Geoffrey Mutai can’t quite explain how he can run 26 miles faster than any man ever has and not be the world record-holder. “Most of the people want to know why it was not recognized, because it was 42 kilometers,’’ says the 30-year-old Kenyan, whose clocking of 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds in last year’s Boston Marathon carved nearly a minute off Haile Gebrselassie’s global mark. “Even me, I don’t know.’’
Though the essence of the iconic Hopkinton-to-Boston layout is the same as it was in 1897, the course doesn’t conform to international track-and-field federation standards. So Mutai’s historic performance doesn’t appear on the IAAF lists or in its biography of him and is considered only a “world-best.’’
That distinction seems arbitrary to some elite runners who consider the storied route the most demanding on the planet. “A course like Boston’s that has stood the test of time and has been part of our sport for so long should be grandfathered,’’ says Joan Benoit Samuelson, who set a women’s world record by more than two minutes here in 1983 with an astonishing performance.
The IAAF rules, which limit elevation drop to 1 meter per kilometer and the as-the-crow-flies distance between start and finish to 13.1 miles, were drawn up to discourage tricked-up courses designed to produce world records. “We respect entirely what the IAAF is trying to do to protect the integrity of records,’’ says Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk. “We certainly don’t want to see somebody start 5,000 feet up a mountain and run down a regular decline with the wind at their back and say ‘Hurray! I set a world record.’ So we understand that.’’
But despite the 5-mile downhill slope from the start into Framingham, Boston is anything but a tricked-up layout. The three Newton hills, culminating in notorious Heartbreak, make for the most difficult stretch of marathon racing on the planet. “I have been running Berlin and Rotterdam and the course of Boston, it is not easy,’’ says Mutai. “When you go down, you will get a hill. Normally, no down without a hill. For me, it was much better to climb the hills than to go down.’’
Unlike speedways like Berlin, London, Chicago, and Rotterdam, Boston has produced only four world records in its 115 years - Yun Bok Suh in 1947, Liane Winter in 1975, Benoit, and Mutai. “That has to mean something,’’ says four-time champion Bill Rodgers, who ran marathons on five continents and likens the Boston course to “slalom racing.’’ “Sometimes I think the academics are looking at it in a vacuum as a theoretical exercise and not dealing with reality.’’
The reality is that Boston’s combination of quirky topography and mercurial meteorology can make for a brutal undertaking. “You can’t control Mother Nature,’’ says Samuelson. “You never know what she’s going to deliver on a particular day.’’
Across the decades, the race has been held amid snow squalls, driving rain, 97-degree heat, and 40-degree cold. Over the last five years, the wind has come from four directions. Last year’s 20-mile-an-hour tailwind, which skeptics said helped Mutai to an artificially fast time, was an outlier. “Runners can often be buffeted instead of benefited,’’ says Samuelson.
From an overall standpoint, Boston’s defenders argue, the course is at least as challenging as the other four majors. What they have to do is prove it. “I believe that the IAAF is open to a scientific demonstration that the course is harder regardless of the fact that it is downhill and that it could be wind-aided,’’ says London race director Dave Bedford, who chairs the federation’s road racing commission. “It would seem to me that it is absolutely in the hands of Boston to make such representation should they wish to.’’
The IAAF was persuaded to allow South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, to compete in the world championships after a scientific study showed that his blade-like prostheses did not give him a net advantage over able-bodied rivals in the 400 meters.
But drawing up rules for competitions on a standard oval track is decidedly easier than establishing standards for paved roads that differ not only from city to city but from start to finish. “The challenge is putting in place rules that apply across a wide variety of events,’’ says New York City race director Mary Wittenberg, who also serves on the IAAF commission.
Although Boston doesn’t meet those rules, the BAA is consulting local scientists to see whether a case can be made for a future exemption. “We would like to see if it can’t be shown that given the nature of the Boston course and the ups and downs of it that even though there is a net loss of elevation from start to finish, everything that happens in between produces a degree of difficulty that is at least equivalent to what one would experience on a flat course,’’ says Grilk.
Convincing the IAAF to make a one-off exception, even for the world’s most fabled layout, won’t be easy. “I think the evidence would have to be absolutely stunning to make a special case for one race,’’ reckons Bedford.
This race, though, is unlike any other. The topographical and meteorological uniqueness that make many top racers avoid Boston serves as an irresistible magnet for others. “More than any other marathon I can think of, the hills and the weather make it the ultimate marathon challenge,’’ says Rodgers.
Even though they know that a world record here won’t be recognized, elite racers still turn up each April.
“When you step on that starting line, you know what you’re getting yourself into,’’ says Ryan Hall, who has finished among the top four in each of the last three years but is opting out this time to prepare for the Olympics.
So Hall, who doesn’t believe that the course should be made record-eligible, wasn’t bothered that his domestic mark of 2:04:58 wasn’t recognized. “Even if I don’t have the record I know I’ve run faster than any American,’’ he says. “That’s a special achievement in and of itself. I’m hoping to take a swing at an American record on a certified course.’’
The vagaries of wind aside, the times posted here aren’t artificially enhanced by paid pacesetters; Boston always has been rabbit-free. “You go back to 1897 and what we do is kind of simple,’’ says Grilk. “We shoot the gun and let ’em run.’’
Until last year it was generally accepted that you couldn’t run anywhere near as fast in Boston as you could in Berlin or most other routes. “This course is really hard,’’ says Grilk. “Everybody knows you can’t set a record. That’s what was so astonishing about what happened last year. You can’t do that here because the last time it was done was 1947.’’
Nobody figured that two men, Mutai and countryman Moses Mosop, could post the two fastest times ever run on the planet even amid a wind that could have wafted them halfway to Oz. Not on this 19th-century roller coaster. “In my opinion, that performance in Boston was the best that’s ever been run,’’ says Hall.
Mutai shrugs his shoulders when folks quiz him on why his record wasn’t a record. “For me, I don’t understand why,’’ he says. On Monday morning, Mutai will be back to run a time that won’t be recognized beyond Route 128, while his country’s other Olympic hopefuls take the flat-earth option in Rotterdam and London.
There is an easy way, of course, to turn Boston into a certified layout. “Start in Wellesley, run to Framingham, then run to Boston,’’ says Grilk. “Of course, it’d be one heck of a hairpin turn.’’
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.