Why Were So Many Running World Records Broken During the Pandemic?

The shutdown led to unusual circumstances that helped runners excel like never before.

Motivation had never been a struggle for Albertson when facing extreme and monotonous challenges. He has built a reputation in the running community for an eccentric training regimen in which he attempts—often on a whim—feats that are both remarkably dull and impressive. In April of 2019, he broke the indoor marathon world record at the Armory in Manhattan, running two hundred and eleven laps around a two-hundred-metre track in just under two hours and eighteen minutes. Marathon runners often wait until the event itself to run a full twenty-six miles, but Albertson is known to log runs approaching forty. He adopted a mantra to fit his training mind-set: “Running is easy.”

That sentiment didn’t hold up during the pandemic. In February, 2020, U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Albertson placed seventh and then took two weeks off. That’s when the pandemic began to surge, and he wasn’t sure when to restart. “I kept thinking, ‘O.K., now I’ll really start training,’ but how could I be training?” he said. “I’m not training for anything. I’m just running. So what am I doing?” Professional runners plan their schedules around the sport’s biggest events, aiming to peak when the stakes are highest. Now there were no stakes. It seemed likely that 2020 would be a stagnant one for track and field.

But, in a period with few meets, a remarkable number of records went down: those for the 5,000-metre race, the 10,000-metre race, and the 400-metre hurdles, each for both men and women; the collegiate men’s indoor mile and outdoor 1,500 metres, and the women’s 800 and 400 metres; the U.S. high-school boys’ indoor mile and 1,500 metres, and the girls’ 5,000 metres; the European men’s 5,000 and 1,500 metres; the Australian men’s 10,000 and 1,500 metres. On June 6th of this year, the Ethiopian-born Dutch runner Sifan Hassan smashed the 10,000-metre world record by more than ten seconds, crossing the finish line with arms outstretched and mouth agape. “No one should be able to do that,” an announcer uttered in disbelief. Two days later, Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey came to the same track and beat the two-day-old record by almost six seconds. A week after Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse ran a collegiate-record 3:34.68 in the 1,500 metres, Hobbs Kessler, an Ann Arbor high schooler, broke the long-standing high-school record—in 3:34.36. “That was pretty cartoonish,” he said. Records were made to be broken, but things were getting out of hand.

Grant Fisher, second from left, was a high-school and college standout with distressingly impeccable running mechanics.Photograph by Kirby Lee / USA Today / Reuters

The tempo of brutal training can last only so long. Before big races, workouts ease, mileage decreases, and runners “taper” for fast performances. No one wants to show up at the Olympic trials, or any other major meet, exhausted. But, when all the meets were cancelled, traditional training plans were, too. The marathon runner Des Linden, who was thirty-seven last year, decided to take a month off from running—her longest break since 2017—to give her body a chance to heal after years of consistent strain. Some runners in their prime followed a similar approach, addressing nagging issues with an extended break. With fewer collegiate races, college coaches found themselves with abnormally long blocks of time to train their athletes for specific events. It was a similar situation for the Bowerman Track Club. “My team seemed to really lean into training almost harder than we would have had there been an Olympic Games,” Fisher said. “We would just experiment with how hard we could train without the consequence of blowing up at a major championship.” In previous years, his group might run a ten-by-mile interval workout at about a 4:50-to-4:55 pace per mile. He and his training partners aimed closer to 4:40, and Fisher held on.

But runners need something to train for, and, as the pandemic extended, only a few opportunities arose. Linden and her coach thought that she would aim for the Comrades Marathon, a fifty-six-mile race in South Africa, but it was cancelled. Fisher and his teammates observed the same pattern. “So our general attitude as a team was, ‘Let’s not count on any of these meets actually happening,’ ” he said. Bowerman Track Club planned a meet of their own. Held on the track of a local Catholic high school near Portland, the summer 2020 series featured only Bowerman runners and didn’t allow fans, in accordance with state law.

The goal of the intrasquad races was to run fast, and, specifically, faster than the Olympic standard. Finishing in the top three at the Olympic trials guarantees a selection to the Games only if the runner has run at, or ahead of, the standard, or is ranked in the top forty-five in the world. But the standard is tough. Fisher, who finished in the top four of the N.C.A.A. Track & Field Championships 5,000 metres all but one year of college, entered 2020 with a lifetime best of 13:29. The Olympic standard is 13:13.5.

What makes hitting the standard more difficult is that the goal of racing isn’t usually to run fast, but faster than everyone else. Runners often go out conservatively and positionally before kicking to a blazing-fast finish. That dynamic doesn’t play out in a hundred-metre championship race, when élite men and women run in individual lanes and finish in fewer than ten and eleven seconds, respectively. But in the 800 metres and beyond, the time difference between a fast race and a slow, tactical one is stark. Most runners find it easier, physically and mentally, to stick behind a leader for as long as possible. It’s simpler to follow someone than to control a pace, and, when it’s windy, leaders break the wind as others relax in their slipstreams. But hanging back comes with its disadvantages. Passing someone in lane one (the lane that is farthest to the inside) means running around them, adding to the total distance. And staying behind a group can leave a runner “boxed in”—stuck in the inside lane with runners in front, behind, and to the right. In a sprint finish, runners may find themselves trapped.

Tactical races emerge most often on the biggest stages. In the 2008 Olympics, Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba won the Olympic 5,000 metres in 15:41—a minute and a half behind the record she set two months before—with a final lap at a four-minute-mile pace. In 2016, the American runner Matthew Centrowitz won the Olympic 1,500 in 3:50, a full twenty-four seconds behind the world record. “For men of their class,” the announcer said within forty-five seconds of the start, “this is an absolute jog.” By the last lap, the group jog had turned into a chaotic mass of thrashing limbs. Centrowitz sprinted away, finishing in a time one might expect out of a top high schooler. When you win the gold medal, your time doesn’t matter.

But, when there are no meets, no prize money for place, and no competitive glory, time is all that matters. If runners were going to compete, they were going to run fast, and races were planned accordingly, with every variable controlled. As Fisher prepared to run in the Bowerman Intrasquad Meet, he knew exactly how fast he would run each lap for a majority of the race, and who would be leading at any given point. He knew that two pacesetters would keep a steady clip at the Olympic standard for a large majority of the race, at which point another teammate would take over. He knew there would be no elbowing, no fighting for position, and no strategic pace changes. After the starting gun went off, the team would get in a single-file line in the inside lane and run one lap after another. They would wear the best racing spikes Nike had to offer, outfitted with features like a mini air bag, a carbon plate, and special foam.

The shutdown led to unusual circumstances that helped runners excel like never before.

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