Due in part to changes in shoe technology, running records are being rewritten at all levels. Since 2018, the beginning of the era of the super shoe, the men’s and women’s world records in the 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon have all fallen.
But the Boston Marathon course records—2:03:02, set by Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, and 2:19:58, set by Buzunesh Deba in 2014—have lasted.
Could this be the year they fall?
Mary Kate Shea, who assembles the professional athlete fields for the Boston Athletic Association, thinks so. “The course record is definitely there for the taking, on both the men’s and women’s side,” she said. “This is the fastest and most accomplished pro field ever assembled for the race, so the expectation is that this could be the year.”
But Shea adds that there are a lot of factors that go into who excels in Boston and how the race plays out. “Personal best times look good on paper, but in Boston it’s not just your speed and strength, but your brains that get you across the finish line first,” she said.
Here are a few reasons the Boston course records are proving more durable than most.
The Boston Marathon is known for its highly variable weather conditions, from highs close to 90 in 2012 to the driving rain, strong wind gusts, and frigid temperatures that runners faced in 2018. Some years, no matter how well the top runners perform, record-setting performances are out of the question.
Other years, Boston’s weather has worked in runners’ favor. Because of the point-to-point course, on rare occasions, if the wind is blowing strong enough in the right direction, racers essentially get to run a wind-aided marathon.
The 2011 Boston Marathon was one of those races. The temperature ranged between 46 and 55 degrees along the course, and there was a west-southwest wind blowing 16–20 miles per hour, mostly at the runners’ backs. That helped Mutai set the men’s course record, and seven of the top 10 fastest men’s times ever in Boston were recorded that day.
Ryan Hall, who became the fastest American man ever in Boston that day when he finished fourth in 2:04:58, saw the opportunity.
“I was remembering the words of [four-time champion] Bill Rodgers—he said once every 10 years you get a wicked tailwind in Boston and you can run really quick,” Hall said. “And I was standing on that starting line in Hopkinton just staring at that flag blowing the exact direction we were going and thinking, ‘I’m not letting one step go by without pressing. I’m probably never going to get an opportunity like this again in my life.’”
Running for the win, not the time
Many of the world’s top marathons have designated pacesetters, which affects how the races develop. In Boston, there are no rabbits. Place is the only thing that matters, and competitors are often content to go out at a moderate pace and save themselves for a fast finish. That’s not how course records get broken.
But in the men’s record-setting race, Ryan Hall served as the de facto rabbit, and his competitors took him seriously enough that they went with him. He ran the fastest first-half split ever in the race (1:01:56) and helped set up the fastest men’s race in Boston history.
In the 2014 record-setting women’s race, Shalane Flanagan served a similar role. While Flanagan usually focused more on racing than time in Boston, 2014 was the one exception. Based on history, she and her coach thought if she could run 2:22, she would have an excellent shot at winning.
Flanagan ran her first mile in 5:11, led through halfway in 1:09:27, and ran 2:22:02. But instead of winning, she helped tee up the speediest women’s Boston, and crossed the finish line in seventh place. Her time is still the fastest by an American woman in Boston.
But Flanagan doesn’t feel like she ever mastered the course, because of Boston’s hills and where they fall. “In Boston, you have to respect not just the distance but the course as well,” she said. “It seems easy—until it’s impossibly hard.”
Both record races also featured great competition. When Mutai set the record, he was pressed all the way to finish, with Moses Mosop finishing only four seconds back. And when Buzunesh Deba set her record, she wasn’t even the first woman across the finish line. (More on that later.)
The men’s record: 2:03:02
This year’s Boston Marathon field is the fastest it has ever been. Five men have broken 2:04, and the reigning Boston, London, and New York City Marathon champions are racing, as is a two-time New York City Marathon champion. But even with all of that star power—and a $50,000 bonus for a course record, in addition to the $150,000 for the win—it’s going to take just the right race for the men’s course record to fall.
“The Boston Marathon record will be broken, but so many variables have to come together,” said 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi. “It’s the variables outside your control that make it an unlikely occurrence.”
When Mutai set the course record in 2011, it was faster than the world record at the time. (Boston’s course is not record-eligible, due to the point-to-point and net downhill course.) Even in the super shoe era, Mutai’s time is still only 83 seconds slower than the world record. Only two men in the field have run faster than Mutai’s time on any course, and not by much.
