There are marathons big and small still to come this fall, but with most of the mega races having been run, some trends in the sport are clear. Here are five takes on what we've seen this season.
1. Increased security is everywhere
"The new normal" has been this fall's buzzword at marathons, referring to the increased security at races across the country in the aftermath of the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Bag searches, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, pre-screening, automatic rifles, participant-only areas and other features common to civil aviation are in place at marathons like never before.
By most accounts, runners and spectators have accepted the new measures. Recreational and elite marathoners said after big races they ran without fear. Anecdotal reports from Chicago and New York City were that crowds along the course were as big as ever.
At the same time, races and runners have already started to talk about what level of security is appropriate moving forward. The New York Road Runners spent approximately $1 million on security for this year's race, about twice as much as was typical before Boston.
Runners doing their first marathon since Boston discovered the new procedures add time not only on race day. At packet pick-up the day before the Marine Corps Marathon, the line to get into the expo facility backed up into the hundreds at one point, and tempers flared.
The new measures also affected the larger community. Fences near the start and finish of Chicago made accessing the bike path along Lake Michigan challenging leading up to race day. One resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side reported having to show ID just to re-enter her block on the afternoon of the marathon. With municipalities already starting to push back against the ramifications of races, marathon organizers will need to work even harder to maintain good community relations.
2. Big-city marathons are uplifting again
Even with the increased security, marathons throughout the country were seen as positive forces. Much of that, too, is the result of what happened in Boston. Runners of all speeds spoke of wanting to prove that they wouldn't be kept from doing their thing. Cities, and the media in those cities, got behind that sentiment.
The shift was most acutely felt in New York City. By all accounts, a race that a year ago was seen as a source of divisiveness in the wake of Hurricane Sandy returned to being a unifying phenomenon. We suspect the marathon-as-uplifter vibe will be even stronger at Boston in April.
3. The big keep getting bigger
New York City had 50,304 finishers, the most of any marathon in history by more than 3,000. Three weeks earlier, 38,878 finished Chicago, an event record. Sandwiched between those two, the Marine Corps had 23,481 finishers, just shy of the event record. Yes, the half marathon remains the fastest growing distance in the country and non-traditional events like mud runs and Color Runs are exploding in popularity. But that growth seems to be occurring parallel to, not at the expense of, the unique allure of the large urban marathon.
4. The fast keep getting faster ...
Wilson Kipsang broke the men's world record with his 2:03:23 at Berlin on September 29. Two weeks later, one of Kipsang's training partners, Dennis Kimetto, won Chicago in 2:03:45, breaking the course record by 53 seconds. Kipsang's and Kimetto's records weren't solo runs, but real races almost to the finish.
In Berlin, Eliud Kipchoge was second in 2:04:05, the fastest losing time ever on a record-eligible course, at least until Emmanuel Mutai finished second in Chicago in 2:03:52. Four of the six fastest men in history set their record-eligible PRs this fall.
There were no equivalent record-breaking performances in women's races, but the need for speed in order to be a world-class marathoner was more evident there. Rita Jeptoo won Chicago in 2:19:57, running the second half of the race in 1:08:42. Priscah Jeptoo (no relation) won New York City in 2:25:07 by running the second half in 1:09:07.
Those second-half splits would win many top-level half marathons. As on the track, if you hope to contend for big marathon wins, you need to be able to close quickly.
5. ... unless they're Americans
It was, to be blunt, a sad fall season that continued an underwhelming year for the top U.S. marathoners. Americans seem to be moving backward in relation to the front of the pack.
Dathan Ritzenhein's fifth-place 2:09:45 at Chicago is the only U.S. sub-2:10 this year, in an era when a benchmark world-class time has moved into the 2:05s. Serena Burla's mostly unnoticed second-placed 2:28:01 at Amsterdam in October is the fastest U.S. women's time of the fall. Like Ritzenhein's, her time would literally put her a mile or more behind the world's best. The top Americans at New York City (Ryan Vail in 2:13:23, Adriana Nelson in 2:35:05) placed 13th.
A major issue is that the top names in U.S. marathoning haven't changed in recent years, and most are arguably past their peak. Ryan Hall withdrew before New York City with injury, as he had for Boston in April and last year's New York City. Kara Goucher also withdrew from New York because of injury.
Meb Keflezighi, age 38, had at least two serious injuries during his New York City build-up; he finished 20th in 2:23:47 in a race that many elites would not only not have finished, but probably not started. Returning from the injury that knocked her out of the 2012 Olympics, Desiree Davila ran an encouraging 2:29:15 for fifth in Berlin, but the 30-year-old's PR of 2:22:38 will be three years old in the spring.
Compounding the problem is the lack of depth below the big names. There are no more 2:10 men/2:29 women than there are top-level stars. When the big names falter, and some of the next-level runners inevitably have bad days (like 2:11 runner Jason Hartmann dropping out of New York City, and 2:27 runner Amy Hastings going 2:42 there), there are almost no up-and-comers to seize the opportunity.
For whatever reason, the depth U.S. distance running shows on the track isn't there in the marathon. The fall season has highlighted the need for the same sort of return to the drawing board that, a decade ago, resulted in Keflezighi and Deena Kastor medaling in the 2004 Olympics.