Recently a discussion on a few internet forums surfaced about the use of a personal best which was achieved on a course with either a moderate or large amount of downhill. With the rapid filling of the Boston Marathon this past fall, many were lamenting that too many runners had “snuck in the back door” by using a personal best from a race which made it easier for them to meet their qualifying time.
Let me get something out of the way off the bat: without a doubt, especially over a short distance, a race which has a net downhill will most assuredly make it easier for a runner to go faster than they normally would on a flat course. However, as that distance increases, the advantage gained from downhill running will usually be leveled by the beating the legs take.
Some ludicrously compared downhill running to cheating the way baseball players using steroids did or runners who blood dope with EPO. This is, of course, ridiculous. There will always be advantages gained from certain races which take place in the outdoors, be it from the course, or wind or the ability to master the way a course is set up (e.g., some runners being able to mentally deal with an out back or looped course better than others.) However, until every race, from 100 meters to 100 milers, is run in a climate controlled dome on a 400 meter track, there are always going to variables to factor into the finish times.
This variance is what gives running, off the track and out into the world, its distinct flavor. Basketball courts never change. Football, baseball and other sports played in stadiums must deal with weather but never have to add in a variance for elevation change or terrain. With running, we know that some days are going to be hot or cold, rainy or dry or run at elevation or with a certain amount of up or downhill. The only thing that matters to the 99.9% of us who will never vie for a victory in a race is whether the distance covered on that particular day was ever covered in a faster time by us. It is, after all, a “personal record”. It only matters to us, maybe our spouse and potentially the dog (and only because if we are happier maybe he will get an extra treat that Sunday night.)
For that remaining .1% who must deal with governing bodies of our sport, I feel for them. If nothing else, look at the fact that the Boston marathon itself has been concluded to contain too much downhill to count as a world-record course. The race which has attracted the world’s best, year in and year out, has not seen a world record set on its course in close to 30 years somehow is “too aided”. (Dane note: Until this year, that is.)
I guess those winners will have to settle for world-wide accolades, a laurel wreath…and a massive check. I can only hope these things will make the winners feel better that some random internet person thinks their time is unworthy of being a “real” PR.