Boston Marathon: The heartbreak of technicalities

Winner Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya crosses the finish line of the 115th Boston Marathon on Monday in Boston.

It should have been one of road racing's finest hours — the fastest marathon ever run. In Boston, no less, the cradle of 26.2-mile glory.

Instead, some of the postmortems from Monday's Boston Marathon bogged down into another tedious discussion of why the Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai's winning time, an amazing 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds, was not a world record but simply a "world best," or "the fastest Boston ever" or a "course record."

The fact that the rules that prohibited Mutai's performance from being accepted as a world record were ratified decades ago, long after Boston's course had gained worldwide acceptance for its Heartbreak Hill and other landmarks from suburban Hopkinton to Boylston Street, appeared irrelevant.

Mutai's time does not count as a world record because the Boston course is not a point-to-point race and the overall decrease in elevation of the course is greater than what the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field's world governing body, allows for a course to be. Technicalities and inconsistencies, it seems, are always strange partners in the sport of track and field. Even in American high schools, the standard distance for the equivalent of a mile run is a 1,600-meter race, not the internationally recognized metric distance of 1,500.

"There are standards for records," Robert M. Hersh, a vice president of the IAAF, said Monday night by telephone in defending the association's policies. "There are criteria for records."


But a rule that states that a start and finish cannot be separated by more than 50 percent of the race (to discourage downhill courses and wind-aided runs) or have a decrease in elevation that exceeds 1 meter per kilometer hardly acknowledges Boston's history, hills or relatively consistent winning times (unlike acknowledged flatter, faster courses in Berlin, London or Rotterdam).

A more likely explanation behind Monday's events is that today's accomplished marathoners, particularly Kenyans and Ethiopians who train at altitude, on mountainous terrains and with punishing workouts, have simply outrun the courses and negated even the need for pacesetters, which are barred at Boston, to cushion their early workload.

This emergence did not really begin until the 1968 Summer Olympics, which were held at Mexico City's high altitude. Yes, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia had run barefoot en route to an Olympic gold medal in Rome eight years earlier. But when Kipchoge Keino buried America's middle-distance wonder boy, Jim Ryun, in the 1,500, and other Africans swept the marathon and steeplechase, the pendulum had begun to shift.

The Americans Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar preserved a measure of order in the marathon until the introduction of prize money and endorsements brought young Africans to road races in even larger numbers. The African women even carved their own identities as well despite previous cultural limitations.

Mutai was the 18th Kenyan men's winner at Boston in the past 21 years. No American, man or woman, has won Boston since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, although Ryan Hall also broke the course record Monday with the fastest run by an American, 2:04:58, en route to a fourth-place finish.

''When I was coming to Boston, I was not trying to break the world record," Mutai told reporters after the race. "I was not trying to break the world record. But I see this as a gift from God."

Interestingly, Salazar, a three-time New York City Marathon champion and a respected coach of some of America's best marathoners, took the purist's position on the issue of whether Mutai's time should be certified as a world record.

''I actually agree that it shouldn't be counted," Salazar said by email. "The downhill nature of the course coupled with the wind today (a 21-mph tail wind) which only helps on a point to point course gives about a two-minute advantage. If this time was allowed, soon marathons could be formulated with these advantages in mind and times would be much faster.


''There is a course in Utah already which is about four minutes faster than a legal course. It would end up hurting the sport by having lesser athletic performances considered better."

Boston officials were pleased with Monday's race and content to leave the "definition" of records to others.

But the real beneficiaries of Monday's record-setting Boston run will be among the almost 27,000 runners who came away with personal bests they can carry with them without concern about asterisks, certifications, drug tests or governing bodies. Countless others who were shut out when the race field filled in eight hours will wonder what if.

''I was angry today," Dr. Stephen Brunnquell said by phone Monday night from his home in Harrington Park, N.J. Brunnquell, 55, who had planned to run Boston for a third time, was shut out despite having a qualifying time and signing up for Boston hours after registration opened last October.

Brunnquell has something to look forward to, however. He and his 22-year-old son, Chris, who is graduating from Tufts University, have been accepted into the New York City Marathon in November.

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