The race organizers at the London Marathon do a fantastic job of signing the best East African women to run their spring marathon every year. This ultimately leads to the “Will the women’s world record fall?” talk every spring. This year is no different and there’s already chatter about how four women with personal bests under 2:20 could take down Paula Radcliffe’s all-women’s world record of 2:17.42. (Her fastest ever marathon was 2:15:25, but she was paced by men during the race. It’s an otherworldly time that’s one of track’s largest outliers, and hasn’t come close to being touched.)
We’ve been spoiled with several men’s world records in recent years that we want to see if happen again on the women’s side. The problem is that Radcliffe’s time is a stretch.
The graphs below were made by Scott Olberding.
The field is headlined by Mary Keitany, the second fastest woman all-time at the 26.2-mile distance, but her 2:18:37 personal best turns five years old on Saturday. Her best run in the last two years was a 2:23:40 at the 2015 London Marathon. Do we actually think that at 35 years old, she’s going to run her fastest time in seven years? I’d lean heavily toward no even though she set a half marathon personal best of 65:13 in February. Sure, when she ran 65:50 in 2011, she went on to run 2:19:19 but to drop a sub-2:17.42 would be nuts.
Florence Kiplagat has only broken 2:20 once and that was when she ran 2:19:44 at the 2011 Berlin Marathon. It’s almost been six years. Since 2015, she’s been in the 2:24 to 2:21 range. So that would mean, she’d have to shed nearly four minutes off her best time from the past two years. I wouldn’t bet on a world record from Kiplagat either.
Aselefech Mergia’s 2:19:31 personal best turned five back in late January. She also ran 2:20:02 in Dubai in January 2015 but then ran 2:23:53 in London a few months later. Outside of times run in Dubai, her best is 2:22:38 from her win at the 2010 London Marathon.
Olympic bronze medalist Mare Dibaba would be the most likely of the bunch to maybe come close. Her 2:19:52 from 2015’s Xiamen Marathon is the most recent sub-2:20 of the group. Her tune-up for London was a 69:43 for the Lisboa Half. So there’s your drawback for her.
Running sub-2:20 qualifies you as an unquestionably great marathoner.
Since Keitany, the next closest person to sub 2:18 was Rita Jeptoo at the 2014 Boston Marathon and because of her EPO use, we know that one doesn’t count. Who is next after her? Kenya’s Gladys Cherono ran 2:19:25 at the 2015 Berlin Marathon and she just ran Boston. That’s almost two minutes to cut off.
It’s easy to get excited about world records but the Radcliffe’s marathon record requires some removal and skepticism that somebody will better it anytime soon. Personal bests are great but certainly no indicator of what an athlete is capable of running years after the fact. We’ve been through this dance in London many times. It’s the “greatest field ever assembled”. It’s the “Fantastic Five” or whatever alliteration is given to the group. It’s just hype. We’ll certainly see a great race and not witnessing a world record talk shouldn’t take away from that.