Field of Play: Chasing the Miracle Marathon | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: Chasing the Miracle Marathon

Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 | 12:18 AM

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Kenya's Wilson Kipsang poses with his new world-record time after winning the 40th edition of the Berlin Marathon in Berlin, Germany on Sunday. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images) Kenya's Wilson Kipsang poses with his new world-record time after winning the 40th edition of the Berlin Marathon in Berlin, Germany on Sunday. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

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Insiders from the distance running ranks agree that Wilson Kipsang, who knocked 15 seconds off the marathon world record on Sunday, has the potential to capture global attention. 
It was one of those crazy, busy weekends in sport.  

The Olympic Torch Relay began in Greece and hockey superstar Alex Ovechkin was the first Russian to carry it on the long trek to Sochi 2014.  He had to hurry because his NHL campaign with the Washington Capitals was due to face off 48 hours later.

Canadian Milos Raonic thundered his way to another victory on the tennis courts, this time in Thailand.  It appears that his awesome potential is ready to fully blossom.

The Major League Baseball season drew to a close and the race to the World Series shifted into high gear as the "Gods of October" seemingly captured the American consciousness once again.

All the while, the grid iron spectacle that is the National Football League, like a freight train, gathered steam and dominated television screens on Sunday afternoon.

And yes, a 31-year-old Kenyan by the name of Wilson Kipsang knocked 15 seconds off the marathon world record. In Berlin he ran the "King" of all distance races in two hours, three minutes and 23 seconds.  

It's amazing...but Kipsang's historic feat almost got lost in the shuffle.

"I saw Wilson Kipsang in Iten [Kenya], many times this winter and had the opportunity to talk to him about the Olympics and the marathon," said Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet from his training base in Guelph, Ont. "At the time he had the second-fastest marathon in the world as well as an Olympic medal and I still had to tell some runners who he was." 

Such is the lingering obscurity of one of the most challenging of all athletic events that human beings undertake. The marathon, it would seem, still has miles to go in terms of securing a mass following.

That said, Kipsang's achievement points to the fact that a milestone marathon may be in the offing in the not-too-distant future. Just as Sir Roger Bannister chased the four-minute mile and finally caught it six decades ago at Iffley Road track in Oxford, UK in 1954, the sub-two-hour marathon is actually becoming conceivable.

"It's just as it was when Bannister and John Landy of Australia were inching closer and closer," Coolsaet said. "Once it goes there it will likely be a 'Bannister' effect and people will truly believe it's possible."

Insiders from the distance running ranks agree that Kipsang's new record might be a signal that the rush to that watershed, miraculous time for the 26.2-mile race, has the potential to capture global attention, as Bannister once did. 

"Both are about the sublime challenge of pushing the human spirit and body as far as they can go and beyond what was once conventionally thought possible," reckoned Dave Scott-Thomas, a University of Guelph track coach who guided Coolsaet and Eric Gillis to the Olympic marathon in London last summer. "Both have a sweet symmetry in terms of a number to chase. Four minutes is conceptually pretty simple as is two hours."

Magic marathon

Still, conventional wisdom dictates that the magic marathon isn't about to happen overnight.

While it's true in the nearly half century since Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila won the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon in 2:12:12, nearly nine minutes have come off the global mark, the progression is slowing down. In the last decade the world record has been broken four times but Kenyan Paul Tergat's 2:04:55  is a mere one minute and 32 seconds slower than Kipsang's current standard.

That said breaking the world record by 15 seconds, as Kipsang did on Sunday in Berlin, is nothing to sneeze at.

"It doesn't sound like much, less than half a second per km, but at that level with many different athletes taking shots at it any improvement is noteworthy," Coolsaet figured. "It also makes it seem as though the two hour barrier is 14 years away."

Dave Scott-Thomas wavered when asked to commit to a belief in the sub-two-hour marathon and whether or not it's a sure thing.

"No if we assume standard means of progression and assumptions about body type, metabolism and training," he said.  "But the answer is yes if we take into account outliers, [look at Usain Bolt and his body type], advanced technology and new training techniques."

The bottom line is that new frontiers on the marathon's gruelling field of play are being envisioned now more than ever.  

The same is true for Canadian distance runners like Reid Coolsaet who are inching closer to Jerome Drayton's 38-year-old national record of 2:10:08 set in Fukuoka, Japan in 1975.  It's the oldest athletics record of any kind in Canadian history.

"The Canadian record is definitely breakable," Coolsaet shrugged.  He'll take another run at it in Fukuoka this coming December. "Just like the world record everything has to go, health, headspace, pacers, weather...I feel as though at present, myself, Eric Gillis and Dylan Wykes have the ability but we would need everything to fall into place."

"It is beatable and I hope in the near-term.  We have at least three Canadians who have the tools to do so," enthused Scott-Thomas.  "They need the right build up and the right environmental conditions.  It's taken this long because we got misdirected in training techniques for a couple of decades. By that I mean we just didn't run enough volume."

That's the key when it comes to making history in the marathon race.  To demonstrate what is humanly possible and to achieve a watershed, fleeting moment in a timeless pursuit there are no short-cuts.

Instead millions of runners will log millions of miles and each will have to go the distance. But when the miracle marathon happens, it most certainly won't get lost in the shuffle.

Marathon World Record Progression...The Last 50 Years

  • 2:12:12   Abebe Bikila           Ethiopia           Tokyo             1964
  • 2:09:12   Ian Thompson        Great Britain   Christchurch       1974
  • 2:08:05   Steve Jones            Great Britain   Chicago            1984
  • 2:06:50   Belayneh Densamo Ethiopia           Rotterdam        1988   
  • 2:04:55   Paul Tergat              Kenya             Berlin             2003
  • 2:03:23   Wilson Kipsang        Kenya             Berlin              2013
Marathon Canadian Record
  • 2:10:08    Jerome Drayton     Canada           Fukuoka              1975

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