Why are Manitoba's marathoners getting slower?

A CBC News analysis of race results for every Manitoba Marathon since 1979 shows both local pros and average Joes taking longer than ever to reach the finish line.

CBC analysis of Manitoba Marathon results since 1979 show race performances in decline

Brian Warkentin, 18, from Grunthal, Manitoba crosses the the finish line in 1979 in 107th place with a time of 3:11:22. (Archives and Special Collections/University of Manitoba)

It will come as no surprise to those who were swept up by the North American running craze of the '70s and '80s that the field of local elite runners and the overall herd of marathon finishers are taking longer than ever to reach the finish line.

Founded in 1979, the Manitoba Marathon has been run 37 times. Over that period, the mass of marathoners — on average, 731 finishers per year — has progressively gotten slower. The median time has increased nearly 25 minutes, yet the 42.2-kilometre course has remained identical, a CBC News analysis shows.

In the last 10 years, the middle-of-the-pack runner finished in approximately 4 hours and 15 minutes — compare that to the first 10 years when the same distance took 3 hours and 53 minutes. This includes the exceptionally slow race times of the inaugural year in 1979, when thousands of over-ambitious Manitobans dropped out after underestimating the demands of the race.

CBC News was given access to the race results archives at the Manitoba Marathon office. Electronic records only go back to 2001, results prior to that are kept in boxes in paper form.

Local pros not immune to the trend

In 1979, the world record for the marathon stood at 2:09:05. Today, the pace has accelerated to an unthinkable 2:02:57. That's 26 consecutive miles at a pace of 4 minutes and 41 seconds.

While the times of elite international racers, like the ones who lead the pack at the Boston Marathon and the Olympics, have continued to improve. Those of the local pros have not kept pace.

An analysis of the results for the top 25 finishers for each Manitoba Marathon reveals that it was not uncommon for top local talent to post times hovering around the 2:20 range in the mid-1980s. In contrast, today's races are often won with times approaching the 2:40 mark.

"It was a populist movement, but there was also a core of very fit post-university athletes who were running, and that's changed," said Sheldon Reynolds, a former Canadian Olympic trials-level marathoner. He says the field isn't as deep as it once was. 

"[College runners] continued running and they went right from the tracks to the roads," he said. "Track athletes who would run the 5,000 or 10,000 metre would get a ribbon, but suddenly could move to the roads and win a pair of shoes or a bag or something."

CBC ARCHIVES: 1979 Manitoba Marathon

5 years ago
The Manitoba Marathon was first run in the city of Winnipeg in 1979 and since then be held annually on Father's Day. CBC Sports was there to broadcast the inaugural run. 4:21

He says many of the top track athletes today simply don't make the transition to road racing, possibly because of increased pressure to obtain higher levels of education.

Reynolds also says he's noticed a societal shift from performance being the primary motivator to lifestyle.

"Running became more popular, now it's the masses that run, so people are out for fitness, they're out to just improve their times slightly, or put it as part of their lifestyle; so not training intensely," he said.

The world is getting slower as well

Statistician Jens Jakob Andersen from the Copenhagen Business School analyzed more than two million race results from recreational marathoners in various countries and found that the trend towards overall slower times generally holds true across the globe.

Sub 3-hour club more exclusive than ever

Prior to the 1990s, the three-hour mark — the benchmark for many amateur marathoners — was routinely bested by more than 30 runners at the Manitoba Marathon. In 2015, only seven runners went sub 3-hours, the fewest in the history of the race, despite average temperature and humidity conditions on race day.

Svein Hjeldnes of Norway running through a water station on Portage Avenue in 1979. He finished 12th that year with a time of 2:26:24. (Archives and Special Collections/University of Manitoba)

Roger Schewegel scored 17 top 10 performances in the Manitoba Marathon. The former North Dakota State University athlete believes the abundance of activity options may be limiting running performance. 

"There's a lot of other very cool sports you can get into," he said.

Having taught physical education in for 23 years, Schewegel says the draw toward team sports for youth is tempting because winning and losing are shared responsibilities, whereas in individual sports, shouldering the entire burden for a poor performance can be a tougher pill to swallow.

"When I lose, I lose in a race," he said.

Talent being lured into other sports

Claude Bérubé is the head coach for the University of Manitoba Bison track team. (CBC News)
According to Claude Bérubé, the head coach for the University of Manitoba's Bison track and field team, there has been a resurgence of interest in shorter distances on the track in recent years.

"More young runners are interested in track at the moment, on shorter distances. I can't remember the last time a 10,000 metre race was held on a track," he said.

He also says that confronted with so many choices, would-be elite runners get lured away from running to team sports or other distance events.

"Now everyone wants to get into triathlon, or trying newer sports," he said.

Two of Canada's top triathletes and Rio Olympic Games hopefuls, Sarah-Anne Brault and Tyler Mislawchuk, have running abilities that could rival many of the country's top distance runners, but have chosen a different athletic path

The special insert containing race results in the Winnipeg Tribune for the inaugural race in 1979. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC News)

Bérubé, who is a former top collegiate runner in Canada, says the Manitoba Marathon used to be among a few in the country.

"Originally, the organizers used to invite competitive runners from abroad, but the race has shifted its focus towards being a more community focused and fundraising event."

Six-time Manitoba marathon winner and current record holder (2:13:51) Dennis Rinde says he was surprised one day in 1981 when he was invited to compete in a marathon in a "small prairie town" with an international field of runners.

Earlier that year Rinde, a California native, had finished seventh in the Boston Marathon.

"I got a free plane ticket and a free hotel stay, free lodging and meals. Sounded like a good deal," he recalled.

He said midway through the race, a volunteer on a bike had shouted that the chase pack was making ground on him.

"It was a prefect day, I kept going and going," he said. "That comment from the bicyclist just actually spurred me on to a record time."

Manitoba Marathon by the numbers

Five fastest full marathon winning times:

2:13:51 (Dennis Rinde; 1981)
2:15:15 (Frank Richardson; 1980)
2:16:21 (Art Boileau; 1983)
2:17:31 (Wataru Sakamoto; 1979)
2:17:38 (Steve Benson; 1986)

Five slowest full marathon winning times:

2:40:42 (Christopher Nicoll; 1995)
2:37:55 (Shingie Badza; 2003)
2:36:44 (Brian Walker; 2014)
2:36:31 (John McEvoy; 2008)
2:36:12 (Michael Booth; 2007)

Fastest and slowest median time for all finishers:

3:38:00 (1985)
4:30:00 (2005)

Highest temperature at start of race time (7 a.m.):

25.3 C (1995)

(Note: this is also the year with the slowest winning time.)

Methodology notes:

  • In some cases, records that were kept in paper format only were difficult to read, as the ink had faded over time or the versions of the official results were known to have errors in it (1989 and 1999).  Best efforts were made to verify through other sources that the name and times were accurate, however it is possible some minor errors were made. If there is an error please email:
  • Median finish times for the first and last 10 year time-frames, were calculated by taking the average of the median times for each unique race, which is a close approximation to the true median for the 10-year period.

With files from Cameron Perrier