Man, it's rough work to make a world record happen in the marathon. Dennis Kimetto's freshly minted 2:02:57 took a whopping 26 seconds off the previous mark, but think about it—that relatively large improvement works out to a blink per mile, one step in a pothole, a hamstring twinge, a gust of wind. The variables are so many and the margin of error so small, well, it makes Carey Pinkowski a little crazy.
Pinkowski has been the race director of the Chicago Marathon, held again this Sunday, October 12th, since 1990. He's orchestrated three of the four world record performances that transpired in that working man's town, but it's been a while, 2002 to be exact, when Paula Radcliffe bobbed her way to 2:17:18. That grates, see, because, of the six World Marathon Majors—London, Berlin, Tokyo, Chicago, New York and Boston—three of them have the financial clout and record-eligible, record-friendly flat courses to make the impossible happen—London, Berlin and Chicago. These three pride themselves on being world record laboratories, vying for the magic mix of experienced racers and up-and-comers brought together at the knife-edge of fitness. Thing is, the last six world records have been set in Berlin. Even more frustrating for Pinkowski, Chicago's achilles heel has proven to be the one factor he can't control—the weather.
But things are looking up for Chicago this year. The forecast is for cloudy, mid-50 temps and a 12 mph wind from the southeast, which will be a welcome push on the unprotected stretch from 23 miles to the finish. And Pinkowski is pretty keyed about the elite field he's assembled which includes Kenenisa Bekele, who fans are ready to drape with the GOAT mantle once he conquers the marathon, Eliud Kipchoge who talks softly and carries a big stick, Florence Kiplagat loaded for bear, Rita Jeptoo, the mother of two who handled Boston's hills like packing a school lunch, and a host of potential world beaters just waiting for their moment. Like a successful dinner party, this guest list didn't just happen.
I got 25 minutes with Pinkowski on someone else's phone (he couldn't find his own) to talk about how to build a world record-friendly elite field.
How long has this field been in the works?
It's an ongoing process. I may see an athlete with potential at the Olympics or World Championships. They may not be ready to run a marathon; it depends on where the athlete is in his career. In the case of Bekele, I've been watching him for eight years. He's a phenomenal athlete and I thought I'd love to have him in Chicago. It's an extended window: I'd see him at the Olympics and ask Jos Hermens (Bekele's agent), When is he going to run the marathon? It was a priority to me to have him in Chicago.
What are you looking for in a runner?
The culture in Chicago is fast and competitive. Khannouchi, Kebede, Wanjiru—these athletes came here thinking they were going to run fast. We talked to a dozen or so athletes this year. I watch London and New York and Berlin. I'm constantly aware of athletes. It's my eye and a gut feeling.
Was a world record on your radar when you assembled this field?
A world record is always on my radar.
Did your heart sink when you saw the world record fall in Berlin?
Not really. We've had some revolutionary performances here, and we flirted with the record last year [Dennis Kimetto ran 2:03:45, 22 seconds off Wilson Kipsang's world best, set two weeks earlier in Berlin]. The course record for men has come down a minute each year, so it's possible.
Do you think about race matchups?
Absolutely I think about matchups. Bekele and Kipchoge, they complement each other. They competed on the track, so the natural progression is to compete in the marathon.
Aside from fast times, what other credentials do you look for in an elite runner?
I've always liked accomplished track runners. Steve Jones [who set a world record in Chicago in 1984] was a successful track runner. Khalid Khannouchi, Moses Tanui, Paula Radcliffe, Toshihiko Seko—they all had speed that equates well in Chicago because it's a fast course. There's a consciousness and culture of track speed that will complement their performance here.
Did the fact that Nike is a Chicago Marathon sponsor, and that Bekele and Kipchoge are both Nike athletes have anything to do with their recruitment?
To a certain extent, this is a Nike event, so that may have been a factor. But last year, the first three athletes were sponsored by adidas. We just try to recruit the best athletes.
I've heard the hardest spot in the world is to be a Kenyan runner, due to the large supply. Is there such a thing as too many Kenyans in your field? Do you try for diversity?
We recruit the fastest athletes, the most competitive field. In 2010, Tsegaye Kebede and Sammy Wanjiru brought the city to its feet. A lot of people think that was the greatest marathon ever run. That's what Chicago is about—we're a blue collar city, two guys slugging it out. This is a hard-nosed sporting community. Khannouchi-Tanui was another epic battle. We want guys with big hearts. Is there national pride? Absolutely. But we don't care about their nationality or what shoes they wear.
I know appearance fees are hush hush in running, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Appearance fees for Bekele and Kipchoge?
We don't speak about it publicly, but taxes are filed; it's a business like any business. At the request of the athletes, we don't talk about it.
What incentives, other than appearance and prize money [$100,000 for the first man and woman], do you use to attract the likes of Bekele, et al?
We are always thinking about the athletes, and how we can make this performance optimal. We try to keep their media commitments to a minimum to reduce stress. The start and finish are across the street from their hotel; it's very convenient in terms of warming up and getting to the start. Again, it reduces their stress level. They're here to compete, not worry about logistics. And our tradition of champions—great athletes want to compete against each other. Rather than just one or two, we try to have a deep competitive field, with a good course. They know they're going to run fast.