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The Decline of American Marathoners

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12/20/01 

Marathoning in America is alive and well. In fact, it is flourishing. There are probably more marathoners today in the U.S. than at any time in the past. I think this reflects a very healthy growth in our running community.

However, although the quantity of marathoners might be increasing, there are indications that there has been a dramatic decline in the "competitive quality" of American marathoners. And, the decline isn't just among elite American runners. It's across the board. In fact, it's most dramatic and severe in the second tier and midpack levels. I would like to offer some statistical and anecdotal data to support that premise. I'm an engineer, so I like to deal with numbers. I hope I don't bore you to death with the data and statistics that I'm going to toss out to illustrate my points.

Elite Men

Let's start by looking at the elite men.

As we all know, American men haven't been competitive on the international scene for several years. An argument can be and has been made that the presence of the Africans in international marathoning today, that didn't exist in the 70-80's, has pushed the Americans into the background of the international marathon scene. We all know that Africans dominate the top positions in most major marathons today. Therefore, it's easy to say that their emergence on the road racing scene in the last 10-15 years is the reason that Americans are no longer winning top marathons. However, that isn't the complete picture.

Other non-African countries continue to compete effectively against the Africans. According to RW's Records and Stats section, 23 (almost half) of the 50 fastest marathoners in the history of the sport are non-African, including 18 in the last five years. (6 Spaniards; 3 Japanese, 2 Portuguese; 2 Italian; 2 French; 2 Korean; and 1 Brazilian.) NONE of the top 50 are American!! OK, so the 16th fastest marathon of all time was run by Kalid Kannouchi, who is officially listed as USA. But that's a technicality. He is really a Moroccan who became a U.S. citizen shortly before his 2:07:01 AR performance at the 2000 Chicago. He isn't a "home grown" American marathoner.

The 50th fastest international marathoner ran 2:07:57. Except for Kannouchi's American record, no American has ever officially run faster than 2:08:47, which is almost a minute slower than the 50th world best....and that was over 7 years ago by Bob Kempainen at the 1994 Boston. Alberto Salazar ran faster at the 1981 NYC Marathon in 2:08:13, but it was disallowed because the course was determined to be 148 meters (27 seconds) short. Even with the 27 second correction, which would make it the fastest ever run by a "home grown" American, it still wouldn't make the top 50 world's best!!!

The picture gets even worse. While runners from other non-African countries continue to progress and compete with the Africans, American runners haven't just stood still....they have actually regressed. Of the 50 fastest American marathoners of all time, 34 of them ran their best times in 1985 or earlier!! Further, after Kannouchi and Kempainen's races, the next 7 fastest American marathons....and 13 of the top 20....were run in 1985 or earlier. Only 8 (16%) of the 50 fastest American marathoners have run their best times since 1990 and only 1 of those occurred in the new millennium. Compare that to only 9 of the world's 50 best (18%) run before 1990 and 15 (30%) in the new millennium. Only three American marathoners have run sub-2:10 since 1990, whereas the entire field of top 50 international marathoners have run sub-2:08 and 44 of them since 1990.

Elite American marathoners were at the forefront of marathoning until the mid-80s, but have since slipped to no better than second class on today's international scene. The decline of American elite men appears to have started after 1985 and accelerated throughout the 90s. It has gotten so bad that the qualifying standard for the American Olympic Trials was lowered from 2:20 to 2:22 in order to keep a dwindling field from virtually disappearing.

Elite Women

The story for American women is only marginally better than that for the men. Only one of the top 50 world's all time best marathoners is American.....and she is Joan Benoit Samuelson who ran her most competitive races in 1983-1985. While 40 of the 50 fastest world women's marathoners have run sub-2:25 and the 50th fastest female marathoner ran 2:25:36, Joanie has been the only American marathoner who has been able to compete with them.....and that was over 15 years ago!! No other American woman marathoner has ever run under 2:26:26.

Today's American women vs. those of yesteryear??? The picture is almost as bleak as that of the men's. Only 5 of the 20 fastest American marathons were run in the last ten years and 11 of the fastest 12 were run more than ten years ago. Elite American women marathoners surged through the 80s and into the early 90s following general acceptance in the 70s of women into the sport of marathoning and boosted by the addition of a women's marathon to the Olympics in 1984 at Los Angeles. However, the surge has since abated. During the 1980-95 period, 80% of the all-time fastest 50 American women ran their best times. While international women have continued to flourish in recent years (35 of the 50 fastest international marathoners ran their best races in the last 5 years), only 4 of the fastest 50 American women performances have occurred in the last five years.

Bottom line.....elite American women entered marathoning late....as women from the rest of the world did....flamed briefly, have since disappeared from the international competitive scene, and are no longer running as fast as 10 years ago.

Elite Summary

I think the data demonstrates that American marathoning at the elite level has become dramatically less competitive in the last 10-15 years. The rest of the world is moving away from us. Meanwhile, Americans can't even compete with performances of the 80's. Since the competitive days of Alberto Salazar, Bill Rodgers, Dick Beardsley, and Greg Meyer....Joan Benoit Samuelson, Julie Brown, Kim Jones and Francie Larrieu Smith....American marathoning at the elite level has taken a significant downturn.

