Gebreselassie's Marathon Record Examined

Ethiopian runner Haile Gebreselassie has set a new marathon record with a time of 2:03:59 in Berlin Saturday. Amby Burfoot, editor at large of Runner's World magazine, offers his insight on Gerbeselassie's feat and how the record will affect the marathon.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Here's a milestone - a 26.2 mile milestone, in fact, the first marathon ever run in under two hours, four minutes. Yesterday at the Berlin Marathon, Haile Gebreselassie of Ethiopia flew across the finish line with a time of two hours, three minutes, 59 seconds, breaking his own world record by 27 seconds. So, how does he do it? And how much lower might that record time fall? Well, former Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot joins us to talk about that. He's an editor at large for Runner's World magazine. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. AMBY BURFOOT (Editor at Large, Runner's World): It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: Sounds like there was great weather yesterday in Berlin, a nice, flat course, but still, this is a remarkable performance if he was running a four- minute, forty-three second mile.

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, it's particularly remarkable because he broke his own world record set there a year ago, and in between, he had another super-fast race in January. So he now owns the three fastest marathons of all time, which certainly guarantees his position at the top.

BLOCK: And do you consider him now the best marathon runner in the world?

Mr. BURFOOT: You know, it's very interesting because that is a debate we are all having, because only a month ago at the Beijing Olympics, which were won by a Kenyan, a young Kenyan named Sammy Wanjiru, I and many, many other people called his race the greatest marathon ever run. It was much hotter than in Berlin and he was therefore three minutes slower than Gebreselassie yesterday. But the two of them seem to be the best in the world right now.

BLOCK: And Gebreselassie didn't run the marathon in Beijing. He was worried about air pollution.

Mr. BURFOOT: That's correct. Like many people who went to Beijing, they were worried about air pollution and asthma and lung effects that that might have. Turned out not to be so bad pollution-wise but certainly, the temperatures and the humidity were not nearly as good as the race in Berlin yesterday.

BLOCK: I've read some complaints from other elite runners about how Gebreselassie runs his races, his strategy, his methods. What's that about?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, the debate or the controversy, again, is about the fact that his last four or five marathons have not really been what most of us would consider races. They have been what we call time trial, which means he was the anointed winner before he started the race, and the other fast runners in the competition were there merely to set the pace for him and help him set a world record. That doesn't mean they were prohibited from beating him if they could, but it does mean that it was somewhat artificial as opposed to an Olympics or a New York City marathon or Boston, where it's a real competition every step of the way.

BLOCK: When you won the Boston Marathon in 1968, what was your winning time?

Mr. BURFOOT: My winning time was two hours and 22 minutes.

BLOCK: Wow.

Mr. BURFOOT: I was in no way in the same category as the modern runners, but it was also a sunny, mild day. And later the same year, in better weather, I ran two hours and 14 minutes. So right there, you can see there's an eight-minute difference just because of weather.

BLOCK: And 10 minutes off of where the record is right now?

Mr. BURFOOT: That's correct. Still 10 minutes back, for sure.

BLOCK: When you think about how dramatically race times have fallen over the last few decades, what accounts for that? Why are runners so much better, so much faster now?

Mr. BURFOOT: Well, a couple of decades ago, the sport of marathoning was a purely amateur sport, but now it's a big sport, it's commercial, it's worldwide, and with the commercialization of the sport comes money for the runners. And as the money goes up, so does the motivation for the runners to run faster. So, we simply have bigger, better races that are attracting performances that no one would have even believed two decades ago.

BLOCK: Well, what's to keep the human body from going beyond where you can imagine right now? Why not a two-hour marathon?

Mr. BURFOOT: Only because that would be a very big leap forward and barring some genetic freak that I don't think we'll see, future progress will be little bits and pieces and seconds here and seconds there, simply because performances are at such a very, very high level already.

BLOCK: Well, Amby Burfoot, it's good to talk to you. Thanks.

Mr. BURFOOT: Thank you.

BLOCK: Amby Burfoot is editor at large for Runner's World magazine. We were talking about Ethiopian runner Haile Gebreselassie, who yesterday became the first runner to finish a marathon in under two hours, four minutes.

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