If recent trends are any indication, 2009 could be a huge year for marathoning. I referenced this briefly in my Notes on an '08 Calendar article, but a recent article by David Graham at LetsRun.com reminded me of just how much the sport of marathoning has changed over the years, and more specifically, the past decade.
Not only have the great distance runners on the track (first Tergat, now Gebrselassie) moved up to the marathon, but young runners like Sammy Wanjiru and Tsegay Kebede have chosen to focus on road racing and marathons and foresaken lengthy track careers for potential marathon greatness. As a result we have under-23 marathoners who are practically veterans at the distance. Can we really not expect to see marathon times drop when the event has now become a career focus, rather than a "post-track" career focus for the best runners in the world?
I think we can. Because one thing seems clear to me. The way a marathon is perceived has fundamentally shifted. Not by you and me, perhaps, but for the top athletes in the world 26.2 is no longer viewed with the same fear. Whether you agree with his skipping majors in favor of time trials or not, Haile Gebrselassie's world records in the marathon change--at a fundamental level--the way every elite runner views the challenge of completing 26.2. The result is that the bar is set higher, and more and more athletes are achieving faster times, times that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.
Just as I wrote recently that German Fernandez's "baseline" needs to be set higher, elite marathoners have had their "baseline" moved way up, and there's nothing they can do about it. Well, except train harder, make the long-term sacrifices necessary to approach the new standards of excellence, and believe that they, too, can achieve what they themselves must have thought impossible just years before.
It won't be easy. Overcoming mental barriers in this sport is probably the hardest aspect of it, in the end. I'm not sure we'll see any world records or a year of marathoning that is "statistically superior" to 2008, but we won't be seeing a regression back to 1998 ever again either. A new era of marathoning is here to stay.