Friday, September 30, 2011

On world records and pace setters

  Last week a New York Times reporter asked what I thought of a new rule the IAAF Track and Field Committee passed stating that women’s records were only going to be allowed from races with women’s only fields, not mixed starts where women run with men.
   This decision means that Britain’s Paula Radcliffe is still the world record holder with a 2 hour, 17 minute, 25 second marathon run in a women’s only start. Her earlier time of 2:15:42 is no longer the world record since she had male pacemakers, but is the “world best.” Likewise, Deena Kastor is no longer the American record holder with her 2:19:36 set in London since she also had male pacemakers. The “new” American record is now Joan Benoit's 2:24:52 set in the 1984 Olympics, which was a women’s only race. She has a personal best of 2:21:21. Retroactively changing records for reasons other than for the use of performance enhancing drugs just seems wrong to me.
  As we talked for a few minutes, I began to realize it is a confusing situation. Pace setters, also known as "rabbits,"  have been used as long as I can remember. Even Roger Bannister, the first man to break the 4-minute mile barrier, used a rabbit to help ensure he was on pace. Nobody will argue that a pacemaker doesn’t help. It’s similar to race car driving. The rabbit can shield you from the wind and ensure you are running at the right speed. In a marathon, running with a pacemaker can  help keep you relaxed mentally.
 If you watch one of the high-level marathons on television like Chicago or London they almost always have three or four male pacemakers for the elite men. The elite women, however, are at a distinct disadvantage now that they are hovering around that 2:20 range. If you are a women who is good enough to pace that time, then you are too good to be a pacemaker. To put Radcliffe's former 2:15:25 world record into perspective, she had to go through the half marathon around 1:07:30. My New Zealand friend and fellow-Reebok runner Kim Smith just ran the fastest half-marathon on U.S. soil in Philadelphia with her time of 1:07:11 or 5:08 mile pace. It’s no wonder Radcliffe needed male pacemakers because only three or four women in the entire world could run that pace through the half. Absolutely mind-boggling.
  If you ask Bob Sevene, my coach who also coached Benoit, he would say the sport is in trouble of losing fans and pacemakers have something to do with that. When you turn on a track meet or a major road race, all you hear is talk of breaking American records or world records. Of course, records are meant to be broken, and it’s exciting when it all comes together, but I think it is just as exciting to watch a an actual race verses a time trial. The Boston Marathon has not had pacemakers for years and if you watched that race this year, it was as suspenseful as they come. When you bring great athletes together, great things usually happen. That day, American Desiree Davila was on fire and made it one of the most exciting Boston Marathons in years, narrowly missing the win.
  I think in the end I am against male pacers simply because women tend to abuse them. They run with training partners, boyfriends or husbands which does provide an unfair advantage. I had one instance struggling through the last windy 10k of a marathon in Chicago when another American came blowing by me. She was neatly tucked in behind her male training partner. Getting passed by one spot was the difference between a $10,000 payout and getting nothing at all. As it worked out, I had run almost the entire race alone.
  But I also don’t think the super-elite women should be punished because they are too fast. Maybe there needs to be more emphasis on finding elite women capable of pacing to a world-record. Maybe it is a bit of feminism oozing out, but I think we can do our own pacing, thank you very much. Perhaps we should re-evaluate pacing in general. Ultimately, I am a fan of just racing, and one thing is for sure, there will be no pacemakers in the Olympic Trials marathon this January.

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