© Copyright – 2023 – Athletics Illustrated

On Sunday, the women’s marathon world record was destroyed. The record was brutally beaten and left for dead. Its still-beating heart was ripped from its chest and tossed onto the black asphalt road. It was battered to its death by a pair of one-off adidas supershoes. That is all, the shoes were everything, right?

In 2003, Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe broke the world marathon record with a 2:15:25 running of the London Marathon. Following that performance, she endured over a decade of doubt. The dubious finger-pointing came mostly from anonymous keyboard warriors, who felt threatened by their own mediocrity. As she was paced by men, World Athletics tried to remove the record from the books. The idea of cancelling Radcliffe was preposterous, as men are often paced by men too. It is standard fare. Pacing, pace cars, Wavelight technology, supershoes. Rhetorically, where do the distractions end?

It would be 16 years before someone else was able to improve Radcliffe’s mark. Kenyan Brigid Kosgei clocked a 2:14:04 Chicago Marathon in 2019. Sunday, Ethiopian Tigst Assefa ran an off-the-charts Berlin Marathon clocking a 2:11:53 finish time. This represents a performance thought impossible not long ago. In fact, it was thought impossible on Sunday morning when the rising filtered sun slowly evaporated the wet dew on the grass of the boulevard of Straß des near the Brandenberg Gate.

Tigst Assefa

She carried no currency. Until at least 2022, Assefa would not have been capable of making a Diamond League meet. No invitation, no appeals on declined applications would be worthy. Not even if she was dropped from a drone and silently parachuted in the dead of night in some stealth and covert military operation. Assefa would not be hired as a pacer, and would not have been voluntold to port water bottles for Kipyegon, Gidey, Hassan, Tsegay or any other world-class elite athlete.

Assefa is now — because the clock is the ultimate arbiter — the greatest marathon runner in history. Greta Waitz who? Catherine Ndereba who? Paula Radcliffe? Brigid Kosgei? Come on. If Eliud Kipchoge is the greatest due to his world record of 2:01:09 and his past world record of 2:01:39, then Assefa is too. Let’s not forget her win in Berlin in 2022, is the sixth-fastest performance of all time. It would be fifth, but for her running 2:11:53 on Sunday.

At age 17, she ran the 800m event in the time of 1:59.74. That would remain her personal best. In 2016 at age 19, she was slower. The teen clocked 2:00 or worse four consecutive times during the summer including the preliminary round of the Rio Olympic Games, where she would not advance.

The assumption is that Assefa must have been tossed from the Ethiopian team. She stopped running middle distances and appeared to try her hand at some road 10Ks. She didn’t do well, clocking over 34 minutes. Perhaps she had no direction and was in limbo. However, something happened. During the pandemic, she did not race. Perhaps Marvel or DC can create a story, here, where she disappeared into a training labyrinth and worked out in a very special way, only to emerge as the fastest marathon runner in history and by minutes. Faster than a speeding bullet….

Interestingly, there were two other Ethiopians who would not make it out of the preliminary rounds of the 800m event in Rio. Sifan Hassan, who was representing the Netherlands and Gudaf Tsegay, who remains Ethiopian.

None of the three could crack the two-minute barrier in the 800m event leading up to the Rio Games. So they all moved up perhaps to find out if they had talent over the longer distances. And all three are now in the conversation as the fastest women in history (depending on how one measures so-called “fast”).

Sifan Hassan

She is a two-time Olympian. During the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympic Games, she won three medals in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m events. Bronze, gold, gold. Zapotek-like, just faster. She tried in earnest to win that 1500m, but in the heats she fell, picked herself up and chased the pack to advance. Incredible. It was a lot of intense running, and the effort after the fall probably affected her. Five years earlier in Rio, she was out on her ear in the 800m and in the 1500m she finished fifth in 4:11.23, a monstrous 2.5 seconds off the lead by Kenyan Faith Kipyegon.

At the 2019 Doha World Athletics Championships, Hassan picked up two medals again demonstrating range as she earned gold in the 1500m and 10,000m events in the overheated desert, but slightly cooled, Khalifa International Stadium.

