Well, now that thousands of gallons of digital (and real-space) ink have been spilled in the topic of marathon world records, vis-à-vis Boston, I guess it’s time for me to weigh in. I’ve made my case (I don’t think Geoffrey Mutai’s or Ryan Hall’s times should be records) via blog comments and Twitter, but it’s a complex topic that requires a bit more verbosity than 140 characters or snarky comments allow.

First, I’ll address the “historic” aspect. I’ve heard so many times this week, while various pundits, bloggers and others have made their case for ratifying the Boston times as records, the Boston is a “historic” race – one article even listed the historic nature of the race as a specific reason for ratification! Look, this one isn’t complicated. The historic nature of the Boston course is actually the problem – they can’t, without throwing 115 years of history out the window, change their course. History and tradition have no bearing on world records. That’s the point of changing world records – they are by definition creating a new history and tradition. So please let this go. History is a great reason for running the Boston Marathon, but has nothing to do with record recognition.

Now we come to the elevation question. One of the reasons Boston isn’t record-certified is that it has a net elevation loss, meaning it is a downhill course. This could actually be a complicated issue – I mean, those of us who watched it or have run it (not me, I’m not a marathoner!) know that this is a rolling course and…for God’s sake it has a hill called “Heartbreak Hill” on it! Fair enough. A case can be made that those hills negate the elevation loss, but how do you roll that into certification worldwide? World records have certain criteria, and elevation loss/gain is one of them. If you give Boston a pass because of their hills, how do you quantify it? You’d need a complicated algorithm to quantify the…what, average slope? Many of the complaints about this issue is that we’re arguing about arcane formulas, and if you’re going to go down this particular road, you’re only adding layers and layers of arcane formulas. It’s a loser of an argument. Bottom line, the IAAF has made it simple. If your course is downhill – i.e. a net elevation loss of x per kilometer – it can’t be certified for records.

The clinching argument, to me, is the tailwind. The IAAF requires that start and finish lines be near one another, so the course is either out and back or a loop (this, btw, makes things easy for race directors – it eliminates elevation and wind as factors, in one fell swoop). The reason for this is that a point-to-point course could potentially be affected by a tailwind giving runners an advantage over runners on a loop or out and back course.

Boston had an 18 mile per hour tailwind for 26.2 miles. Period. It’s just reality; anyone who runs knows that a tailwind makes running easier. This is a fairly simple argument, but we can certainly get more complicated with it…

Distance running is no different from sprinting with regard to their rules – in fact, while sprinters and jumpers are subject to windspeeds when they perform, any athlete running 400 meters or further on the track is not, for record keeping purposes. Why? Because they’re running on a what is effectively a loop course, so they have equal parts tailwind and headwind.  Sprinters and jumpers are not credited with records if the tailwind is more than 2.0m per second.

2.0m per second seems like nothing – they’re clearly going faster than that! But this rule is less about being “pushed” by wind than about wind resistance. The faster the wind is going in your direction, the less air you have to push through during your race, and the more energy you can expend towards going fast. The same is true in marathoning; if you have a tailwind, you’re expending less energy to move through the air in front of you, and that provides a cumulative benefit in energy conservation, which translates to speed. Hence, loop and out and back courses work to negate that just as the track oval does, by providing equal (or near-equal) parts tailwind and headwind.

But on Monday at Boston, they weren’t dealing with 2.0m per second tailwinds, or anything close to it. The wind wasn’t just reducing wind resistance, it was going significantly faster than the runners, and effectively pushing them. Let’s be honest here – if you normally run 12.8 mph with a 42” stride and have an 18 mph tailwind, you’re going to find yourself going 12.9 mph with a 44” stride, covering more ground in less time with less energy – and over two hours, this will net in a significant benefit to your time.

So the bottom line is the runners at Boston had a significant advantage that requires the IAAF not to recognize the times as records.

Suggesting, as some have, that this is about “stats geeks” or “arcane formulas” is nonsense. The rules are simple. Put your start and finish near each other so you don’t get unfair tailwinds. If you have a net elevation loss, it’s a downhill course. The end. That isn’t complicated or arcane. Boston has known for many years that their course isn’t record-eligible, but has not protested the rules. Runners going to Boston know records there won’t count.

I feel for Mutai and Hall, I really do. When I saw what was going to happen, I was (already wound up by Desi Davila’s race) yelling at my computer monitor, and when I realized it wouldn’t count, it broke my heart for them. I was even outraged. But you don’t determine records by the level of outrage or inspiration. And this doesn’t, as some have suggested, blow some grand opportunity for the public to grasp marathoning and distance running. You think the general public gives a tinkers damn about this argument? Those who pay any attention to it will have seen two amazing, inspirational races, and all this arguing over elevation and windspeed is just inside baseball for people who are already sold on the sport.

So what is to be done with these times? What do we call them? And why can’t distance runners just have easily understood and recognized records like everybody else??!

Well, think about all the sports records out there…is the public turned off by the controversy over baseball’s home run record? Do we count Barry Bonds’ records? What about Sadaharu Oh? Think about all the arcana that goes into baseball records – we have pre- and post-liveball era records. We have “modern era” records. And this increases the public’s interest. Records are accompanied by controversy; it’s the nature of the beast, and what makes the records so fascinating in the first place.

And what do we call these times? Why not take a page from sprinting, that paragon of easy-to-understand records? Remember this? Tyson Gay, in 2008 at the Olympic Trials, ran a 9.68 100 meters, smashing the existing world record…but with a 4.1m/s tailwind. So you know what they called it? The fastest 100 meters run under any conditions. Is that so difficult or complicated?

And rather than complaining that he was cheated out of a record, you know what Tyson Gay took away from the race? He said it showed him that his body could go that fast, and now he just needs to do it without the wind (which, ultimately, he has). Speaking for myself only, that’s certainly the lesson I take away from Mutai’s 2:03:02…well, now we know it can be done. The psychological barrier is gone, and it’s a matter of time before someone does it on a certified course – frankly, I predict it’ll happen before the end of the year.

And is that not a legacy, too? Let’s honor what he did, call it what it is, and stop wasting our energy trying to get records applied because we really, really want it.

Geoffrey Mutai, on Monday in Boston, ran the fastest marathon run under any conditions. And that’s pretty extraordinary by itself.

2:03:02.

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