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The real reason why marathon running records are tumbling

A new long distance running world record was created at the Berlin Marathon last week. Lounge takes a deeper look at why running records are tumbling almost every year

Ethiopia's Tigist Assefa crosses the finish line to win the women Berlin Marathon.
Ethiopia's Tigist Assefa crosses the finish line to win the women Berlin Marathon. (Reuters)

The Berlin Marathon, held on 24 September, saw the creation of a new world record. Ethiopian Tigist Assefa, 26, finished the race in 2:11:53, shaving over two minutes from the previous women’s record set by Kenyan runner Brigid Kosgei in 2019. It is increasingly common to see records tumble at the Berlin Marathon these days. What is it about the Berlin Marathon that the last few world records have been set here? In the last decade, more marathon records have been shattered in Berlin than anywhere else. Is it the course design and elevation profile? The weather? Is it the new shoe tech? 

In 2013, Kenyan runner Wilson Kipsang set a men’s world record at Berlin with a time of 2:03:23. Then in 2018, Eliud Kipchoge, one of the greatest long distance runners of all time, broke Kipsang’s record while finishing the race in 2:01:39. Last year, Kipchoge bested his own record by finishing the race in 30 seconds less. In all, the Berlin Marathon has witnessed a dozen world records. Chicago is another flat and fast course, where five world records have been broken. Both are World Marathon Majors races, both take place in autumn within a couple of weeks of each other, and boast huge participation numbers and the biggest names in distance running. 

Also Read What marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge teaches us about training

However, where Berlin scores over Chicago is the weather. Berlin weather is not extreme. It was sunny and relatively warm this weekend, with the temperatures were in the low 20 degrees Celsius. There has been rain during some race days in Berlin, but light. The breeze is mild and pleasant. Having run in the Chicago Marathon back in 2016, I can say that, on the other hand, one can never tell with the weather in Chicago. 

In recent times, the race has been run on an exceptionally hot day (2007) with a high of 31 degrees Celsius, an exceptionally cold race (1988) with temperatures dropping to -6 degrees Celsius, an extremely wet race (2018), and once even through snow (1993). Add to that the wind of the Windy City. If it is not in your favour, it is not fun. In 2016, I was lucky to have great weather, but those who ran in poor weather know that this makes this race rather difficult.  

Also Read Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge is a man in constant motion

Another factor that has played a prominent role in the high frequency of new world records in distance running are the shoes. Since 2017, when Nike released running shoes with new carbon technology (Kipchoge is a Nike athlete), the world of running has completely changed. Even till the time of the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, many athletes still had not jumped aboard the carbon shoe bandwagon, and some had even slammed their use. Today, there is hardly any elite runner on the starting line who isn’t wearing shoes featuring carbon technology. Every brand has multiple offerings. And rightfully so because independent studies have confirmed that these carbon shoes can have a positive impact on a runner’s pace from anything between marginal gains to even 10% faster. 

In 2013, Kipsang set the world record in Berlin wearing the Adidas Adios Boost 2.0, a racing flat with a low profile, thin sole, light weight, and a low heel-to-toe drop. It quickly became the most sought after pair of racing flats. Once Kipchoge’s talent and speed helped Nike create headlines with their carbon shoes, the Vaporfly and Alphafly range were all the rage, especially because availability was low and prices eye-wateringly high. Since then, other brands, especially Adidas, have caught up with Nike and are now firmly back in the race as far as carbon shoes go. 

Also Read The carbon plated running shoes from Nike and Adidas that are breaking records

Last Sunday, Assefa wore a pair of Adidas Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 as she ran 42km through Berlin in world record time. The shoes were publicly launched on Tuesday with a price tag of $500 (about 42,000), which is almost twice as much as Nike’s Alphafly 2. The Adios Pro Evo 1 line hasn’t launched in India yet, while Nike’s Alphafly 2 are available, but in small numbers and in select stores. Adidas released just over 500 pairs on Tuesday and, according to reports, have scheduled the next batch for November, which is when the New York City Marathon happens. After the race, Assefa said that these were the lightest pair of shoes (141 grams) she has ever worn, and that she literally flew on them. In addition to the carbon rods, the shoes feature a new, softer, and more bouncy foam leading to better energy return. 

However, if you want to use this particular pair for every marathon you run, you will need considerable savings. According to Adidas, the Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 is optimised for speed, not durability; runners would have to buy a new for every race. They are designed for single use only: one pre-race warm-up, and the race itself. We have clearly not seen the end of this story. It is extremely likely that, come next year, another new pair of shoes will make the record-keepers work hard at the Berlin Marathon.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.   

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