The 30-year-old fell again during the 2023 Budapest World Athletics Championships. She still earned two medals silver and bronze in the 1500m and 5000m, respectively. Hassan has six world championship medals, three Olympic medals, three world indoor championship medals, and 18 Diamond League first-place finishes over the 1500m, mile, 3000m, 5000m and one-hour events. In the one-hour race, she covered 18,930m or 18.93kms. It’s a world record, and so is her one-mile (1609m) run at 4:12.33. Hassan also holds five European and two national records outdoors and two more indoors.

But that’s not all folks. Stick around for more. In 2023, at the London Marathon, in her debut at the distance, Hassan stopped at least twice to stretch, walked for a moment and appeared like many debutants, befuddled by the monster that is the marathon. No problem. She can fall down and advance, so stretching shouldn’t be an issue, right? It wasn’t. She won with a major surge, and celebrated vociferously, finishing in better form than after her wins over shorter distances. Hassan clocked a 2:18:33 to break the national record. Her personal best in the 10,000m is 29:06.32, in the 5000m, it is 14:13.42, half-marathon is 1:05:15 — world-class, to be sure.

Whatever lesson she learned in Rio, she learned well and is in the conversation as one of the all-time greats in running.

Gudaf Tsegay

Tsegay’s best over the 800m is 1:59.52 from the 2019 Paris Diamond League meet. Good but not outrageously good. Pre-supershoe era, it was better than good. Still. She wanted more. Apparently, that was her final 800m race. She decided to move up.

Tsegay hovered around the same performance level for a few years, low 1200s according to the World Athletics points performance rating system. The now 26-year-old suddenly began to hit it out of the park in 2023 at a whole new performance level, to nearly 1300 points. Many world records are at this level. She ran the 10,000m in Spain clocking 29:29.73 in June this year. Not a world record, but great. The world record is 29:01.03 set by Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey two years ago at the Hengelo Diamond League meet. In September, during a 2023 Diamond League meet, Tsegay clocked a jaw-dropping bomb of a 5000m recording a 14:00.21 finish at the new Hayward Field.

What is going on in the sport where world records are dropping like flies? How is it that athletes finish with a smile and dance around shortly after breaking the tape? How can so many historic performances happen in clusters? Six of the seven fastest 5000m times in history have taken place in 2023.

Behind Tsegay, there is Kenyan Faith Kipyegon who on June 9 clocked a 14:05.20 performance. This was considered one of the greatest track performances in history — it lingers in the long shadow cast by Tsegay. Gidey twice this summer ran a top-seven time historically, 14:07.94 and 14:08.79. In 2020, she ran a 14:06.92 in Valencia. Just an also-ran now.

Meanwhile, American Shelby Houlihan gets roasted over social media. Guilty or not, she tested positive for nandrolone and is banned. What was her American record performance? To use another sports analogy, 14:23.92 now appears to be a ground-rule double with no one on base. Tsegay’s 14:00.21 isn’t just hitting it out of the park, the bases were loaded and the ball left the stadium and landed on Van Ness Street, which incidentally is located one block from Boylston outside of Boston’s Fenway Park.

This isn’t just about moving up from the 800m or supershoes

Eliud Kipchoge took years to perfect the marathon. He does not always hit it out of the park. If the weather is sideways, it appears Kipchoge goes sideways. But, other than that, he is the greatest distance runner in history. His outrageous 2:01:09 world record has a points performance rating of 1312. This is simply gobsmackingly amazing. However, it is not as good as Assefa’s marathon best of 2:11:53, which earns 1318 points. The difference in percentage between the two world records is 8.13. Typically, across all distances, 9-10 per cent is the difference.

I am out of superlatives. Next level, please.

The sad thing with all of this is that World Athletics will eventually set qualifying standards based on the current performances in the record books. Due to the fact that World Championships and Olympic marathons are run in less than ideal conditions, certainly, World Athletics will more heavily weigh those events — please.

But let us all now share empathy with all of the not-yet sub-2:15 women out there who have little to no chance of competing against Tigst Assefa.

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