How Records Fall

In my most recent column, I wrote about running against the clock and how that can be different than running against your fellow competitors. In this column, I want to take this idea one step further and talk about course records (or fastest known times), and when they tend to happen and why they seem to happen in abrupt sequence.

I should start by stating the obvious, that records are always being broken, and that over time as more talent comes into the sport, more records are being broken. Much of the record breaking that is taking place at any given time is a simple function of the ‘artificial selection’ that takes place over time. Gradually, as the sport grows, more and more people who have the potential to set records are taking part in the sport. There is more talent in trail and ultrarunning right now than there has ever been.

This said, I do think there is more than just increased talent that plays into the trend of records being set. As the fastest runners in the sport are pushing things to a new level they often seem to be bringing others along with them. Or more likely, the record breakers are assisted greatly by having other folks around them who are able to push them to these previously impossible seeming performances.

In an insightful comment to my previous article, Ben Nephew made the point that not everyone benefits from high competition, and that some people actually run better on their own, without the pressure of high competition and other factors which can contribute to added stress within a racing environment. I think there is a lot of truth to this observation, and there are certainly many cases of runners who are negatively affected by the pressure of being expected to race well. This said, I think this phenomenon has more to do with the likelihood of having poor races than it does with the likelihood of having really great races. The added pressures of high competition regularly causes people to have unusually poor performances, but I also think this competition is nearly essential to push people in the direction of a groundbreaking performance. In other words, I think high competition has a way of pushing people toward the margins. Many bad races may be run in the name of too much pressure from competition, but most course-record-type performances happen in the name of high competition pushing individuals to a higher level.

What then do we make of fastest-known-time or individual time-trial-type record attempts? First I would say that I think they can be harder to pursue in many ways. The lack of others out there pushing you at the same time can be very hard to overcome. This said, I do think that it would be foolish to ignore the importance of times that have been set on a particular route previously, and the effect they have on a current performance. A fastest-known-time attempt will almost always end up done more quickly when there is a precedent you are chasing. Most readers of this website are probably aware that Scott Jurek just broke the speed record on the Appalachian Trail. A huge accomplishment that has to rank up there with one of the most impressive things Scott has done in running (which is certainly saying a lot). When it was said and done, Scott broke Jennifer Pharr-Davis’s previous record by just over three hours. If this precedent had not been set by Jennifer (and others before her), would Scott have been able to do it as quick as he did? There is of course no definitive answer to this question, and I don’t mean in any way to suggest that Scott shouldn’t get all the credit in the world for what he just did, but sometimes one of the major pieces to the puzzle of doing something faster than it’s ever been done before is knowing everything that was done before you and what those efforts entailed. Knowing what is possible can make us all move a little faster than we might have otherwise been able to.

Going back to racing, I think anyone who has been around the sport long enough can think of numerous cases in which a seemingly very solid course record has fallen and then suddenly it seems every year people are running faster than the original record. Again this has a lot to do simply with an increased level of talent in the sport, but I also think it has to do with how much potential there is in simply knowing what’s possible, and emulating what was done to set those records. When I set a course record at Western States in 2010 it had been six years since Scott Jurek had set the previous record. In the five years since 2010 every single winner has run faster than Scott did in 2004, and my record has been bettered four times. After standing up for six years, Scott’s time of 15:36:27 has now, in just five years, been bumped out of the top 10 times in the race’s history. The faster the benchmarks, the more likely runners are to be able to run faster times.

An even more pronounced example of this would be the Mount Marathon Race in Alaska. In 1981, Bill Spencer set a course record of 43:21 which stood for more than 30 years until Eric Strabel ran 42:55 in 2013. Only one other person broke 44:00 in this span. Now this year, the top-five finishers all finished under 44 minutes! In the 100-year history of the race, there have been nine finishes under 44 minutes, seven of which have come in the last three years. Again, yes, some of this can be attributed to a simple increase in ability of people running these types of races, but these kinds of increases, one would suspect, would happen more steadily and gradually over time, and not so abruptly.

What else then accounts for these kinds of abrupt changes that occur when the bar is suddenly raised in a given race?

I think the most pronounced component is the simple knowledge of what is possible on a given course. Confidence plays such a large part in everything we do, and generally we gain confidence by doing things successfully ourselves, but we also gain a lot of confidence by seeing others accomplish things which might have previously been considered impossible. I like to think of this as collective confidence, and I think it plays the biggest role in this whole conversation.

If there was any doubt remaining, his recent back-to-back performances at Mount Marathon (post-race interview) and Hardrock (post-race interview) have made it indisputable that Kilian Jornet is the most accomplished and capable endurance trail runner in the world right now. Most of what he is accomplishing has to do with his amazing combination of natural ability, experience, determination, and comfort with difficult situations, but there is also a reality that everything he accomplishes is fueled to some degree by the accomplishments of others who have preceded him. Whether it’s Eric Strabel, Kyle Skaggs, or anyone else who has raised a bar for Kilian to work toward, it would be silly to discount the role these folks play in what Kilian is doing now, just as it would be silly to discount the level to which Kilian is going to help make so many other runners produce better times in the next several years.

Not to take anything away from the amazing race that Kyle had at Hardrock in 2008, but I suspect after what Kilian has shown us is possible these last two years it won’t take as long as the six years that Kyle’s record stood for someone else to run faster than 23:23. The benchmark is now 22:41, and that knowledge alone is going to slightly increase anyone’s chances of running 23:23. To me this is one of the most exciting things about this sport.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Why do you think course records fall? What would you say are the main factors for course records falling?
  • Do you think the Mount Marathon and Hardrock course records will continue to fall because of Kilian resetting the idea of what’s possible in these races?