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Why U.S. Women Marathoners Are Having a Moment

As Amy Cragg gritted her teeth through the final miles of the Tokyo Marathon last month and crossed the finish line in third place, she didn’t see the clock.

Only after she finished did she learn her time: 2:21:42. It was a personal record by five minutes and 21 seconds.

And it was momentous in another way, too: It vaulted her into fifth place on the list of 10 fastest American women marathoners.

Cragg is not alone in shaking up the chart. Jordan Hasay is now second, by virtue of her blazing 2:20:57 in Chicago last October. Laura Thweatt is sixth after a 2:25:38 in London last April. Serena Burla ranks 10th, with her 2:26:53 in Osaka in January 2017.

10 Fastest American Marathoners on Record-Eligible Course: Women

Runner Time Pace Per Mile Marathon
Deena Kastor 2:19:36 5:19.5 London, 2006
Jordan Hasay 2:20:57 5:22.7 Chicago, 2017
Shalane Flanagan 2:21:14 5:23.2 Berlin, 2014
Joan Samuelson 2:21:21 5:23.5 Chicago, 1985
Amy Cragg 2:21:42 5:24.3 Tokyo, 2018
Laura Thweatt 2:25:38 5:33.3 London, 2017
Kara Goucher 2:25:53 5:33.9 New York City, 2008
Desiree Linden 2:25:55 5:33.9 Olympic Marathon Trials, 2012
Magdalena Lewy Boulet 2:26:22 5:35.0 Rotterdam, 2010
Serena Burla 2:26:53 5:36.1 Osaka, 2017

In other words, four of the 10 fastest American women have run those PRs since January 2017, and for the first time, 10th place is under 2:27. Add in Shalane Flanagan’s historic win in New York City last November—the first by an American woman in 40 years—and it seems safe to say that American women marathoners are having a moment.

(By contrast, the American men have only one new name on the list in the past five and a half years: Galen Rupp, who ran 2:09:20 in Chicago in 2017. Otherwise, Dathan Ritzenhein’s 2:07:42 at Chicago in 2012 was the most recent addition. The full list is visible here.)

“There’s no room for complacency right now in American distance running,” said Deena Kastor, who holds the American record in the marathon with her 2:19:36 at London in 2006. “There are so many women every single weekend in half marathons and marathons just crushing it. It’s a synergy—a competition within this competition. You’re taking competitive women who are all rising to the top at the same time.”

The question is, why now? Experts point to a few reasons.

Numbers: More women are running and training at a high level, making a living at the sport. The math is simple. More candidates for fast times produce more fast times. Women started running marathons 20 years later than the men, says Lee Troop, Thweatt’s coach. Now they’re catching up.

Confidence: “It all starts with belief,” Kastor said. “I think all of these women who are running so well believe in their training environment, they believe they have the capability to be up on the podium of these major races. With that belief, you also have talent and hard work and competitive fire because you don’t want someone else to take that spot away from you.”

Seeing what their peers are doing cements the feeling that goals are attainable. Said Hasay: “It’s funny how you think something is impossible, and then someone does it and then it seems so much easier.”

Hard racing: The women who make the podium at the major marathons naturally end up with fast times. “If you want to compete with the Africans, you’ve got to be able to run 2:20, 2:21,” Hasay said. “It’s about doing kind of like what I did in Chicago (where she was third), just getting out there, going with the front pack, same with what Amy (Cragg) did in Tokyo, which was really neat to see, getting in there and competing.”

Related: Hasay Makes a Bold Decision: Be Brave and Race

The marathon is the goal: There was a time when the roads were secondary to the track. No longer. “I think for a little while the marathon wasn’t seen as much as a premier event; it was more what you do when you’re too slow for the track,” Cragg said. “Now it’s becoming this event that people want to do when they show a natural inclination for it. They go for it instead of training to stick around on the track.” That means that youngsters, like Hasay, are trying the marathon, instead of waiting.

A wide age range for success: Hasay was 25 when she ran her debut marathon in 2:23:00. (Boston’s course, where she ran it, is not record-eligible.) Flanagan was 36 last year when she won New York. Cragg and Burla were 34, Thweatt was 28. If you want to run fast at the marathon and can stay healthy, you have a decade or more in which to try to do so.

Cragg, for one, says she’s stronger with the accumulated years of training. Yes, she says, her body does take a lot longer to get going in the morning. “But my workouts have definitely reached a different level that I couldn’t have touched as a younger athlete,” she said.

Top-tier training groups everywhere: Troop points to how women with talent can have their pick of training groups, and the geography of the names on the list bears that out. Hasay and Cragg are in separate Nike groups in Portland, Oregon; Burla is in a group in suburban Washington, D.C., and Thweatt is in Boulder, Colorado. Similar groups exist in Mammoth Lakes, California, where Kastor is still putting in 100-mile weeks, and Flagstaff, Arizona, to name a few.

Watch: Amy Cragg places third in the marathon at the 2017 IAAF World Championships.

So what’s next? At Boston next month, a stacked field, including Molly Huddle, who recently broke Kastor’s half marathon American record. Times are sure to be swift, even if they’re not eligible for record purposes. Will Kastor’s 12-year-old American record fall any time soon? Depends who you ask. Troop doesn’t think it will stand much longer. Hasay thinks it seems within reach. Cragg, on the other hand, is not so sure.

“The reality is, it’s still a ways out there,” she said. “It’s such an incredible time. You get within a couple of minutes and people are like, ‘Oh wow, that’s so close.’ But really once you start running that fast, every second is a hard one to go after.”

MarathonNewswireElite RunnersAmy CraggJordan HasayDeena KastorNewswire

U.S. Women Marathoners Running Fast Times

Why U.S. Women Marathoners Are Having a Breakout Moment

Four of the 10 fastest Americans clocked those times in the past 14 months.

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