“[A course record is] going to be tough without any kind of a tailwind, but with the advantage of the shoes, it’s doable,” Hall said. He thinks super shoes give runners roughly a 2:00 advantage on flat courses. “I think it’s probably even more [time] on a course like Boston where it’s up and down, because a lot of the advantage of the super shoe is the cushioning, because it doesn’t beat up your legs as much.”
Super shoes or not, Hall thinks 2:03:02 is probably a pretty intimidating mark to most of the runners in the field. “You could get out too hard and shoot yourself in the foot and lose the race if you’re going for the course record,” Hall said. “Guys covet winning the Boston Marathon more than setting a course record, and the way they race often reflects that. They’re protecting the win.”
But if Boston has good weather day, Keflezighi, for one, will be watching the clock carefully. “If April 18 brings 20 mile per hour tailwinds and crisp temperatures, then all of us interested observers will have a very fun time watching it all unfold,” he said. “Under the right circumstances and a very strong tailwind, we might even see sub 2 hours sometime in the near future.”
Keflezighi was not in the field in 2011, to his chagrin. “As a 2:08 guy, I sometimes think, ‘Man, I wish I’d been there that day!’” he said.
The women’s record: 2:19:59
Someone has already run faster than the women’s course record in Boston. In 2014, Rita Jeptoo crossed the finish line first, in 2:18:57, but later that year, she tested positive for EPO. She was banned from the sport for four years and stripped of her 2014 Boston Marathon title, which made Deba both the winner and the course record holder.
The sixth woman across the line that year, Aleksandra Duliba of Belarus, was later banned as well, due to irregularities in her biological passport. She was also stripped of her Boston finish, which is how Flanagan crossed the finish line in seventh but is now fifth in the results. That year’s third-place finisher, Jemima Sumgong, is still in the results but was later banned for doping as well.
“It changes the dynamics of the race drastically when you have superhuman performances,” Flanagan said.
But even factoring that in, Flanagan and Hall agree that the women’s record is the one that seems more vulnerable, whether it happens this year or not. First, there’s the strength of the field. There are three 2:17 marathoners in the race, and four women who have run faster than the course record elsewhere.
Edna Kiplagat, the 2017 Boston Marathon champion, is one of them. She says the fast times she’s run in Boston have come as a result of racing, not focusing on time, but she thinks a course record this year could be possible. “I have a feeling [the course record] might come down, because the field is so strong,” she said. “The ladies who are coming to compete in Boston, [several] of them have run under 2:20 and if they are in good shape, they can do it.”
While setting the men’s course record would require running relatively close to the world record, the women’s course record is 5:55 slower than the world record. And it helps that the conditions the day the women’s record were set were moderate—with very little wind—but nothing out of the ordinary, unlike the tailwind the men had.
Whether it’s a record year or not, Flanagan expects great races in Boston. “I think because of the pandemic, people are just so excited to have the big races back,” she said. “There’s been a lot of good training and not as much racing, which I think actually enhances performance. Athletes have stuffed the barn full of training and now they’re going in and reaping the benefits of all of that work.”
Top 10 Fastest Men’s Times at Boston
- 2:03:02, Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya), 1st, 2011
- 2:03:06, Moses Mosop (Kenya), 2nd, 2011
- 2:04:53, Gebregziabher Gebremariam (Ethiopia), 3rd, 2011
- 2:04:58, Ryan Hall (United States), 4th, 2011
- 2:05:52, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, (Kenya), 1st, 2010
- 2:06:13, Abreham Cherkos (Ethiopia), 5th, 2011
- 2:06:43, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (Kenya), 6th, 2011
- 2:07:10, Phillip Kimutai Sanga (Kenya), 7th, 2011
- 2:07:14, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (Kenya), 1st, 2006
- 2:07:15, Cosmas Ndeti (Kenya), 1st, 1994
Top 10 Fastest Women’s Times at Boston
- 2:19:59, Buzunesh Deba (Ethiopia), 1st, 2014
- 2:20:35, Mare Dibaba (Ethiopia), 2nd, 2014
- 2:20:41, Jemima Jelagat Sumgong (Kenya), 3rd, 2014
- 2:20:43, Margaret Okayo (Kenya), 1st, 2002
- 2:21:12, Catherine Ndereba (Kenya), 2nd, 2002
- 2:21:28, Meselech Melkamu (Ethiopia), 4th, 2014
- 2:21:45, Uta Pippig (Germany), 1st, 1994
- 2:21:52, Edna Kiplagat (Kenya), 1st, 2017
- 2:22:02, Shalane Flanagan (United States), 5th, 2014
- 2:22:36, Caroline Kilel (Kenya), 1st, 2011
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