Call them the best. Call them memorable. Or just call them. Whatever they are, these moments defined running in the first decade of the 21st century. What makes them so great? These 10 performances got people buzzing. My opinion is completely subjective and emotional. I have a thing for runners who fall to the ground in tears (see Nos. 4 and 5), and admire the hubris of runners who not only walk the walk but talk the talk (see Nos. 1 and 9). But I also polled some die-hard runners in the know. Like me they follow the sport—and by follow the sport I mean DVR-ing things like the Rotterdam Marathon. And these moments made short list after short list.
So who made the cut? Drum roll please.
11). Honorable Mention: You ran a race and raised money for charity in the process
The last decade has been a collective best moment in the history of running. The U.S. is in the midst of a second running boom with year over year records in road race participation. In the marathon alone, the total number of finishers has gone from 299,000 in 2000 to 463,000 in 2009 according to MarathonGuide.com. Finisher totals for all road races in the U.S. were 6,482,500 in 1997. Ten years later in 2007? The number of finishers rose by almost 2.5 million to 8,875,000 according Running USA. And more racers have meant more money for all those associated charities. According to the USATF, the amount runners have raised for charity has increased from $520 million in 2002 to $714 million in 2006. Between entrance fees for benefit races and charity partnerships for major races, the running boom is making an impact on more than just the participants. So here’s to all of you runners out there who helped make this collective moment truly one of the high spots in running this decade.
10). Sanya Richards finally wins a World Championship
The 400-meter sprinter, who has dominated the event since 2006, finally took home the grand prize: a World Championship title in Berlin in 2009. But that’s not all. The 24-year-old American swept the IAAF awards for 2009. Richards won a share of the $1 million IAAF Golden League jackpot by winning the 400 meters in all 6 meets in the series; she also won the Golden League in 2006 and 2007. But wait, there’s more. The IAAF named Richards World Athlete of the Year along with Usain Bolt, an honor she also won in 2006. The sprinter has long been considered the fastest woman around one lap of the track—she was the youngest woman to ever break 49 seconds in the 400 meters—but a personal gold eluded her. Until now. She can finally add the title of individual World Champion to all her awards and to her two Olympic relay golds and three World Championship relay golds. She also has a bronze in the 400 meters from the 2008 Olympics.
9). Sammy Wanjiru wins the 2008 Olympic marathon in Beijing
It was a performance not to be believed. Even the NBC race commentators insinuated Kenya’s Wanjiru was being foolish. He could never keep up his breakneck pace in Beijing’s heat and humidity. Or could he? “I had to push the pace to tire the other runners,” Wanjiru said after the race. “I had to push the pace because my body gets tired when I slow down.” And push the pace he did. When Wanjiru pulled away from pack in the last few miles, he won Kenya’s first Olympic marathon gold and took the distance by storm. The editors of Runner’s World named it the “Best Performance” ever. He followed up that dazzling race with wins at both the London and Chicago marathons in 2009. He already has three world records and two of them are still on the books—the half-marathon and 20K road. And thanks to all those marathon victories, he won the 2008-2009 World Marathon Majors, a two-year race series with a $1 million dollar prize split between the top male and female finishers. At just 23 years old, Wanjiru has openly spoken about gunning for Haile Gebrselassie’s marathon world record—the two have traded world records in the half-marathon. Given the chance, he just might push the pace again.
8). Tirunesh Dibaba breaks the 5,000-meter world record
Known as “The Baby Faced Destroyer,” Dibaba of Ethiopia destroyed the 5,000-meter world record by more than 5 seconds at the 2008 Exxon Mobil Bislett Games in Oslo. The feat won her Performance of the Year from the IAAF in 2008. Dibaba already had an impressive resume of wins but a world record eluded her. With that barrier broken, she has destroyed race after race; she’s been undefeated since March 2007—the longest current winning streak in women’s track. Her resume includes four track World Championships, five World Cross Country Championships and two gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters—and she’s the first woman to ever win this elusive “golden double.” She won her first World Championship in 2003 at just 17 years old, making her the youngest champion in history. Then in 2005, she was the first woman to win both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at a single World Championships. And with her performance in Oslo, the 24-year-old got to add world record holder to her ever-growing list of titles.
7). Team USA dominates the 2004 Olympics
It was a collection of banner performances that truly dazzled. Were to begin? How ‘bout with a gimme: the 4x400 meter relay. It was America’s event this decade. Both the women and men won the 4x400 meter relay at every Olympics this decade, and 2004 was no exception as Sanya Richards and Jeremy Wariner led their teams to victory. Then there was the men’s 400 meters. Team USA swept all three medals led by Jeremy Wariner. (They repeated the feat in 2008 with LaShawn Merritt topping the podium.) And the 200 meters? Oh yeah, they swept that event too, with Shawn Crawford taking the gold. Then Justin Gatlin won the 100 meters, and Maurice Green took the bronze. Joanna Hayes won the 100-meter hurdles. