Association of International Marathons and Distance Races

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Opinion

01 January 2009, 8am

Times have changed in the Marathon world, observes AIMS Statistician David Martin

Worlds apart

by David Martin

The now standard Marathon distance of 42195m was adopted at the Fifth IAAF Congress held in Geneva in May 1921. In the five men’s Olympic Marathons held up to that point the distance had varied around 40km or 25 miles (40.234km). No explanation was offered for the new standardized length but it was the metric equivalent of the distance run in the 1908 Olympic Marathon in London, 26 miles and 385 yards. That race seized the public imagination in a way no other had. Dorando Pietri had surged boldly into the lead in the closing stages but collapsed – repeatedly - on the stadium track. Five times he was helped to his feet as the American Johnny Hayes entered the stadium and rapidly closed in. The excitement brought tens of thousands of spectators to their feet to see Pietri cross the line first. He was declared the winner but later disqualified for receiving assistance and the gold medal was awarded to Hayes. The marathon finish remained the enduring memory of those Games and immediately stimulated demands for a re-match. A hundred years after that dramatic race first brought the event to widespread public attention it is interesting to note some aspects of how Olympic marathoning has changed: London 1908 versus Beijing 2008. The biggest difference lies in the physiological condition of the athletes. Although exact height/weight data are not available for the 1908 marathoners, articles about them suggest that they were similar to the general (non-athletic) population. These early athletes were not the super-slim diminutive people that toe today’s starting lines. Today’s runners train for a living whereas those of yesteryear fitted training in after work. Height and weight data for the 2008 Olympic men marathon medalists are: Samuel Wanjiru 1.64m (5 feet, 4 inches) and 52 kg (112 pounds); Jaouad Gharib (1.76m/66 kg); and Tsegaye Kebede (1.58m/50kg). The present men’s marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, is of similar height (1.64m/53kg). In physical size they are small men. The 1908 Olympic marathon presaged a bout of professional marathon racing on tracks with money bet on lap times. Both meet promoters and athlete agents, as well as athletes themselves, stood to make tidy profits by filling indoor arenas to capacity. In such smoke-filled and dusty confines a marathon race required around 250 laps. The Pietri-Hayes rematch arranged in November 1908 in Madison Square Garden, New York City was the most anticipated of these. Pietri won 2:44:20.4 to 2:45:05.2. Pietri went on to run a marathon every couple of weeks during his American “tour” and had two more re-matches with Hayes. He defeated him both times, although in the final rematch overall race victory went to a diminutive 21-year-old French waiter named Henri St. Yves (2:40:50.6). As evidenced by Pietri’s schedule, trainers in his time did not understand the physiological basis for recovery from competition, or the true significance of training. Athlete management was simply a dash for cash with inadequate regard for the long-term health of the athlete. In 2008 Olympic champions, their agents and race promoters continue to earn cash in “open” marathon races but the pace is much more carefully modulated. Samuel Wanjiru may perhaps run two marathons in the year following his Olympic victory, not one every two weeks. In today’s long distance running world there is a continual struggle to detect use of performance-enhancing substances. These may increase red blood cell count – allowing delivery of more oxygen to the muscles, or increase strength, or enhance recovery from hard training. Cases are identified every year so it is known to occur. Regardless of clandestine usage, there is no doubt that today’s rules prohibit such agents as part of the playing field. It was quite different in Pietri’s day when drug usage was not only tolerated, it was essentially encouraged. In the 1904 St. Louis Olympic marathon Tom Hicks was awarded the gold medal despite “assistance” received. In his report on the race Charles Lucas testifies that “From the 10-mile mark to the finish, the winner, Hicks, was under the personal care of Hugh C. McGrath, of Charlesbank Gymnasium, Boston, Mass. and the author. Hicks was far from being the best man in the race, for there were three men who should have defeated him…but they lacked proper care on the road…The Marathon Race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrates that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road.” Lucas further reports that at 19 miles he was “forced to administer 1/60th grain of sulfate of strychnine, by the mouth, besides the white of an egg. Although French brandy was in the possession of the party, it was deemed best to abstain from further stimulants so long as possible.” Drinking raw egg whites seems difficult to imagine under any conditions let alone in the final stages of a marathon. Furthermore, Lucas’s understanding of the effects of alcohol was in error. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, not a stimulant. In sufficient quantity it is also a diuretic. What Hicks needed was plenty of water, or better yet, electrolyte/energy drink – one litre per hour – but not strychnine, egg whites and brandy. Strychnine has been used for centuries as a rat poison and is a central nervous system stimulant. In small doses it increases spinal cord reflex excitability, causing a coordinated but exaggerated skeletal muscle response. The dose must be monitored carefully because if it is excessive all coordination is lost and spinal convulsions can occur. The 1908 London Olympic marathon did well in providing food and drink along the way. The Official report recorded that “The Oxo Company have been appointed official caterers, and will supply the following free of charge to Competitors: Oxo athletes’ flask containing Oxo for immediate use, Oxo hot and cold, Oxo and soda, Rice Pudding, Raisins, Bananas, Soda and Milk.” Athletes in today’s competitive world are more accustomed to ingesting liquid rather than solid fuel. The details of chemical metabolism of food were not fully elucidated until the 1930s, and it was well into the 1970s before the first drinks were manufactured which replenished runners’ fluid losses and also provided easily assimilated energy. Vitamins, electrolytes, and other ingredients were added, mimicking the ingredients found in sweat. This has in no small measure contributed to the ability to sustain a fast race pace as Samuel Wanjiru’s new Olympic record in the 2008 Olympic marathon of 2:06:32 was 49 minutes (28%) faster than the time run by Pietri 100 years earlier. Times have changed in other ways as well. The women’s Olympic Marathon winner in Beijing, Constantina Dita-Tomescu, ran a time (2:26:44) which would have won the (exclusively) men’s event up to the 1952 Olympic Games (won by Emil Zatopek in 2:23:04). The Women’s Marathon has been included in only the last seven Olympiads.

