The women's 10,000-meter record blitz highlights just how dramatic a shift is occurring, and it hasn't peaked yet
The first sub-14:06 and sub-14:00 by a woman are both a given, and even a sub-8:06 seems overdue. Will we* see a pre- or post-Olympic assault on a sub-8:00 3,000 meters?
A little over two months ago, for no special reason—probably because I look at my dog a lot and, when I do, am often reminded of her various Hall of Fame-caliber predecessor-companions—I explored the extraordinary and brief career of Daniel Komen, whose feats remain transcendent to the present. This hagiography was followed shortly in the real world by a declared attempt on Komen’s 1996 3,000-meter outdoor world record by Joshua Cheptegei, who went through halfway in 3:39 before fading dismally.
Given the ongoing reverence of Komen’s 7:20.67 from twenty-five years ago, the complete inattention given to the even older women’s mark of 8:06.11, and the obvious vulnerability of Wang Junxia’s 1993 world record based on recent performances in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters, I proposed three weeks ago that a formal attempt on Junxia’s record was both timely and long overdue:
Maybe this is already in the works, but this would be a wondrous time for someone to gather Sifan Hissan and whoever can keep up with her at the moment for a 3,000 meters in Europe explicitly aimed at breaking Junxia’s 28-year-old record, the most ludicrous of them all from that week of mayhem in Beijing. They can capitalize on the momentum of today’s record attempt: Whether Cheptegei does it or whether he fails, a group of women can step up and aim to break an even better record—one so good no one even mentions it. But I don’t want to be accused of spreading warlike ideas like these, so you didn’t hear this from me.
In recent days, the women’s world record in the 10,000 meters—judged permanently and heart-breakingly untouchable from the moment that 29:31.78 and a host of other laughable times were achieved at the 1993 Chinese National Games by women accurately accused of doping, even if the truth took a while to formally surface—has fallen twice, both times with shocking ease. In fact, though Hassan’s 29:06.82 in Hengelo, the Netherlands on Sunday was accomplished with conservative pacing, Letesenbet Gidey’s 29:01.03 from Tuesday on the same track—which I’ll assume remains the record as you read this—was achieved with even more to spare, even though Gidey was attacking a record over ten seconds faster than the mark Hassan had just chased—29:17.45. (After Almaz Ayana set that mark to win gold at the 2016 Olympics, she returned to win gold in the 10,000 meters and silver in the 5,000 meters at the following year’s World Athletics Championships before in effect disappearing from the sport at 25.)
As those linked Letsrun pacing breakdowns reveal, both women showed they had the fitness to “easily” break 29:00, although in Gidey’s case this is practically self-evident from her time. But Gidey, at least, could seemingly approach 28:45, 69 seconds a lap, if she could overcome her aversion to remotely optimal pacing (she requested that the pacing lights take her through halfway far slower than even splits would have—about three-quarters of a second per lap slower (14:42 versus 14:33). [Note: The e-mailed version of this post had a magnificent error here: “…over three seconds per lap slower (14:42 versus 14:03).”]
Forget, for the moment, whatever combination of factors you or anyone believes is powering these stupefying times, and consider only that they are demonstrably possible and, as such, have a great deal of predictive power that can be put to use, right now, by elite meet organizers or with cash on hand to create more excitement in world-class athletics generally and in women’s running in particular. The most obvious places to begin are the women’s 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter outdoor world records, the latter also held by Gidey (14.06.62 from last year).
No matter how viciously one attempts to handicap a negative-splitting 29:01 or 29:06 10,000-meter runner’s chances at attaining a given 3,000-meter or 5,000-meter performance, there is only so many “buts” to plausibly drop into the hypothetical path of such an athlete getting under 14:00 in the latter event. Realistically, 13:50 seems a better-than-even bet and 13:45 entirely plausible, if you accept the hypothesis that Gidey more than likely demonstrated 28:45 10,000-meter fitness on Tuesday. If you reject this hypothesis, use the available data to explain why; I couldn’t. But if you accept at a minimum that at least one runner in this conversation can manage 13:50—worth precisely the same as a 29:01 10,000 meters per World Athletics scoring tables—then we* can move on to discussing performances and records that are not simply an apparent matter of when and where, and instead retain at least a whiff of “if.”
8:06.11 has been ripe for the picking for at least five years, not even accounting for the introduction of “superspikes.” The world records for 1,500 meters (3:50.07, by Genzebe Dibaba in 2015) and 10,000 meters before this past weekend each rate 1287 points, 6 points shy of Junxia’s crusty standard. 29:01 is worth 1303 points, and to smash a scarcely recognizable mustang carcass even further into equine mush, Gidey’s was a wildly inefficient 29:01, just how she likes it. (4:26 for the last four laps?)
