Sub Three-Hour Marathoners at Boston: A Vanishing Breed
For many of us there is another right of passage in the marathon: that special achievement of "under three hours."
Posted Thursday, 17 April, 2003
During my racing career, which started in 1968 at the age of 27, the criteria for running a good marathon in the eyes of one's peers was always to break three hours. In 1969 I ran and finished my first Boston in 3:01:43. Although elated to have done so well, my mind kept probing the question: why couldn't I have pushed 104 seconds harder? Only four seconds faster per mile and I could have had a 2:59:59 marathon.
Of course, running a marathon is a satisfying achievement for anyone who completes one, regardless of the final time. Whether it is run in five hours, four hours, or in the elusive three hours or less, finishing the marathon brings great satisfaction. It is the fulfillment of a commitment to train and follow through on a program that allows us to step to the starting line ready to take on the challenge. Finishing the marathon announces to the world that we have met that challenge and conquered the distance.
From non-runners, the most frequently asked question is, "Did you finish?" No more, no less. In their minds that is the crux of the battle. Your final time and the effort (and pain) required to achieve it are incidental. Personal victory is defined in terms of finishing.
And yet, for many of us there is another right of passage in the marathon: that special achievement of "under three hours." I have run eight Boston Marathons. After my 3:01:43 finish in 1969, I came back in 1970 to finish in 2:40:50. The next year, in the 75th running of this great event, I finished in a time of 2:31:25, 31st place overall, good enough to win a medal for being one of the top finishers. It was the pinnacle of my marathon experience. The only personal running success to equal it would come 20 years later, approaching age 52, when I finished Boston in 2:52:21. That was also exciting.
Now in my sixties, with my eighth Boston Marathon last year and my ninth just ahead of me, I will never have that special under three hour achievement again, but I will always take note of all the fine athletes who complete Boston in less than 3:00:00. Surprising to me, however, is that the ranks of sub three-hour finishers have not been growing; it has been shrinking. Here are some numbers that may surprise you.
In 1978, 3,872 runners (mostly men at that time) were recognized in the published results for finishing the Boston Marathon (which in 1978 meant finishing within four hours). Of those finishers, 2,047 broke three hours. In 2002, only 1,024 men broke 3:00 hours. (Of course this was in a significantly larger field. There were 9,234 recognized male finishers, 6,672 of them in under four hours.)
In other words, 24 years later the field of four-hour male finishers had grown by more than 170 percent, but less than 30 percent as many men succeeded in breaking the three-hour barrier. If you look at all of the numbers from the years between 1978 and 2002, you see this has been a steady trend. What does it mean? As more and more people have joined the sport, one can certainly understand why a smaller percentage of finishers would break three hours, but why has the absolute number of sub three-hour finishers dropped? Training methods, shoes, and the winning times have all improved during that time, but not the ranks of finishers sub three-hour finishers. I am inclined to think that we marathoners from the 1970s were a different, tough breed. After all, we were inspired by two of the greats: Frank Shorter with his Olympic Marathon win in 1972, and Bill Rodgers with his outstanding four Boston Marathon victories.
Don Allison, another marathoners from the 1970s, points out that toughness meant training. "People [today] don't do the mileage we used to do. When I started in the mid '70s it was accepted you needed to run a high mileage to do the marathon. You did what others around you did. Nowadays, anyone who runs high mileage is looked at as an aberration." I agree. High mileage to us meant running a minimum of 100 miles a week in training. And if your competition was running 100, you'd try for 105.
Don makes another good point. "Back then we didn't overly concern ourselves with longevity in the sport or absolutely minimizing the risk of injury. Nowadays, many training programs are geared towards recovery and rest days, suggesting the minimum amount of training to get you through the marathon."
In actuality, a well thought-out high-mileage training program will not only prepare you for the marathon, it will significantly increase your chances of attaining a fast time, possibly the elusive sub three-hour finish I hope that soon another generation of American runners will consider the possibilities of LSD for conquering the challenge of the sub 3:00:00 marathon.