The Rest of the Pack

Here's where things go to hell in a hand basket. The competitive picture at the second tier and midpack level is even worse than that of the elites. Unfortunately, I have only limited statistical data on this subject, plus a little anecdotal info, but I think it is illuminating.

Let me start with some personal data as a baseline. I ran the MCM in 1988 and 1989 at ages 50 and 51 in essentially the same time.....3:22:37 and 3:22:27. I have age group finishing data from the 1988 race, when I was the last male in the 50-54 age group to finish under 3:23, and overall data from 1989, which I will use to establish a reference baseline. I placed 54th of 401 in the 50-54 age bracket in 1988 and 1843th of 10,084 overall in 1989. Thus, I was in the top 13.4% of my age bracket and 18.3% of overall finishers in these two marathons. When I first posted on this subject two years ago, I compared my personal data to results from several 1999 marathons, including MCM. I'm going to use the same comparison this time, rather than re-create it against 2001 race data. The comparison is as follows:

MCM - As a "current" benchmark, I chose the last male runner in the 50-54 age group who finished under 3:23, as I had done 10 years earlier. His finishing time was 3:22:28, just one second slower than my 1989 time. He placed 25th of 738 in the 50-54 age group (vs. my 54th of 401) and 611th of 14,368 overall (vs. my 1843th of 10,084). That put him in the top 3.4% of the age group and 4.6% overall (vs. my 13.4% and 18.3%).

His very large placement percentage improvement in both the overall field and the 50-54 age group, compared to where I placed, is partly due to the huge growth in the field at the back of the pack that has occurred throughout the 90's. However, more relevant to this discussion, it's also due to the dramatic decline of runners finishing ahead of him! Although the overall field grew by 42% overall and the 50-54 age group increased 84%, the number of runners who finished under 3:22:28 dropped 66.8% overall (from 1843 to 611) and 53.7% in the 50-54 age group (from 54 to 25). I find that to be an astounding deterioration of the competitive quality of the field!

Even looking at my overall finishing data from earlier MCM's:

Year

Age

Time

Overall Finish

%

1985

47

3:26:29

1955 of 7821

25%

1986

48

3:28:30

1715 of 7913

21.6%

1987

49

3:28:08

2174 of 8809

24.7%

The number of finishers faster than these times in the 1999 MCM ranged from 757 to 856....which was less than half the number who ran those times or faster in 1985-87. In 2000, the number of finishers under these times decreased by another 5%.

Other marathons - When I first posted this MCM data, a few people suggested that the decrease in front runners could have been caused by a shift in marathon demographics, i.e., more faster runners opting for smaller marathons to avoid large fields as the MCM grew in size. So, I collected and summarized additional data from the websites of nine other 1999 marathons to compare to MCM. I deliberately chose a mix of large and small marathons. If there has been wholesale flight from the mega-races to the smaller ones, the results of the smaller marathons should reflect it. I was also limited in my selections to races that posted results on the internet from which I could extract comparable data.

Three of the ten marathons in this comparison (MCM, Chicago and NYC) were mega-races with more than 10,000 finishers and an average of 23,566. I grouped these together and called them large marathons. The other seven (Philly, Steamtown, Grandma's, Wineglass, Portland, Shamrock and Pittsburgh) had between 715 and 6839 finishers and an average of 3281. I grouped them as small marathons. I used the same criteria as for MCM, namely the last male in the 50-54 age group to break 3:23:00, because the only reference data I have from 10 years ago is when I did the same at ages 50/51. The following is a summary of the results.

To recap my reference baseline, I finished 54/401 (13.4%) in the 50-54 age bracket in 1988 and 1843/10,084 (18.3%) overall in 1989. The composite data for the three 1999 mega-races shows 254/4271 (5.9%) in the 50-54 age bracket finishing under 3:23:00 and 5868/70697 (8.3%) overall. For the seven smaller 1999 races, the composite numbers are 105/1405 (7.5%) in the 50-54 age bracket and 2476/22,970 (10.8%) overall. Composite numbers for all 10 races are 359/5676 (6.3%) for the 50-54 age bracket and 8344/93,667 (9.7%) overall.

There was a higher percentage of finishers under 3:23:00 in smaller races than larger ones, which is to be expected since the mega-races draw more slower runners. However, the difference is relatively small. Both categories yield a significantly lower percentage (about half or less) of faster runners than my personal one-race sample of 10 years ago. Thus, it doesn't appear that there has been a wholesale flight of faster runners to smaller races.

Individually, none of the 10 races reached the percentage of total sub-3:23:00 finishers (18.3%) of my 1988/89 sample, although the two smallest races.....Wineglass with 715 finishers and Shamrock with 1341 finishers.....came close with 17.1% and 15.9%, respectively. However, a comparison of these two small races can be made to my results at the 1986 Maryland Marathon, where I placed 162nd of 510 (31.7%) overall finishers in a time of 3:24:51, which is reasonably close to the baseline reference of 3:23 used for this analysis. This comparison indicates a decline of about 50% in very small races.