The now standard Marathon distance of 42195m was adopted at the Fifth IAAF Congress held in Geneva in May 1921. In the five men’s Olympic Marathons held up to that point the distance had varied around 40km or 25 miles (40.234km). No explanation was offered for the new standardized length but it was the metric equivalent of the distance run in the 1908 Olympic Marathon in London, 26 miles and 385 yards.

That race seized the public imagination in a way no other had. Dorando Pietri had surged boldly into the lead in the closing stages but collapsed – repeatedly – on the stadium track. Five times he was helped to his feet as the American Johnny Hayes entered the stadium and rapidly closed in. The excitement brought tens of thousands of spectators to their feet to see Pietri cross the line first. He was declared the winner but later disqualified for receiving assistance and the gold medal was awarded to Hayes. The marathon finish remained the enduring memory of those Games and immediately stimulated demands for a re-match.

A hundred years after that dramatic race first brought the event to widespread public attention it is interesting to note some aspects of how Olympic marathoning has changed: London 1908 versus Beijing 2008.

The biggest difference lies in the physiological condition of the athletes. Although exact height/weight data are not available for the 1908 marathoners, articles about them suggest that they were similar to the general (non-athletic) population. These early athletes were not the super-slim diminutive people that toe today’s starting lines. Today’s runners train for a living whereas those of yesteryear fitted training in after work. Height and weight data for the 2008 Olympic men marathon medalists are: Samuel Wanjiru 1.64m (5 feet, 4 inches) and 52 kg (112 pounds); Jaouad Gharib (1.76m/66 kg); and Tsegaye Kebede (1.58m/50kg). The present men’s marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, is of similar height (1.64m/53kg). In physical size they are small men.

