The New York City Marathon finished without controversy on Sunday on a pristine autumn day.
Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya won the women’s race in ideal long-distance running conditions, completing the 26.2-mile race in an unofficial time of 2 hours 22 minutes 38 seconds. She edged out Mary Keitany, also of Kenya, denying her a fifth title. It was the fastest debut in the women’s race.
“I knew Mary had more experience in marathon, so I was trying to push,” Jepkosgei said. She added that she was looking back during the past few miles to see if her opponent would catch up.
In the men’s race, Geoffrey Kamworor, 26, also of Kenya, broke the tape at the finish line in an unofficial time of 2:08:13. He finished third in 2018 after winning in 2017.
“About 24 miles, I saw I was able to go, and I was feeling strong,” Kamworor said. “That’s when I decided to pull away.” Before that point, he ran mostly with a pack of several runners.
The marathon was the last major competition on the running calendar. The world’s best runners will now turn their focus to the 2020 Olympics. In the United States, the Olympic trials marathon is scheduled for Feb. 29 in Atlanta.
The triumphant finishes rounded out a tumultuous year in the sport that generally reflected, and sometimes fueled, broader debates both social and otherwise.
It was a year in which running had to confront thorny questions. Who counts as a woman? What do those women deserve in terms of compensation, and who is keeping them from getting it? There were even debates about what counts as a world record, and what counts as a proper shoe.
“This year had a lot of big breakthroughs that wound up transcending the running community,” said Hawi Keflezighi, the track and field agent whose brother, Meb, was one of America’s top distance runners of the modern era. “There were a lot of discussions about fairness in the sport, whether it’s around shoes or gender. You have all these amazing athletes who are so dominant and admired and connecting with fans. We’re following them closer and getting to know them and their journeys and their challenges. Everyone can have an opinion. They’re simple questions but not simple issues. People’s lives and careers are at stake.”
In May, Caster Semenya of South Africa, the two-time Olympic 800-meter champion, was barred from racing against other women because her testosterone levels give her what the International Association of Athletics Federations considers an unfair advantage over all but a tiny segment of the female population. She is currently the best in the world at her event, but had to sit out the world championships in Doha, Qatar, in September.
The ruling triggered an uproar around athletic and gender activists who felt Semenya was unfairly targeted for being a black, intersex woman. Semenya has never revealed details of her biology. Others questioned the fairness of having someone with higher testosterone levels race against other women, going so far as to say that “losing the next generation of female athletes” was at stake in the case. The I.A.A.F., track and field’s world governing body, imposed hormone restrictions in women’s events from 400 meters to the mile, leading many to question the invasive nature of mandating that a person regulate her hormone levels.
Also in May, the Olympians Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher and Allyson Felix disclosed to The New York Times that they faced performance reductions from their shoe sponsors for having children. Felix disclosed that her contract with Nike had lapsed while she had her daughter in November 2018. She went on to win two more gold medals at the world championships in Doha less than a year postpartum, making her the most decorated track and field athlete of all time.
The revelations prompted a national debate about the extent to which the sport protects pregnant athletes and new mothers, and whether it had an obligation, or an incentive, to do so at all. Nike faced particular criticism — its roots in the sport are deep, and its advertising campaigns celebrated women who combined sports and motherhood while its contracts punished them.
In August, Nike’s executive vice president for global sports marketing, John Slusher, issued a letter to the company’s sponsored athletes detailing changes that have been made to their contracts in an effort to support them through pregnancy, including plans to waive performance reductions for 12 months for athletes who decide to have a baby.
Controversy followed Nike. During the world championships in Doha on Sept. 30, Alberto Salazar, the former champion runner and famed coach, was barred for four years from the sport after being found guilty of doping violations by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Ten days later, Nike shut down Salazar’s team, the Nike Oregon Project, which trained some of the best athletes in the United States, including the Olympic medalist Galen Rupp and the woman with the second fastest American marathon time, Jordan Hasay.
Then came an incredible weekend for the sport last month. In a run through a park in Vienna on Oct. 12, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya broke the two-hour barrier in the marathon, finishing in 1 hour 59 minutes 40 seconds. The performance followed through on Kipchoge’s prerace musings: “I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there.”
The limits were stretched significantly by science and other support. Kipchoge received fuel as he ran and had pacers blocking the wind. He wore a pair of unreleased shoes with Nike’s patented carbon plate. The effort, which captivated the world, was a time trial rather than a race, and was therefore not counted as an official world record, which already holds: He ran a 2:01:39 at the Berlin Marathon last year. This year in Berlin, in a nearly overlooked event, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia came within two seconds of breaking Kipchoge’s mark.
The day after Kipchoge’s breakthrough time, another Kenyan in Nike’s new shoes, Brigid Kosgei, shattered the woman’s world record at the Chicago Marathon.
“I wanted to be the second Kipchoge — the Kipchoge for women,” she said.
The two performances catapulted a conversation that had been happening in professional running circles for three years into the wider public: Are races being won by the best athletes — or the best shoes? Right now, the carbon plates in the expensive Nike-patented shoes are seemingly so good at what they’re designed to do — help whoever’s wearing them to go faster — that any athlete wearing them has a significant advantage over those not wearing them. The I.A.A.F. quickly appointed a task force to come up with shoe guidelines.
With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, the volume of the debates will likely rise. A sport that can seem so simple, as it did on the streets of New York, Sunday, is proving to be anything but.