Grandma's Marathon - The biggest weakness in all of this analysis is that my results from the 1988/89 MCM's constitute the single baseline reference point, plus the small race comparison to my 1986 Maryland Marathon results. Are these truly typical of American marathoners of that time? I had no other comparative data from the 80's. Then, a forumite put me on to historical data for Grandma's Marathon on their website that included the field size and number of finishers under 2:30, 3:00 and 4:00 for the previous 22 years. I found it to be interesting.

In 1978, the field size was only 677. It grew steadily over 4 years until it reached the 5000-8500 range where it remained for 18 years through 1999. (The field size has remained in that range in 2000/2001 with 6701 finishers this year.) During that time, the smallest field was 5000 in 1989 and the largest was 8450 in 1999. Thus, it has been a relatively stable, mid-sized marathon.....perhaps a good case study for trends in American marathons.

The following are Grandma Marathon 5-year averages over the 20 year period of 1980-1999, plus I added the 2001 data.

 

Years

Ave Field

Sub-2:30

Sub-3:00

Sub- 4:00

1980-84

5715

45 (0.8%)

582 (10.2%)

3022 (52.9%)

1985-89

6120

33 (0.5%)

390 (6.4%)

2422 (40.2%)

1990-94

5582

32 (0.6%)

299 (5.4%)

2489 (44.6%)

1995-99

7476

35 (0.5%)

270 (3.6%)

2728 (36.5%)

2001

6701

19 (0.28%)

140 (2.1%)

2177 (32.5%)

These data further confirm a weakening of the front end of the field over 10-20 years. At Grandma's, both the absolute and relative numbers of front runners have shrunk during this time. While the field size grew by 31% from the first 5-year period to the last, there was a decline of 54% in the number of <3:00 finishers and 10% in the <4:00 category. The decrease in the number of finishers at my baseline time of 3:22:28 should fall somewhere between those percentages.....which, again, suggests a significant reduction in field quality at the upper-midpack level.

Note the very significant (huge!!) decline from the last 5-year period to the 2001 data. Although the field size decreased only 10%, the number of 4:00 finishers declined 20%, and the sub-3 hour and sub-2:30 categories by almost half.

More than half (52.9%) of the fields in 1980-84 finished under 4:00. That tapered until it reached 36.5% in 1995-99 and 32.5% in 2001. That means that the mid-pack runner slowed considerably in 20 years. In the 2001 Grandma's, the exact midpack runner (3350 of 6701) ran 4:19:44. A check of the other 9 marathons in my "survey" reveals that the midpack runner in all except Philly and Wineglass ran in the 4:17-4:34 range this year. It appears that, in general, the marathon midpacker has slowed about 30 minutes in 15 years from the 3:45-4:00 range where s/he used to be.

Other race distances - Is this trend specific to the uniqueness of the marathon? Or is it symptomatic of a more general decline of the competitive quality of American runners? I think it's the latter. A couple of additional personal examples from popular races in the Maryland area to support that contention:

(1) Annapolis 10m - In 1987, I finished 865th of 2753 (31.4%) in 1:13:47. The person who ran the same time this year was 378th of 3954 (9.6%).

(2) Clyde's American 10k - In 1986, I finished 221st of 801 (27.6%) in 41:56. The person who ran the same time this year was 69th of 1130 (6.1%).

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Concerning second tier American runners - when I posted this two years ago, one of the guys on Merv (Scott Douglas, ex-editor of Running Times magazine and co-author, along with Pete Pfitzinger, of “Advanced Marathoning) commented that many of the top runners in local DC area races are guys over 35 or under 25 years old. But, there is a dearth of local talent in the 25-35 range, which is where runners who start running at a young age should peak. Scott then sent a copy of an article that he wrote for the Jan/Feb 1997 issue of Running Times titled, "The Second Tier Disappears" in which he points out that 190 men broke 2:20 to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Trials, whereas only 58 did 12 years later for the 1996 Trials.

Another Mervite commented that, 10 years earlier he used to place in his age bracket at local races. Now (two years ago), he has become more competitive and regularly places in the top 10 overall......and he hasn't gotten faster. The quality of the field has deteriorated at the very top level.

Summary - I have to conclude that there has clearly been a decrease in the overall competitive quality of American marathoners....and a degradation in the competitive quality of American runners, in general.....in the last 15 years. As the number of people participating in marathons has increased, the number of faster runners has not grown proportionately. In fact, it's worse than that.....the number of front runners has been decreasing, the midpack has gotten slower, and the back of the pack has blossomed. It appears that either fewer runners are training and racing to achieve their best capabilities or runners entering the sport are simply less capable. Do you accept with this conclusion? If not, why not? If you do accept it, then the question is why is it happening? I have my opinions, which I will post in a day or so. But, I am interested in your comments first.

Jim2