To say 2007 was not the best year for the marathon here in the U.S. would certainly be an understatement. The sport experienced actual and near weather disasters (a deadly heat wave in Chicago and a near miss Nor'easter in Boston). In the New York Marathon in November, a minor timing malfunction caused some runners to receive incorrect finishing times. A month later in the massive Honolulu Marathon, a similar problem was far more widespread, as nearly 3,500 runners' times were missing, due to glitches in the use of a new timing technique that employed electronic tags on runners' race numbers, in lieu of the popular "chips" traditionally used in marathons.
Finally, tragedy visited the most anticipated and visible marathon in all of 2007, as world-class runner Ryan Shay succumbed to a heart-related incident at the men's Olympic Marathon Team Trials in New York City in November, leaving a tragic stain on what was otherwise a banner day for U.S. marathon running and emerging star Ryan Hall. Such was the luck of the sport in 2007, when even the most promising news was accompanied by a dark cloud.
Despite all of the setbacks, there were more marathon finishers than ever before in the U.S. last year, more than 400,000 in all, the first time that number has been reached in history, and up more than 100,000 from the beginning of the decade. This, despite the cancellation of the Chicago Marathon in midstream and the missing thousands from Honolulu. Can anything stop the marathon mania? Will the upward growth, which is now taken for granted as an annual occurrence, ever come to an end? From all appearances, it does not seem so.
Marathoners continue to get faster—but mostly among those who are already fast. Haile Gebrselassie set a world record of 2:04:26 in the Berlin Marathon last fall, and followed that up just this month with a 2:04:53 in Dubai. Friends, those times equate to a pace of better than 4:45 per mile. The diminutive Ethiopian had good reason to run so quickly: the victory in Dubai was worth $250,000, and he would have collected a cool million had he improved upon his world record time from Berlin. The rest of the marathon world has not improved as the elite have, however. The average time among all male marathoners in 2007 was 4:29:52; among women, 4:59:28. So for all you men and women out there seeking bragging rights, sub 4:30 and sub five hours, respectively, will place you in the top half of all marathoners.
So what is one to make of it all? Do the problems of 2007 represent an aberration, or are they an omen for the future? Has the sport gotten too big, too out of control? What does it say when more people know that actress Katie Holmes (Mrs. Tom Cruise) ran the New York Marathon (in 5:29) than can name the overall winner? Does any of it really matter?
Like most aspects of life, it all depends upon your point of view. If you are a marathon runner looking for races in which to participate, these are the best of times. Never have there been so many events from which to choose, nearly 350 across the country. Every state has at least one, and in many cases several marathons on the calendar. Every weekend of the year features several first-rate marathons. Despite an already crowded calendar, 21 new 26-milers made their debut in the U.S.A. in 2007.
Purists balk at the "moving parades" that many marathons have become, in which the large majority of participants are less concerned with their final times than having a good time. The good old days—in which the marathon was a crucible, the ultimate test of one's will—seem to be gone for good. Of course, the marathon is still a personal experience. If you want to squeeze every second out of your performance, you are welcome to do that; just don't expect many of your fellow marathoners to follow suit.
Although you don't have to be a fast runner to gain entry into marathons nowadays (Boston notwithstanding), you do have to be quick on the keyboard. Many races close out early, and often require signing up or registering for a lottery process several months before the race takes place. Few marathons allow for late or race-day sign up nowadays, making life difficult for procrastinators and late deciders.
Mega marathons, races such as Chicago, New York and Honolulu, keep getting bigger, despite the fact that they can be as much a test of patience and logistics as of running prowess. The Chicago Marathon offered a graphic display of just how quickly things can go wrong in a massive, citywide event, and how difficult they can be to fix when fields reach 40,000 and beyond. Marathons have traditionally relied on participants being self-sufficient to a certain degree, and those new to the game are finding out that is still true today, no matter how much sponsorship, window dressing and media coverage an event may boast.
Everyone in the sport, runners and administrators alike, hope 2008 will be a better year for marathon running than 2007. Two big events are on the horizon: the U.S. Women's Marathon Trials in Boston in April, and the Olympic Games in Beijing in August. Expect to hear plenty about the detrimental effects of air pollution in Beijing, something that could prove difficult for marathon participants. If a sore throat and lungs for the Olympians are the biggest problem the sport experiences in 2008, the year will be much improved for marathon running.
Oh, by the way: Katie Holmes has announced she will not be running Boston this spring. Fear not, however: Lance Armstrong plans to be on hand, hoping to improve upon the 2:46 he clocked in New York in 2007. Now there is a runner who knows a thing or two about the ultimate test of will.
Don Allison, from Weymouth, Massachusetts, is the former publisher of UltraRunning Magazine and a founder of Cool Running. He has completed 55 marathons, with a personal best of 2:35. In addition, Don has completed several ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons and cycled across the U.S.A. in 2006.