Australia’s marathon record for men hasn’t been broken since 1986

Male Australian marathon runners were better at running the 42.195 kilometre race when colour TV was still considered a new technology.

For years Australian elite marathoners were getting faster and faster.

In 1950, the fastest marathon time was two hours, 40 minutes and 49 seconds.

By 1986, more than half-an-hour had been knocked off the time.

That was the year Rob de Castella, also known as Deek, ran the marathon in two hours, seven minutes and 51 seconds.

It was an Australian national record — that is, the fastest marathon time anywhere in the world, run by an Australian.

But that was the last time the record was broken in Australia and to this day de Castella holds it.

Rob de Castella runs near the front of the pack through a park in rotterdam.
PHOTO: Rob de Castella in action at the 1983 Rotterdam Marathon. (Wikicommons)

Despite all the advances in technology, sport science, nutrition, materials and understanding of human physiology, not a single male Australian runner has been able to beat it.

Women marathoners do not appear to be following the same trend. In fact, they seem to be getting slightly faster.

Their Australian record is nowhere near as old as that of the men’s — it was set by Benita Willis in 2006.

Are Australian male marathoners getting slower?

Paul Jeans, a statistician at Athletics Australia and president of Track and Field statisticians, said the data showed that through the 1950s, 60, and 70s Australian men were getting quicker and quicker.

“But in the last two decades or so, that stopped happening,” he said.

“We’re just not running as fast as we could in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Basically, the fastest runs were done by people like Rob de Castella and Steve Moneghetti, and they were world class runners.

“Those records stand. People who have followed haven’t been at that level, or as good as them.”

There are a few theories on why Australian marathoners are getting slower.

One is that there are more choices of sports these days compared to the 1970s and 80s, and some of those sports pay a lot more money than marathoning does.

There was a huge running boom in the 1970s as well, led by the creation of famous races like the New York Marathon.

Those new races were seen as inclusive, allowing anyone who wanted to run a marathon to be part of the race.

Rob De Castella with East Germany's double Olympic champion Waldemar Cierpinski in 1983.
PHOTO: Rob De Castella with East Germany’s double Olympic champion Waldemar Cierpinski in 1983. (Wikicommons)

Another explanation is that the massive success of African runners — who have continually broken the world marathon record — pushed Australians back.

The argument being that it is just not as an enticing event if you are not going to be competitive.

Is it just a phase?

But Mr Jeans does not think it is any of those reasons, in his opinion it is just a phase — a phenomenon.

“Most events travel in cycles. They go up and down. We’ve gone into one for marathons,” he said.

“We’ve got a good runner with Michael Shelley. He’s the defending Commonwealth champion, and it’s not easy to win the Games.

“We’ve got good runners, but we don’t seem to have the depth at the moment. A lot of people do fun runs. But the solid block is not there.”

De Castella said it was a sad indictment on distance running.

“We’ve had some good champions who’ve followed in my footsteps, obviously Steve Moneghetti, Lee Troop and a few others,” he said.

“But no-one has been able to get down to the sub 2:08, and when you look at the world stage, the world record has progressed enormously since I retired.”

Robert de Castella looks up to the crowd after a marathon in 1983
PHOTO: Robert de Castella is sure his record will be beaten eventually. (Wikicommons)

Mr de Castella said he thinks a change in culture could be behind the reason.

“There’s a lot of short-term goals and there’s a lot of other distractions out there,” he said.

“Even though there are good running groups out there, no-one has been able to attract the individual with the physiology and the psychology to be able to get back up there… it’s a bit sad.”

But he was sure that someone would eventually come along and break his record.

“There are some good programs and good coaches doing good things,” he said.

“We will find someone who pops up and can run sub 2:08 and hopefully smash my record, it really is well and truly overdue.”

De Castella said events like the Gold Coast marathon were trying to incentivise Australian runners by setting up price money for national records.

Apparently, all Australians are getting slower

According to one study, everyday Australian runners are also not running any faster.

Jen Jakob Anderson, founder of RunRepeat and a statistician from Copenhagen Business School, analysed marathon results of more than 184,000 results over 16 years.

That included women, men, young and old.

People jog during early morning exercise session.
PHOTO: According to one study, everyday Australian runners are also not running any faster. (ABC News: Giulio Saggin)

His conclusion was that yes, Australians are getting slower.

The fact that more people are running marathons does not fully explain the overall slowdown.

While pinning down a single reason for this current trend is almost impossible, Mr Anderson said there was a link to health and wellbeing.

He said broadly speaking, there was a strong link between Australians’ pace slowing down, and the general decline in health.

How hard is running a marathon?

Running a marathon is no easy feat, but elite runners are on a completely different planet with the pace they run these races.

They run it fast. Probably a lot faster than you think. They have to keep a pace unimaginable to most of us, for the entire race.

De Castella’s national record pace was three minutes and three seconds per kilometre, or 4 minutes and 55 seconds per mile.

So whoever eventually beats it will have to run faster than that for 42.195 kilometres.

The current world record is held by Dennis Kipruto Kimetto, who ran the Berlin marathon in two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds.

Source: (15th April 2018)

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