Running has its barriers for everyone. Until Sir Roger Bannister first broke the 4:00 mile barrier in 1954, people speculated that it could never be done. Now the world record set by in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj stands at 3:43.13, and it has not broken for 23 years. The marathon record of 2:09 set by Derek Clayton stood for a decade or so before men like Alberto Salazar and Steve Jones lowered it. Then came the African runners who dropped it precipitously. Much like the mile, it was believed that the barrier of a two-hour marathon could never be breached. Yet the open race record set by Eliud Kipchoge now stands at 2:01:39, with Kenenisa Bekele just a second or so behind. Kipchoge did run a sub-2 hour marathon while paced by a contingent of world-class runners. So we know that under the right conditions it can be done.
These marks were set by the most talented and hard-working runners in all of human history. The world’s top women are now crushing records once thought unapproachable by the female gender. As described on Olympics.com, “Letesenbet Gidey has crushed the women’s half-marathon world record in her debut in the event on Sunday (24 October) as she raced to an amazing 1:02:52 in Valencia. Helped by male pace-makers, the Tokyo 2020 10,000m bronze medalist meant business right from the start in her first-ever half-marathon race.” Brigid Koskei now holds the women’s world marathon record in 2:14:04, set in Chicago in 2019.
The men’s 10K record on the track is 26:11, a mark set by Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda. For women, the world track 10,000-metre record is held by Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia in 29:17.45 to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics on 12 August 2016. The world records for the 10K road distance are 26:24 minutes for men (Rhonex Kipruto, 2020) and 29:43 minutes for women (Joyciline Jepkosgei, 2017).
Against these records, my goal of breaking 32:00 for the first time in the late fall of 1982 seems a bit trifle. But it mattered greatly to me then because just like running a first sub-5:00 or sub-4:30 or sub 4:20 mile, it indicated progress.
At the end of October, I scheduled a series of races and started with an October 31 race in Philly. The distance was an odd 8.4 miles, but that made a great test of managing pace. I ran a solid 44:36 after coming through the five-mile mark in the low 25s, then hung on for a 5:10-per-mile average. That was a good sign.
But then, trouble hit. During lunch the next day at my job in downtown Philly, I was walking next to a building when a spray of Windex or some other cleaner from a window washer caught me in the side of the face. It shot up my nose and I lurched sideways with a dizzy spell. For the rest of the day, I experienced vertigo, and couldn’t get to sleep. “Wide awake at 11:15 tonight,” I wrote. In actuality, I’d probably developed some sort of ear infection brought on by a series of colds throughout the fall. The reaction to the Windex incident may or may not have been coincidental. In any case, I went to bed the next night at 9:00 and slept through to six a.m. the next morning. Clearly, I needed the rest.
Racing at the zoo
On November 7, I signed up for a race at the Philadelphia zoo. My confidence was mixed due to the issue with the ear infection, so I wondered if it was a stretch to race at all. But I also knew that I was making good running progress according to my race the week before. My goal at the zoo race was to break the sub-32:00 barrier for the first time.
My journal report was satisfying: “31:58 10 km. Ran with leaders first 2.0. Winner was 30:54. Let a guy go at 4.2. Didn’t kick. Afraid I was gonna puke or something. Good race though. Considering health and state of mind during week.”
That was that. Despite the self-criticism, I was actually ecstatic to have finally broken the 32:00 barrier. It felt like I was nearing the status of some sort of “sub-elite” runner. According to the Liquori book, the elite runner barrier for 10K was 31:00, or five-minutes per mile. And so, the next barrier would be a sub-31:00 10k, a pace under 5:00 per mile for the distance. First, I’d need to run a sub-5:00 race for four miles, then five. That’s typically how such progressions take place.
I was just about as fast as the world’s top women runners at the time. International stars such as Grete Waitz and Mary Decker were busy trying to break the same barriers. To my reasoning, it was no shameful thing to be running as fast as the world’s top women. But these days, women are running times that I never came close to achieving. Even my friend Tom Burridge, who once held the American half-marathon record at 1:04, would be almost a half-mile behind the likes of Letesenbet Gidey at 1:02.
The point here is that it is a noble measure to set goals for yourself, whatever level you hope to achieve. There’s also lifelong value in that. As that distance ace Marty Liquori once said about racing your hardest and doing your best at running (and I paraphrase), “You’ll never feel the need to prove yourself at the family picnic.”