Women's marathon running enters two eleven land
Tigst Assefa blew minds and blew apart the marathon world record in Berlin on Sunday. What to make of it all?
It was one of those where I had to do a double take. When you’ve lived in a place where people introduce themselves by their numbers - in Iten people introduce themselves as “64” or “two-oh-nine” - you learn to understand the significance of certain numbers in running. Forty-two point two might not mean much to the average person in the street, but to a serious road runner, those numbers ring with the familiarity of a favourite song (a marathon is 42.2km long).
So when I logged in on Sunday to check the results of the 2023 Berlin Marathon, I had to scratch my head when I saw that Tigst Assefa - a name I didn’t immediately recognise - had won the women’s race in 2:11.
Er … what?!?
It’s an incredible time - some might say literally. She broke the world record by over two minutes. She went through halfway under world record pace in 66:20 - in itself a pretty crazy number for a half marathon - and then she sped up (running the second half even quicker). About 30km in she caught US Olympic male marathon runner Jared Ward, who had finished sixth in the Olympics and who was having, by his own account, a good race in Berlin. Over the last few miles she was running at almost the same pace as the men's winner, Eliud Kipchoge, who was himself running one of the fastest marathons ever.
Assefa's finishing time would have won the first 11 Berlin marathons (from 1974 to 1985) outright. As letsrun.com pointed out, she is now faster than Abebe Bikila, the legendary Ethiopian runner who won back-to-back Olympic marathons in 1960 and 1964, setting a world record of 2:12 on his way to gold in Tokyo.
Bam. And all this from an athlete who until just over a year ago was barely known - she had competed at the 2016 Olympics for Ethiopia in the 800m, where she didn’t even make the final, and she had a marathon best of 2:34 (which is really not very fast by elite standards).
Of course, on face value, knowing what we know about the sport, the initial reaction to all this is less pure admiration, and more hesitant confusion. One commenter somewhere said it was similar to the feeling you get when your side scores in football but it looks like it might be offside, and so you wait for the VAR check before celebrating.
Surely something doesn’t add up here? Right?