Why Johnny can’t run


In a previous life, I covered the Boston Marathon and at that time the only question was by how much Bill Rogers would win. He was the Tiger Woods of marathoning back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Likewise, Joan Benoit (now Joan Benoit Samuelson), was the dominant woman in a race that for a long time did not allow women to race. That they were both New Englanders made the race all the more, well, New Englandy.

Those days are gone. Looking at the leaderboard in today’s running of the marathon, we see Kenya, Romania, Russia, Ethiopia, Italy, and Japn well represented. There isn’t a North American in the bunch, unless you check the wheelchair division.

Why can’t Johnny run?

True, it’s a more competitive field these days, and the Boston event got to be too successful for its own good, and is no longer the pretty-much-for-fun, just-for-us kind of race it used to be. But American marathoners aren’t even keeping up with their predecessors from yesteryear.

Marathon expert Jim Fortner has done a couple of studies on this, the latest using evidence from races, including Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth.

Despite more than double the number of male marathon finishers today, the number of U.S. male sub-3:30 marathoners actually did decline and is about a third less today than it was a generation ago. The front of the men’s pack has shrunk in absolute terms.

The women’s side appears to be healthier with more than a four-fold increase in the number of sub-4 hour finishers out of more than twelve-fold growth in the total number of female marathon finishers. However, that picture is distorted because there were relatively few women marathoners 25 years ago, as compared to the number of women marathon finishers approaching parity with men today.

Many marathons, the Twin Cities Marathon included, have tried to kick-start Americans by offering prize money only to American finishers.

How’d that work? Meet Ukrainian Mykola Antonenko, who smoked the Twin Cities’ field last year, and rubbed it in by pointing out — through a translator — that he would’ve run faster if he’d had some competition. “Psychologically, it’s hard to run by yourself that early in the race. I looked back and was surprised, why weren’t they running?” The surprise there, one supposes, is that he was surprised.

On the other hand, the “spirit” of the marathons is more aligned, perhaps, to those who are competing with themselves, challenging themselves just to finish.

And that’s why we’re all rooting for MPR’s Tom Weber, who is — the last time we checked — on a pace to finish in 4 hours 31 minutes 5:01:30 5:23:34, about 2 3 1/2 hours later than the winner, and about 4 hours and 30 minutes 5 hours 22 minutes more than most of us could run on our best day with the wind at our backs.

(Photo of 2007 Boston Marathon by Elsa/Getty Images)