On July 30, after a day of mostly first-round events, the Commonwealth Games (CWG) will hit its stride with the marathon finals for men, women and para-athletes. Nitender Rawat will be India’s sole representative at the marathon events, and while all of the world’s best won’t be running in Birmingham—some marathon-dominant nations like Ethiopia are not part of the CWG—Kenya, Namibia and Uganda will surely set the pace. The big absence that will be felt is of Kenya’s defending double Olympic champion and marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, who will return to competition only in September.
No matter what the field is, there’s one thing you can be sure of—the race will be run at a blistering pace. If the past two years has shown us anything in the world of distance running, it is that it has become, on an average, stupidly, mind-bendingly fast.
In October 2019, Kipchoge did the unthinkable and ran a marathon in under 2 hours (1:59:40.2). It was not an official record, because Kipchoge used technology like a system of laser lights to guide his pace and had an army of pacemakers (things not allowed in official marathons), but nonetheless, he still had to do the real thing, he had to run, and he showed that it was humanly possible to run 42.195km in less than two hours. Just to get a feel of the pace he managed—21.1kmph—set that on your treadmill (please do it safely, with someone to monitor you) and see how long you can keep up at that speed.Kipchoge is not an isolated phenomenon. In 2020, in the span of just a few months when sports was limping back after the pandemic-enforced break, a remarkable number of running records fell: the world records for 5,000m, 10,000m and 400m hurdles for both men and women, the European men’s 5,000m and 1,500m, as well as collegiate and high-school records in the US. By the time the curtains came down at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, almost all of these records had been broken again—some, like the women’s 5,000 and 10,000, multiple times, and some, like the 400m hurdles for both men and women, smashed and ground underfoot. At the Athletics World Championships last month, American Sydney Mclaughlin obliterated her own 400m hurdles world record yet again. Followed by Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan wiping out the 100m hurdles record by 0.8 of a second (which in the context of a 100m race is a massive difference—Usain Bolt was shocked at the time and the American 200m Olympic champion Noah Lyles tweeted: “are you kidding me?”).
12.12 are you kidding me
— Noah Lyles, OLY (@LylesNoah) July 25, 2022
While flat sprints like the 100m, 200m and 400m have not witnessed similar shockwaves (partly because Usain Bolt’s 100m and 200m records are already remarkable outliers, a once-in-many-generations kind of deal), that’s started to change with Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah setting a new Olympic record in the 100m, breaking Florence Griffith Joyner’s 33-year-old mark, and both Thompson-Herah and compatriot Shericka Jackson inching closer to the 200m record. They will be in action at the CWG too, along with Amusan.
Why are the records falling? One major reason is a breakthrough in shoe technology. In 2017, Nike released a road running shoe called the Vaporfly, which featured a thick foam sole made of material used by NASA in spacecrafts, a foam that is denser and more responsive to pressure changes than anything used in a shoe before, coupled with a thin, stiff carbon-plate insole. Why these help in running faster needs another article, but for now, suffice to say, that enough studies have shown that these new shoes can significantly reduce race times, leading to heated debates on whether they give an unfair advantage, and necessitating the Athletics’ global body to intervene and weigh-in about the legitimacy of the shoes. Since 2020, track spikes have also started featuring some of these elements, though Amusan set her record at the world championships wearing a road racing shoe with spacecraft foam and a carbon plate.
Rawat is a 31-year-old from Uttarakhand whose best timing, 2:15:18, would not qualify him for the Olympics, but still puts him in contention at the Asian level. And yes, he wears the latest shoes.
But the shoes are not the only reason. Warholm set his maddeningly fast 400m hurdles record in Tokyo (a race where even the silver-medallist broke the previous world record and the bronze medallist broke the Olympic record!) wearing traditional spikes with thin soles. Rai Benjamin, the American who won the silver, was wearing a Nike shoe with the latest tech—“he had those things in his shoes, which I hate!” Warholm said after the race.
“A reason for these amazing times, and one which is often overlooked, is that athletes had a long period of no races because of the pandemic, a time which, if they were motivated enough, they could spend entirely on training,” said elite running coach Hugo Van Den Broek, who, with his wife, the Olympian Hilda Kibet, runs a residential marathon training centre in Iten, Kenya. “Usually, you train hard during the off season and start to taper off as you approach a competition, so you have enough energy left,” he added. “When the season starts, athletes begin to balance hard training and tapering between competitions, which means the progress you can make from training is constrained.”
Simply put, the pandemic lockdown presented athletes with an unprecedented opportunity—training with progress as the goal for nine or so uninterrupted months, without having to worry about tapering for a competition, or the break in training that travelling and competing inevitably entail.
The composition of the track itself is another reason for fast times. Ever since cinder tracks gave way to synthetic tracks, manufacturers have been researching and tinkering with materials to try and produce a surface that minimises energy loss when the foot makes contact with the ground. The Tokyo track was claimed to be one of the fastest ever produced. CWG will feature the same track.The final, and perhaps the most important reason, Broeck said, “is that training science is getting better by the day. There’s more tech available, more insight into what makes us fast, or more enduring, insight into biomechanics, and ways to capture all those things in great detail for the individual athlete. Each of these things can offer incremental improvements for an athlete who is already at the top of his game, and what you have are world records.”