Explaining The Blazing Speed Of Contemporary Marathoners

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If you missed it: The decade-old course record of the New York City Marathon was crushed, yesterday. Crushed may be an understatement, because the top three males all broke the previous course record.

In fact, this year was one of blistering speed for marathons. USA Today explains:

In 2011, course records fell at all five of the marathon majors: Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and now New York, as Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya broke loose from a seven-man pack in the 20th mile to win handily in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 6 seconds. The one-time lumberjack ran without pace setters and lopped 2 minutes, 37 seconds off the five-borough standard.

As we reported in April, Mutai also set the Boston course record and Kenya's Patrick Makau lowered the world record in Berlin by 21 seconds in September.

The obvious question is what's going on here? How are these runners getting so fast, so quickly?

David Epstein at Sports Illustrated takes a shot at the question and gets at some pretty convincing arguments. We'll let you click over to read his whole piece, because it's pretty exhaustive. Epstein talks about training and money, but perhaps the strongest — and easiest — argument is about a shift in the way marathons are being viewed. In the past, marathons were the place were world-class track stars went to cap off their careers. Now, athletes are starting to run marathons as a way to make a career:

"The track and field market is done," said Gabriele Nicola, the Italian coach of a number of top Kenyans, including Mary Keitany, who finished third Sunday.

"The marathon is the only remaining market. Track is [Usain] Bolt and clapping hands," he said, meaning that the reward for many track athletes is adulation from the crowd as opposed to big money. "In Kenya, if you don't go to the marathon, you remain a farmer. So talented athletes are coming right to the marathon without spending time in track."

"In 2001, the average age of the top 10 men was 28.5. A decade later, it's 26.5," Epstein adds.

So marathoners are training younger and specifically for marathons. As that happens the competition is fierce and pushes that finishing time lower. It's certainly more complicated than that, but that's one of the more quantifiable theories.

It also seems many of you think marathons will continue to get faster. Back in September Mark posed a question: Do you think the marathon record will be lowered below 2 hours during your lifetime? 75 percent of you said "yes."

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