With Dennis Kimetto's marathon world record on Sunday, it's provided further evidence for what we've long suspected: it's never been a better time to be an old man runner.
Kimetto, only a few months away from 31, flies in the face of the recent trends of younger athletes taking to the marathon. Scores of young East Africans, primarily from Kenya and Ethiopia, are limited in track and field by the Olympic model, which only accepts three athletes per event. But they have an opportunity to make a killing in marathons, which have open-arms policies, and so more and more young men are foregoing the track to earn money on the roads.
This influx of youth has resulted in some amazing performances by runners only recently able to drink legally in the U.S. (Not that it matters; the U.S. model for its athletes is still largely based around the track.) Ethiopia is specifically notorious for their youth; in 2012, they had seven different runners in the top 10 of the year, all with times under 2 hours and five minutes, and with an average age of 24.
While far from conclusive, the theory for the speed of these wide-eyed marathoners is a two-parter. First, no one ever told these athletes that they couldn't run as fast as they are. The second is that they're able to discover their proclivity for longer distances earlier, thereby not wasting their best years running around in near-literal circles on the track.
But despite youthful enthusiasm and latent talent, the world record, historically and on Sunday has proved to always go to the aged. Kenya, who has had athletes break the marathon world record three of the past four years, has had these marks set by mature runners. Besides Kimetto, last year's world record-setting Wilson Kipsang was 31; Patrick Makau, who set the record in 2011 was 29. And then there's longtime record-holder Haile Gebreselassie, of Ethiopia, who smashed the world record in 2007 and resmashed it again in 2008. He was 34 and 35.
The marathon, more than any other distance, leans heavily on aerobic development, and of all the body's energy systems, the aerobic system takes longer to develop and peaks later (for most in their mid- to late thirties). There will be wunderkinds in the marathon, but so far they've only come close. The world's best marathoners are all advanced in age, and they're the ones who will continue to push the distance's advancement.
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