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A Comparison of 1980 vs. 2005 Marathoners

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In 1999 I posted two essays titled “The Decline of American Marathoners” and “Why Have They Declined?” on Runner’s World and Merv Competitive forums, which I subsequently updated in 2001. They generated extensive discussions concerning the deterioration in performance of American marathoners throughout the 1990’s, as compared to the 1970-80’s.


The decline at the elite level was well documented by official records. Not only were U.S. elites no longer competitive on the international racing scene, but they could not even match the performances of their predecessors a decade or two earlier.


I also speculated that, despite significant growth in the popularity of marathons and in the number of marathoners in the U.S., even greater performance degradation had occurred deeper in the ranks of U.S. male marathoners, at least through the top “third of the pack”. It was generally accepted in the forums’ discussions that the number of U.S. marathoners running sub-3:30 times had not kept pace with the increase in the number of marathon finishers, as indicated by slowing average and median marathon times. However, I suggested that the actual number of sub-3:30 marathoners in 1999 might have been fewer than 10-15 years earlier.


At the time, I only had access to anecdotal data comparing my personal performances in the 1988 and 1989 Marine Corps Marathons to comparable performances in the 1999 MCM, plus 20-year summary data from Grandma’s Marathon, all of which clearly showed significant decline in faster marathoners in those specific races, at least among the men. However, since the number of marathons had increased along with the growth in the number of marathoners, that left open the possibility that faster marathoners might have simply become spread over the larger number of marathons, and that the number of faster runners might even have increased, but at a slower growth rate than had overall marathon participation.


Sufficient data to arrive at a definitive conclusion was not readily available to us in 1999/2001. Today, it is.


The 2006 Annual Marathon Report (for calendar year 2005) published by Running USA’s Road Running Information Center (RRIC) states that there were an estimated 120,000 marathon finishers in 1980 of which 89.5% (107,400) were men and 10.5% (12,600) were women, and that the median finishing times (50% faster and 50% slower) were 3:32:17 for men and 4:03:39 for women. Thus, an estimated 53,700 male finishers ran 3:32:17 or faster and 6300 female finishers ran 4:03:39 or faster in 1980.


The RRIC reports that 2005 median finishing times in U.S. marathons were 4:20:29 for men and 4:51:19 for women. Thus, the median finishing times slowed by approximately 48 minutes for both men and women in 25 years. The question remains, “How much of the degradation of median times was due to disproportionate growth in the back of the pack vs. shrinkage, if any, in the front of the pack?”


To answer the question, we can refer to MarathonGuide.com where results of 327 marathons run in the U.S. in 2005 are available. The number of finishers in these marathons ranged from 36,856 in the New York City Marathon to 5 in the Palo Alto Vista Trail Marathon. The total number of finishers for all 327 marathons was 384,644 of which 230,576 (60%) were men and 154,068 (40%) were women.


Of the 230,576 men, 34,629 (15%) finished faster than the 1980 men’s median finishing time. That’s a decrease from 1980 of approximately 19,071 (36%) in the number of men who ran 3:32:17 or faster, while the total number of male finishers grew by 123,176 (115%).


Of the 154,068 women, 26,854 (17.4%) finished faster than the 1980 women’s median finishing time. That’s approximately 20,554 (326%) more women than ran 4:03:39 or faster in 1980, as the total number of women finishers increased by 141,468 (1123%).


(Summary data for each of the 327 races is available in lists sorted by race field size and alphabetically. The data for the 15 largest marathons, which covers 51% of the total number of 2005 marathon finishers, is from each race’s website. The data for the remaining 312 marathons is from MarathonGuide.com.)


Based on these data, I think it is reasonable to conclude that, despite more than double the number of male marathon finishers today, the number of U.S. male sub-3:30 marathoners actually did decline and is about a third less today than it was a generation ago. The front of the men’s pack has shrunk in absolute terms.


The women’s side appears to be healthier with more than a four-fold increase in the number of sub-4 hour finishers out of more than twelve-fold growth in the total number of female marathon finishers. However, that picture is distorted because there were relatively few women marathoners 25 years ago, as compared to the number of women marathon finishers approaching parity with men today. If the demographics of female vs. male marathoners in 1980 had been commensurate with that of today, their respective 25-year growth/shrinkage numbers might be very similar.


Remember, in 1980 the jury was still out on how far women could “safely” run, which kept many women “in the closet” concerning long distance running. The first women’s Olympic Marathon, which gave a huge boost to women’s distance running, was still four years away. Just six years earlier, the 1974 publication of the first edition of Runner’s World magazine’s book, “The Complete Runner”, in discussing the subject in a chapter on The Woman Runner reported, “There seems to be a disagreement about the trainability of women. De Vries reports that the female adjusts to heavy training in much the same fashion as males. Yet researchers Klaus and Noach say that at the age of greatest trainability (20-30) women respond to training with only 50% improvement of men. They feel that women shouldn’t compete in events longer than 1000 meters.” (Note – that’s one-thousand meters, not 10k!)


Feminist movements and Title IX led to widespread emancipation of women from kitchens, bedrooms, nurseries and steno chairs to sports participation, including running, and other life-fulfilling activities occurred during the 1980-90’s. As a result, we can see significantly difference growth paths in men’s and women’s running during the 25 years from 1980 to 2005. However, both arrived at about the same marathon destination….only 15-17% of today’s marathoners are able to match or beat 1980 median times.


As I stated in my 1999/2001 “The Decline of American Marathoners” essay, I think this “degradation” in U.S. front-of-the-pack performances isn’t limited to the marathon, but extends to all road race distances. And I think the reasons that I discussed in my “Why Have They Declined?” essay over seven years ago, which are primarily related to cultural, societal and training philosophy factors, are valid today.