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Globe Editorial

Mutai’s win is a world record, and should be in the books

Geoffrey Mutai led the men up Heartbreak Hill. Geoffrey Mutai led the men up Heartbreak Hill. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
April 20, 2011

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GEOFFREY MUTAI of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever Monday, going from Hopkinton to Boston in 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds. It’s a staggering accomplishment that belongs in the record books. But the body that certifies records for marathons clearly did not have in mind Boston, the most prestigious of them all.

On two accounts, Mutai’s accomplishment does not meet the International Association of Athletics Federations standards for a world record. In a rule meant to equalize the impact of tailwinds, the association requires courses to loop around so that, in the case of marathons, which are 26.2 miles long, the start and finish lines are no more than 13.1 miles apart. Boston, of course, is a straight shot. The Boston marathon also exceeds IAAF downhill regulations for having an overall elevation drop of 459 feet.

But neither of those measures takes into account the actual difficulty of the Boston course, whose twists, turns, ups, and downs make it far tougher than any flat, circular course could be. Runners almost universally consider Boston the toughest of the world’s five major marathons. New York, London, Berlin, and pancake-flat Chicago have nothing to compete with the steep inclines of Newton, culminating in the most humbling ascent of all the majors, Heartbreak Hill. Those hills are most likely the reason that Boston, for all its history, has not seen a world record in the men’s race since 1947, when Korean Suh Yun-bok won in 2:25:39.

Boston Athletic Association Executive Director Tom Grilk said it got to the point “where we hadn’t given a lot of thought to a world record being set here. With the ups and downs, it’s so hard for the runners to get into a constant rhythm.’’ Moreover, Mutai’s 2:03:02 came without the controversial aid of pacesetters. Boston and New York ban the practice in which runners with no intention of winning pull along the elites with a blistering pace for 18 or so miles before dropping out. The previous record of 2:03:59 was set by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia with the aid of pacesetters at the 2008 Berlin Marathon.

The BAA said yesterday it will seek to have Mutai’s time officially recognized, on the grounds that the Boston course features “punishing changes in elevation’’ and that its memorable finishes are achieved “through competition, not with rabbits,’’ in Grilk’s words. The IAAF’s desire for uniform rules is understandable, but the ones they’ve imposed are too arbitrary and serve to unfairly prevent recognition of a world-class achievement.