2012 vs 1975, or why are today's runners so much slower?
The first running boom started in the mid 70s. Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter and others introduced Long Distance running to the masses. That running boom is a blip on the radar to what we see today. Races these days may have 10 to 20 times the number of participants compared to 40 years ago.
With all the technology in shoes, diet, and training, one would think we should see improvement in our collective overall times. Shockingly nothing could be further from the truth.
I keep most of my results clear back to my high school days. In Jan 1975, I ran the Mission Bay marathon 3 hours and 3 minutes as a 16 year old. I didn't think it was anything remarkable at the time. After some reflection, all these years later I did not think I gave my self enough credit.
Searching through the material for another project I came across some of my old races.
I came across the Newsletter with the official results, and I now think my original assessment was more correct.
With today's time, 3hr 3 min sounds pretty decent for a junior. The fact is, Back then I only placed 31rst in the Junior division. In that race there were four 16 year old's who broke 2 hrs 40 minutes. I was beaten by an 11 year old by ten minutes. This is even more striking, when we consider how many people ran the race. With 502 starters, I placed 140th overall. This means I wasn't even in the top 25%!
A total of 121 runners ran under 3 hours that day. Nearly 25% of the starters.
Lets do some comparisons.
We will compare the 1975 Mission Bay Marathon to the 2012 Los Angeles marathon.
The mission Bay Marathon had 502 starters, while the Los Angeles marathon had over 20,000 finishers.
The running conditions were virtually identical. LA marathon had a net downhill elevation drop, which is most likely canceled out by the early up hills.
Four 16 year old's ran under 2 hours 40 minutes in the MB marathon.
In the LA marathon, there wasn't a single 16 year old under 3 hours. There also wasn't a single 17 or 18 year old under three hours!
In the Mission Bay marathon, there were 24 juniors (17 and under) that broke three hours.
The first 18 year old in the LA marathon came across the line in 3hr and 2 min.
The first 18 year old in the Mission Bay marathon was Kirk Pfeffer, in 2 hours and 17.44 sec. Nearly 45 minutes faster! ( Did set a new age world record for 18yr old)
But this isn't just a youth issue. In the LA marathon, 10 people, including one woman finished under 2 hours 30 min. In the MB marathon, 15 people finished under 2 hours and 30 min.
It is also beneficial to note that LA marathon will bring in seeded runners. This should move the results in a more favorable direction. It clearly doesn't. There were only 24 men and women under 2 hours 40 min. In the MB marathon, there were 43 people breaking the 2hr 40 mark.
But remember. The LA marathon had more than 40 times the number of starters!
OK. so what is the problem?
Well we know many people simply want to run a marathon once in their life and check it off their bucket list. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I commend any one who puts in the effort.
One though has to assume the top 5% of the runners are somewhat serious. It is doubtful that most do not have weight or commitment issues to the sport.
This means the only answer can be training. I believe this once and for all proves the current training methods which promote ultra long runs for non eleite runners are in fact hurting marathon running in America.
The reason is twofold.
One, they simply do not work. Running slow for long periods of time only teaches you to run slow.
Two, They also discourage runners for keeping up the sport for multiple years.
For some runners, it will take 4-5 years worth of effort to drop below the 3 hour mark.
These super time intensive runs have both a negative psychological effect and also impact the personal life.
I can't see any reason for a person running slower than say a 2:30 marathon ever to be doing runs lasting more than 16 miles. For people running slower than 3 hour mark, there is no reason to run more than 2 and 1/2 hours in any given workout.
It is also concerning there were no junior runners breaking the 3 hour mark. This does not bode well for the future of Americas long distance running. This shows our school systems are not putting a high enough priority on Physical education. Couple that with the extra time students spend sitting behind the computer we can prove there is a marked decline in the overall fitness of our youth. This will have far reaching consequences in their later years.