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Breaking Down Marathon Season

The worldwide elite-level marathon season wrapped up for the first half of 2018 with last Sunday's Gold Coast Marathon in Australia and Hakodate Marathon in Japan. Yes, they were technically on July 1, but it was still June 30 in much of the world so we're going to count them anyway. Which countries led the way in performance and which races were the world's best in the first six months of the year? JRN breaks down the numbers to find the answers. Click any of the tables below to enlarge them. Corrections and additions are always welcome.

In terms of time, Ethiopia led the way this season with the fastest overall men's time and the fastest averages of its ten best men's and women's times. Vivian Cheruiyot's 2:18:31 win in London was the only Kenyan performance to make a dent in the Ethiopian domination of the time lists. For both men and women it's already Ethiopia's best year on record. Ethiopian women are knocking on a top ten average under 2:20 for the year, something no country has ever been closer to pulling off. Many of the Ethiopian marks, especially on the men's side, came in the Dubai Marathon, on which more later.

In individual performances Americans Galen Rupp and Amy Cragg had the 3rd-fastest marks and Japanese athletes Yuta Shitara and Mizuki Matsuda the 4th-fastest. But on top ten average Japan was a clear 3rd in the world behind Ethiopia and Kenya, leading the U.S.A. by almost 7 minutes for men and nearly 5 1/2 minutes for women. The Japanese men's average of 2:08:38 is already its 2nd-best ever. If one Japanese man goes under 2:08:57 or two under 2:09:20 this fall it'll be Japan's greatest year in history. By comparison, American men are currently on track for their slowest year since 2001. But needless to say, for both men and women the American averages were hurt by the conditions at the Boston Marathon, again of which more later.

With the 8th-fastest individual men's time and 10th-fastest women's time, Morocco and North Korea were ranked #4 on top ten average. The U.S.A. was 5th among both men and women. Strong last year, Eritrea, Tanzania and Bahrain all had fewer than ten known marathon finishers in the first half of this year and didn't factor into the average lists. Look for them to do that by the end of the year.

Looking at wins in around 100 of the world's top marathons, Kenyan men were the class of the field with two World Marathon Majors titles, ten other IAAF gold label race wins and more than twice as many total sub-2:20 wins as Ethiopian men. The Ethiopian time trial in Dubai may give them an edge in time but there's no question who is really the most dominant.

As with time, Japanese men are a clear #3 in the world with one WMM victory, a silver label title and eleven other sub-2:20 wins. Granted, four of those were by one man, Boston Marathon winner Yuki Kawauchi. The U.S.A. and Morocco occupied the next two spots to make it the same five countries at the top of the charts for both time and wins. Not exactly surprising news. The more athletes you have running fast, the higher the chance some of them will probably win.

For women, Ethiopia and Kenya each had one WMM title and  29 wins under 2:48, but Ethiopia had a slight lead in number of gold and silver label marathon wins. Similarly, Japan and the U.S.A. were basically even for 3rd in the world, Japan with a slight edge in quality. Considering that on top ten average time Japanese and American women were almost even in 2017 this is again not that surprising.

It's interesting, though that the same relationship exists between Kenya and Ethiopia as between Japan and the U.S.A. In terms of wins, the women are more or less equal but the men are a lot better. The numbers of Japanese and American women's wins are largely a product of the number of domestic marathons in those two countries, but while the Japanese men's numbers are identical this doesn't explain the low count of American men winning sub-2:20. Also interesting is that there was a greater distribution in nationalities among female winners than among male, probably a reflection of the Kenyan men's hegemony.

Looking at the season's top races, it has to be said right off the bat that the extreme conditions and resulting slow times at the Boston Marathon meant it doesn't fit the algorithm used in the rankings below. Boston was probably the most entertaining race this season. Definitely the most memorable. So, hooray for Boston, in a class of its own.

The Dubai Marathon, essentially a time trial for Ethiopian men, topped the season's lists for both winning time and top ten average. The Tokyo Marathon had the 3rd-fastest winning time but had ten men under 2:09 and fourteen under 2:10, giving it an edge on overall depth. The Paris Marathon was only 6th on winning time but had excellent depth, the only race apart from Tokyo this season with ten finishers under 2:10. The London Marathon, typically regarded as the season's premiere event, had the 2nd-best winning time but lacked the depth to back it up. One of nine races this season with a winning time under 2:07, the Seoul Marathon had better depth across the board. Its 10th-place finisher beat even Dubai's.

London did have the fastest women's winning time and was a little better in depth in its women's results than for men. But although it had only the 2nd-best winning time Dubai had incredible depth, the only race with ten women under 2:27 and an amazing 2:21:27 average for its top ten finishers. The Nagoya Women's Marathon was 4th on winning time but had the best depth after Dubai with ten women under 2:30, something no other race achieved this season. Tokyo had a faster winning time than Nagoya, but with a structure that discourages top-level Japanese women from competing it came in below Seoul on depth.

Taking into account the times up front and depth of quality in both absolute and relative terms, the Tokyo Marathon barely edged Dubai as the top men's marathon of the season. Paris likewise edged London for #3 on the basis of its superior depth, with Seoul taking the 5th-place spot. Among the ten top-ranked men's races, Asia and Europe each hosted five.

Dubai was the clear winner among women's races by a wide margin over London with Nagoya taking 3rd. Tokyo edged Paris for 4th, Seoul a short way back in 6th. Asian races again occupied five of the top ten spots, with Canada's Ottawa Marathon making the top ten to hold Europe back to four events in the top ten.

Combining the men's and women's race scores to look at the strength of the overall event, the unique setup in Dubai made it the world's top race this season. The women's race in London led Tokyo's, but given the far deeper men's results in Tokyo it picked up #2 overall by a slim margin over London. Paris and Seoul earned the #4 and #5 spots respectively. Six of the top ten events were in Asia, with the other four in Europe.

Although they are single-gender races, Japan's Nagoya Women's Marathon and Lake Biwa Marathon both made the season's ten highest-scoring races. Cutting them along with the #12-ranked Osaka International Women's Marathon to look only at true combined races, the Prague Marathon and Ottawa Marathon made it into the top ten. Using this ranking, Europe hosted five of the top ten events, Asia four and North America one. Next year Nagoya and Lake Biwa will be held the same day, creating an argument for their scores to be combined.

Look for a year-end review of the world's top marathons in six months' time.

© 2018 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

Comments

Andrew Armiger said…
Nice analysis! US American runners have a tendency to put all spring marathon eggs into the Boston basket, which is seeing increasing fluctuations in weather conditions away from the ideal. If properly incentivized, more would likely race Ottawa and Grandma's (if not London, too) and improve the quality output. JAAF has done a nice job of incentivizing performance among multiple domestic spring marathons plus a significant foreign one other than London.
Brett Larner said…
Most of the sub-2:48 Japanese women's wins and American women's wins were at local or regional level races. Likewise for the Japanese men, but for whatever reason there weren't many American men doing the same, i.e. winning those kinds of races under 2:20. It seems hard to attribute that just to Boston when it's not happening with the women. If that was the reason you'd kind of expect the numbers to look more equal for American men and women unless Boston had higher prestige for the men which I don't think is the case.
Andrew Armiger said…
Yes, absolutely. The consistency between venue types for Japanese men and women points to evidence of a working system; the lack thereof between USA men and women points to something else.

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