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Negative Splits

Freak Athletes And Freakier Technology Have Tamed The Marathon

Kelvin Kiptum celebrates after winning the Chicago Marathon
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome to Negative Splits, a regular column about running.

Before the Berlin Marathon in September, no woman had ever run under 2:14 in a marathon. Tigst Assefa of Ethiopia skipped the 2:12s and 2:13s entirely in that race, running a stunning 2:11:53. It was an outrageous run; in the final miles, she nearly chased down American man Jared Ward, who was sixth at the Olympics in 2016. What happened next is a key to understanding exactly how Assefa ran her extraordinary race: After she crossed the line, she took off her Adidas shoe, lifted it in the air, and kissed it for the cameras. 

Then on Sunday in Chicago, men’s marathoning had its own Assefa moment. Over the last five years, Eliud Kipchoge had ground down the world record to 2:01:09, also breaking two hours in a specially planned exhibition that broke some of the technical rules that apply in major marathons. In Chicago, fellow Kenyan Kelvin Kiptum nearly broke the two-hour mark in a legitimate race without much pacing help, running 2:00:35—4:36 per mile pace for 26.2 miles. The way Kiptum ran the race—hitting the halfway mark in over an hour, dropping a sub-14:00 5K and sub-4:20 mile mid-race—suggests that a real sub-2:00 marathon could happen soon. The 23-year-old Kiptum was reportedly wearing a pair of Nike prototypes that are due to come out next year.

Kiptum and Assefa’s performances in Chicago and Berlin were a signal that the sport of marathoning has changed. The revolution that began in the middle of the last decade with the advent of carbon-plated shoes has reached a new phase, in which stronger and faster runners are attacking races with lighter and more advanced shoes. The Adidas shoe that Assefa kissed has all the benefits found in previous generations of supershoes, but is several ounces lighter. The company is also selling pairs for $500 and advising runners to use them for just a single race.

Kiptum’s pending world record mildly overshadowed the women’s race in Chicago, where Sifan Hassan's win was slightly slower than Assefa’s in Berlin but no less impressive. Just six weeks after a grinding 1500/5K/10K triple at the track and field world championships, Hassan became the first woman to ever run a 2:13 marathon, winning in 2:13:44. It signaled that Assefa’s race was not just a one-off moonshot, but the new normal in women’s marathoning. It also cemented Hassan as not just the most versatile runner on the planet but probably the most versatile ever. 

Depending on your perspective, what’s happening is thrilling, a giant bummer, or somewhere in between.

Any action restricting supershoes appears incredibly unlikely at this point. People like me—and the scientist Ross Tucker, who told LetsRun after Assefa’s world record that “I hate these shoes, and I truly wish the authorities had acted to prevent this entirely foreseeable situation”—who think the shoes should be banned are laughed at as unserious Luddites. The likeliest outcome is that little to no reforms are attempted, and a new crop of athletes completely obliterates all history and context from marathoning. The retired miler Kyle Merber joked before Chicago that the marathon was becoming a middle distance event; he might only be a few years off. That’s OK, I’ll still keep drinking that garbage. 

What about drugs, though? It’s a fair question, particularly in women’s marathoning, which has been marked by several major doping cases in recent years. Hassan in particular has been viewed as a suspicious figure for much of her career. She was coached by notorious scumbag Alberto Salazar from 2016 until he was hit with a four-year doping ban in 2019. (That ban was scheduled to expire last month, although Salazar is banned for life from coaching American athletes after an arbitrator found that he sexually assaulted an athlete.)

Hassan is still coached by former Salazar lieutenant Tim Rowberry, and the European press has treated her skeptically. Salazar’s doping ban came down in the middle of the 2019 world championships, when Hassan was pulling off mind-melting double golds in the 1,500 and 10,000. Questions about Salazar inspired a classic (and meaningless) denunciation of the haters and doubters from Hassan at the time: 

"The door is open. If they're going to test me every day, I'm open for it," she said. "How do people think we are cheating? They think I don't get tested? I get tested every time.

"We are always clean. We always stay clean. We work hard."

I recognize that the following is easy to say as an observer, and not a woman who Hassan has beaten for medals and prize money: I don’t really care if she’s on the gas. So many runners suspected of or convicted of doping are charmless and vibeless, showing up at major championships and nuking the field while barely breaking a sweat. Hassan puts on a goddamn show. If she’s dirty, she’s giving us 1998 Mark McGwire, with a more charming personality and less robotic inevitability. (She did lose all three of those track finals in Budapest, after all.) Her London Marathon win was as entertaining as it was impressive: she stopped to stretch twice, falling behind by about 30 seconds before walking down the field, and even then she nearly got hit by a motorcycle.

Assefa, Kiptum, and Kipchoge have fewer shadier connections and less audacious range than Hassan does. But when athletes like Assefa and Kiptum blast onto the scene, close to out of nowhere, the grumbling will always be there. It’s a problem running has never solved: Its most dynamic athletes are instantly suspects. 

However one wishes to assign blame or credit for the way marathoning is being busted open, there remain plenty of reforms short of actual arms control that can prevent the marathon from becoming a solved game. The obvious one would be drastically reducing the usage of pacemakers outside of specific record attempts; even if the actual distance is less threatening to the very best athletes now, two-plus hours of championship-style racing without a pacer taking the guesswork out is still somewhat daunting. (It should be noted that Kiptum dropped his personal pacer early on Sunday, and his closest competitor dropped out well before the finish.)

Then there are increasingly wacky moves that could sprinkle some spice on a sport that is always desperate for relevance, though they would likely require big money to entice the world’s best athletes to participate. Tucker has repeatedly said that as shoe technology improves, the differences between elite athletes could be explained by who is more responsive to the shoes. So it would be fascinating to see a one-off race with severe restrictions on the shoes, although anyone who has run hard in pre-supershoes will tell you they have no interest in going back to that calf pain.

There could also be some benefit in going in the opposite direction. Why not have one race a year that’s more Formula One race than marathon; permit all the illegal aiding tactics that Kipchoge used in his unofficial sub-two-hour run. Maybe an annual tech-heavy Purge that gives runners a chance to put up science-fiction times would have the effect of chasing things other than time elsewhere. 

Finally, I have seen basically no one suggesting the most obvious move, admittedly because it is completely absurd. But the equivalent to Tiger-proofing a golf course or cranking up the difficulty in the Tour de France or widening the NBA court is clear: If the marathon is too easy now, put on a longer race. Major marathons and the Olympics have decades or even centuries of tradition behind them and aren’t going anywhere. But surely an enterprising race director with some dark money could entice the very best runners in the world to race 30 miles or further. I’m not suggesting replacing the marathon; for the average civilian, or even the very best Americans, 26.2 miles remains plenty hard. (Only two American men have even run the Olympic qualifying time for next year’s Games, and that number was zero before Sunday.) But with only the help of a flat course and shoes that other Nike pros have access to, Kiptum threw down a 4:18 mile and 27:52 10K in the middle of a damn marathon on Sunday. Watch him finish in Chicago: full of run, effortlessly stunting, leaping into the arms of the race director after he crosses the finish. What Kiptum does is barely recognizable as marathoning. It shouldn’t be blasphemous to say that if human beings have conquered the marathon, they might be ready for a new challenge.

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