Fast women:
From Berlin to Chicago in record time

by Greg Hitchcock ( 10.15.01

Two incredible marathon performances over two recent weekends kept women marathoners on pace to match the improvements seen in the last few years by the level of men. First, Naoko Takahashi of Japan (last year's Olympic gold medalist) broke through the 2:20 barrier to set a new world best of 2:19.46 at Berlin. A week later, Catherine Ndereba, who was not placed on the 2000 Kenyan Olympic team, improved on that mark by almost a minute, running 2:18.47 at the Chicago Marathon.

In the 1980s there was a line of reasoning that held that women, because of their inherent strengths for child bearing, could approach the performance level of men in longer races such as the marathon. In the space of 10 years (1975 to 1985), the women's marathon best dropped from 2:38 to 2:21, more than a 10% improvement.

In contrast, on the men's side, the marathon best remained at Australian Derek Clayton's questionable 2:08.34 in 1969 or his more legitimate 2:09.36 from 1967 until another Australian, Rob de Castella, set a certified-course best time of 2:08.18 in 1981. The best time dropped about a minute to 2:07.12 by 1985. So over a nearly 20 year period, the men's best marathon time improved by less than 2%.

It was easy enough for some commentators to extrapolate from those lines and see that women would soon be passing men in the marathon––on their way to the first one-minute marathon no doubt! Since 1985, though, the women's world best stagnated, with no improvement of Ingrid Kristiansen's 2:21.06 until Tegla Loroupe of Kenya made a 19 second improvement in 1998 and then dropped that best by four seconds in 1999. This represented only a two-tenths of one percent improvement over nearly 15 years. At the same time the men's best dropped to 2:05.42, an improvement of 1.2% over the same time period. It appeared that the women were going the wrong way (or at least were not going the right way fast enough), until last week anyway.

There were several reasons to explain the rapid improvement of women in the 1970s and early 1980s. The biggest reason is that women finally got the chance to run. Recall Katherine Switzer obtained a 1967 Boston Marathon race number by writing "K" for her first name on the registration, and avoiding a race official who tried to pull her off the course. It took several more years before Boston allowed women to officially enter.

This was also the time that marathon running became very popular in the U.S. and in other parts of the world as well. Who could have imagined that network television would show a marathon in its entirety (with commercial breaks and the up-close and personal profiles).

The sport of marathon was blessed with four outstanding women who came to career peak at about the same time and drove each other to outstanding performances. Grete Waitz of Norway was the first, improving the world best from 2:34 to 2:25. Her fellow Norwegian, Kristiansen, joined with Joan Benoit Samuelson of the U.S. and Rosa Mota of Portugal to race with Waitz for marathoning supremacy throughout the 1980s. Then there was a lull in women's marathon improvement that found many fine runners but none that matched the quality of those four pioneers of excellent women marathoning.

In the last few years there has been a building depth of quality among the women. Last year, five women ran below 2:23 and a dozen had sub- 2:25 marathons. This year should produce similar results. It was a matter of time before one of these talented athletes broke out and made a significant improvement on the world best time to keep pace with the improvements we have been seeing on the men's side . What a treat it was for distance running fans to have two athletes in their prime run such great races. Now if we could just get them in the same race.