there’s this many. And all of our attention and focus is on the 95th percentile. But what we don’t understand is, we’ll never find the next great marathoner until we re-broaden the base. When we had a base this big of mediocre marathoners we had the two greatest marathoners in the world. Now that our base is this big, we got nobody in the top 10.

From an interview here

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