The 1908 Olympic marathon presaged a bout of professional marathon racing on tracks with money bet on lap times. Both meet promoters and athlete agents, as well as athletes themselves, stood to make tidy profits by filling indoor arenas to capacity. In such smoke-filled and dusty confines a marathon race required around 250 laps. The Pietri-Hayes rematch arranged in November 1908 in Madison Square Garden, New York City was the most anticipated of these. Pietri won 2:44:20.4 to 2:45:05.2. Pietri went on to run a marathon every couple of weeks during his American “tour” and had two more re-matches with Hayes. He defeated him both times, although in the final rematch overall race victory went to a diminutive 21-year-old French waiter named Henri St. Yves (2:40:50.6).

As evidenced by Pietri’s schedule, trainers in his time did not understand the physiological basis for recovery from competition, or the true significance of training. Athlete management was simply a dash for cash with inadequate regard for the long-term health of the athlete. In 2008 Olympic champions, their agents and race promoters continue to earn cash in “open” marathon races but the pace is much more carefully modulated. Samuel Wanjiru may perhaps run two marathons in the year following his Olympic victory, not one every two weeks.

In today’s long distance running world there is a continual struggle to detect use of performance-enhancing substances. These may increase red blood cell count – allowing delivery of more oxygen to the muscles, or increase strength, or enhance recovery from hard training. Cases are identified every year so it is known to occur. Regardless of clandestine usage, there is no doubt that today’s rules prohibit such agents as part of the playing field. It was quite different in Pietri’s day when drug usage was not only tolerated, it was essentially encouraged.

In the 1904 St. Louis Olympic marathon Tom Hicks was awarded the gold medal despite “assistance” received. In his report on the race Charles Lucas testifies that “From the 10-mile mark to the finish, the winner, Hicks, was under the personal care of Hugh C. McGrath, of Charlesbank Gymnasium, Boston, Mass. and the author. Hicks was far from being the best man in the race, for there were three men who should have defeated him…but they lacked proper care on the road…The Marathon Race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrates that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road.” Lucas further reports that at 19 miles he was “forced to administer 1/60th grain of sulfate of strychnine, by the mouth, besides the white of an egg. Although French brandy was in the possession of the party, it was deemed best to abstain from further stimulants so long as possible.”

Drinking raw egg whites seems difficult to imagine under any conditions let alone in the final stages of a marathon. Furthermore, Lucas’s understanding of the effects of alcohol was in error. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, not a stimulant. In sufficient quantity it is also a diuretic. What Hicks needed was plenty of water, or better yet, electrolyte/energy drink – one litre per hour – but not strychnine, egg whites and brandy. Strychnine has been used for centuries as a rat poison and is a central nervous system stimulant. In small doses it increases spinal cord reflex excitability, causing a coordinated but exaggerated skeletal muscle response. The dose must be monitored carefully because if it is excessive all coordination is lost and spinal convulsions can occur.

The 1908 London Olympic marathon did well in providing food and drink along the way. The Official report recorded that “The Oxo Company have been appointed official caterers, and will supply the following free of charge to Competitors: Oxo athletes’ flask containing Oxo for immediate use, Oxo hot and cold, Oxo and soda, Rice Pudding, Raisins, Bananas, Soda and Milk.” Athletes in today’s competitive world are more accustomed to ingesting liquid rather than solid fuel.

The details of chemical metabolism of food were not fully elucidated until the 1930s, and it was well into the 1970s before the first drinks were manufactured which replenished runners’ fluid losses and also provided easily assimilated energy. Vitamins, electrolytes, and other ingredients were added, mimicking the ingredients found in sweat.

This has in no small measure contributed to the ability to sustain a fast race pace as Samuel Wanjiru’s new Olympic record in the 2008 Olympic marathon of 2:06:32 was 49 minutes (28%) faster than the time run by Pietri 100 years earlier.

Times have changed in other ways as well. The women’s Olympic Marathon winner in Beijing, Constantina Dita-Tomescu, ran a time (2:26:44) which would have won the (exclusively) men’s event up to the 1952 Olympic Games (won by Emil Zatopek in 2:23:04). The Women’s Marathon has been included in only the last seven Olympiads.

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