Someone ducking under 8:00, however, might be getting just a little ahead of where current limits stand. That putative 28:45 is worth 1318 points, while a 7:59.99 nets a lady 1316 big ones. (It is worth interjecting here that because the World Athletics points tables cannot yet account for any varying of the effects of the superspikes across the different distance events, such data—already less than perfectly predictive—at best allow for enticing, reasonable guesswork.)
Although Gidey may be the superior 10,000-meter runner—the past few days don’t clearly establish this—Hassan unquestionably possesses more raw speed, even if she always looks like a stir-fried, coked-up zombie running at any pace. She has a 1:56.81 800 meters to her credit from 2017, and a 3:51.95 1,500 meters in hand from 2019. Now that the European circuit and build-up to the Olympics are finally really here, Hassan is plainly in attack mode and running for more than just victories.
Regarding the soft-as-hell (1269 points!) 5,000-meter world record, the smart thing to do for all involved would be to systematically arrange for the record broken a number of times in quick succession, in much the way Sergey Bubka approached the men’s pole-vault record in the 1980s, rather than see it knocked down to 13:50 or under, where it “should” be, in one twelve-and-a-half-lap swipe. For example, if a billed record attempt netted a 14:03 (and maybe an accompanying 14:05), then, mission fulfilled, the show could move to a different European city and the brand-new mark could be almost immediately dragged under 14:00. After that, one or more characters could go full-out and chase the pacing lights at 66 seconds per lap in a continuation of the record-trimming orgy.
I really believe that the gap between the actual 5,000-meter world record and the potential record is large enough to allow for such gaming, if there is any time in the overall schedule for it. This is the kind of thing that (under typical social conditions) fills stadiums and gets Internet viewers worldwide for fork over $5 or whatever to have something to root for (or against) for part of an afternoon, and can net athletes sizable performance bonuses—money that’s probably funneled into some kind of corrupt enterprise, eventually funding the development of even more magical shoes and blood-boosters down the line and keeping the whole manic, aerobic Ponzi scheme going to the rip-roaring delight of folks like you and me.
As for this wave of crazy 2020 and 2021 performances per se, my half-assed idea, as defensible as any other, is that the powers controlling top-level athletics are using the known-but-unquantifiable boost offered by the superspikes to allow even more doping than usual. That is, a diabolical use of brilliant technology by one shoe company to gain an edge on the others is now being used for an even more nefarious purpose—as a Trojan horse for ignoring dope-hot pee or not collecting it at all. From a conspiracist’s perspective, the thinking is: The rabble will be so up in arms trying to figure out how much these shoes are revolutionizing times that everyone will forget to blame doping as passionately as before, or will concede to being so addled by the one-two punch of mechanical wizardry and pharmacological shenanigans that trying to reverse-engineer the improvement machine isn’t worth the mental strain.
On the other hand, if the prevalence of doping can be assumed to have held steady throughout the elite ranks in recent years, then the superspikes are subtracting more seconds than perhaps even those who despise their existence are inclined to acknowledge. As soon as the spikes hit the Bowerman Track Club, this seemed to create an immediate 7- or 8-second improvement in the fastest 3,000-meter ladies on the team, about a second per lap. (When you’re already a sub-8:40 gal, that’s huge.) For someone running about 70 seconds a lap, the difference might be a second per circuit across distances—call it a second per 400 meters for a 30:00 10,000-meter runner, or a boost of (1/72) = 1.39 percent.
That doesn’t seem outrageous, but by what standard can I or anyone make that call? It seems facile to compare this figure to the well-established 3- to 5-percent nudge afforded by the Alphafly and other this-generation road flats in the marathon, since the basic mechanism of improvement there is different from that of the superspikes.
I’m already out of my element again here, but the take-home message is that anyone who suggests that these shoes aren’t frankly revolutionizing world-class track is a fool. All of these individual, rapidly accumulating “wowzer” data points, like Josh Kerr’s 3:31 and Hobbs Kessler’s 3:34, are crystallizing into an even more kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing picture than most observers imagined when the superspikes were introduced. I feel like getting into some sort of shape, availing myself of some Dragonflys, and racing on the track in both old and new racing shoes just to try to get a sense of the true difference, never mind to have some fun in life again. (It would be difficult to “blind” this experiment, but at least I’d be training and racing.)
Anyway, there really is lots to see this late spring. I’ve neglected a bunch of other topics, because lately I would rather stare at moving pictures on my screen than execute keystrokes in this or any writing interface, especially keystrokes that generate bilious words. I have also passed much of the time by wandering the outdoors shirtless at a stoic clip and periodically dunking an overheating Rosie in various creeks.
Then there’s asymptotically approaching a satisfactory level of digital competence under Merlin’s stern watch.
But within a week of any random outrage stoppage, I usually erupt, even if it is against my own will, so I expect the rebuttal machine to keep doing its partly unconscious job of finding more lies and incompetence to seethe about. And within a week or so, I’ll have an in-depth profile of a runner who gave birth over 39 years after running under five minutes for the mile.