I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here with a prediction: Cosmas Ndeti of Kenya, three-time (’93-95) winner of the Boston Marathon will not win this year’s race! (Assuming, of course, that he enters.)
Now, this may not seem like much of a gamble (especially since I haven’t put any money on it), given the fact that Ndeti lost the last two Beantown classics, so I’ll go even further and venture that another trifecta-titlist, Uta Pippig of Germany (’94-96), will also fail to cross the line first in the female division.
On what do I base these predictions? Only that each of these fantastic athletes has won the race three times, so — their time is up! What time? The time their bodies are able to sustain the incredible demands the marathon places on them. Is there really a finite limit on this ability? I believe there is!
Some of the evidence for this assertion comes from simple observation of running history. Think about it: how many world-class marathoners have been able to sustain the number-one ranking for more than three or four consecutive years? How many have won a top marathon like Boston, London, or New York more than three or four times? Bill Rodgers? Alberto Salazar? Ibrahim Hussein? Rob deCastella? Ingrid Kristiansen? They all burned bright for brief, intense periods, before sliding into the second-tier and, eventually, retirement.
(The one exception may be the great Grete Weitz, though with the exception of the 1983 World Championship, she succeeded only in New York — albeit nine times! The case could be made, however, that most of her victories there were against less-than-stellar competition. But more on Grete’s longevity later.)
What is the reason for this apparent success ceiling? No doubt, psychological factors play a role in the decline of athletic performance over a several year period. Even rank amateurs such as you and I can relate to the difficulty of maintaining the mental intensity necessary to stay at our peak PR levels year after year. All-out training means all-out pain — not something everyone can or wants to tolerate forever.
But if psychological weakening were the main cause for performance decline, we would expect to find the same pattern in all running events. The shorter distances, however, have produced more long-term, top level success stories. Carl Lewis, Steve Scott, John Walker, Edwin Moses, and even the oft-injured Mary Decker Slaney are just a few who have been able to remain at the top of their game/event for greater than a decade. Clearly, the marathon is different. Why?
According to a number of studies over the years, racing 26.2 miles affects the body in ways not found with the shorter distances. Many of these effects are not exactly positive in nature, as anyone who has completed a marathon will attest to. That rather uncomfortable, have-to-go-downstairs-backwards feeling a couple of days after the race is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Without going into the microscopically gory details, suffice it to say that running a marathon is essentially an injury-producing endeavor — DOMS — as indicated by changes in several biochemical parameters consistent with muscle fiber damage. Of course, most runners seem to get over this “injury” within a few days or weeks at the most. They appear able to resume training shortly and are on their way to the next marathon, (though hopefully not for at least 3 to 6 months), apparently none the worse for wear. But if they continue to run marathons, say 2 or 3 per year, is there perhaps a cumulative effect of this damage?
I have not been able to find in the scientific literature any direct evidence supporting this hypothesis, but I think the case can be made by extrapolation. For example, we do know that more obvious injuries to muscle tissue, such as tears or “pulls,” result in the eventual formation of scar tissue. And we also know that repetitive injuries to the same area causes proliferation or build-up of scar tissue. Such “replacement” tissue is non-contractile; that is, it does not function like normal muscle tissue. Therefore, the “healed” muscle is no longer as strong or efficient, which naturally will cause a decrease in performance.
Put these two known facts together and you come up with the following hypothesis: the repetitive microscopic, rather than gross, damage to muscle tissue caused by frequent marathon racing (DOMS) causes long-term changes in muscle structure, resulting in an eventual decline in running performance. Empirically, this appears to occur within 3 or 4 years.
Note the emphasis on the word frequent. Perhaps Grete Weitz’s less demanding marathon schedule (one, maybe two races per year) is one reason she was able to sustain her victory streak over a longer period of time than others who raced more often. If so, this should serve as a cautionary tale for those who wish to preserve their PR levels (as well as a healthy body) for the long term.