Collis Birmingham’s clear win in the Marugame half-marathon in Japan last Sunday has created a confusing situation around the Australian record.
Ostensibly, Birmingham’s win in one hour 56 seconds took four seconds off the mark previously held by Lee Troop, supplanting Troop’s performance as both the Australian and Oceania men’s record for the distance.
In reality, however, there are no fewer than four faster performances by Australian men. The fastest of the four – 60:02 - was run by Darren Wilson; Steve Moneghetti – 60:08, 60:27 and 60:34 - has the other three.
Compounding the confusion even further, all three of Moneghetti’s runs were hailed as world bests at the time he did them.
The Australian men’s records for the half-marathon and marathon are a complete mish-mash, with the recognised performance seemingly dependent on the whim of the record-keeper.
First things first: let’s recognise Collis Birmingham’s run for the performance it was. Australians win few international road races, and this was a clear victory over a strong field in one of Japan’s most prestigious competitions.
The win underlined both Birmingham’s current form and his versatility. It came just a fortnight after he had dominated his rivals to win the 12km Australian selection trial for the world cross-country championships.
The 60:56 half gives Birmingham a set of numbers any distance runner would be proud of – 3:35.50 for 1500 metres, 7:35.45 for 3000, 13:09.57 for 5000 and 27:29.73 for 10,000. It is an imposing list.
Birmingham was a finalist in the 5000 metres at the Berlin 2009 world championships but, that aside, probably has not performed up to his best at a major championship. His best at a world cross-country is 29th in Amman in 2009. He has the chance to substantially improve both records in Bydgoszcz and Moscow (he has yet to qualify) this year.
Having said that, let’s get back to the records. Confusing is a good word for the situation. The source of the confusion is obvious: once road records were formally recognised by the IAAF in the 1990s it became necessary to define the sort of courses on which records could be set. The IAAF does not recognise performances on courses which drop more than one metre per kilometre of race distance, nor on courses for which the start and finish are separated by more than 50 per cent of the race distance.
The most authoritative road racing body – the Association of Road Racing Statisticians – takes an even harder line on the separation criterion. The ARRS requires start and finish be separated by no more than 30 percent of race distance.
Trouble is, the best performances by Australian men were mainly on courses not meeting either set of criteria. Rob de Castella holds the fastest marathon with his 2:07:51 in Boston in 1986. Boston drops almost 150 metres from start to finish, though this is generally more than offset by the hills late in the race (with the major exception of tailwind years!).
Wilson’s 60:02 and Moneghetti’s 60:08 and 60:27 were all done in the Tokyo half-marathon when the course was point-to-point with an overall drop of just over 33 metres. ‘Mona’ also had a 60:34 to win the 1989 Great North Run which drops by 30.5 metres start to finish.
Lee Troop also ran his 61:00 in the Tokyo half, but that was in 1999, two years after the course was changed to a record-legal one.
Fortunately, simplicity reigns on the women’s records. The late Kerryn McCann holds the half-marathon record at 1:07:48, which she ran on the new Tokyo course in 2000. Benita Willis holds the marathon record with her 2:22:36 in Chicago in 2006.
So how do the record-keepers deal with the men’s situation. Well, only the Road Racing Statisticians and Athetics Australia take a consistent line, even if they are opposite lines.
The ARRS sticks to its guns and nominates Birmingham as national record holder in the half and Moneghetti as marathon national record holder with his 2:08:16 to win the 1990 Berlin marathon.
Athletics Australia opts for the fastest times. On the AA website, Wilson, a finalist in the 10,000 at the Athens 1997 world championships, is listed as the national record holder for the half-marathon and de Castella for the marathon.
Others have a ‘bob’ each way. The IAAF statistics and records page recognises Birmingham and ‘Deek’ as the record men while the ATFS (for Association of Track & Field Statisticians) annual reverses that, going for Wilson, despite Tokyo’s being point-to-point back then, and Moneghetti.
In a further puzzler, the IAAF all-time list also shows Moneghetti’s 60:27 on the old Tokyo course but not his 60:08 or Wilson’s 60:02.
For all that, I kind of like the untidy compromise under which de Castella, Moneghetti, Wilson and Birmingham all get acknowledgment in one place or another as Australian record-holders.
But I’ll be even happier when some male Australian runs 60:01 (or faster) and 2:07:50 (ditto) on record-legal courses, hopefully sometime very soon.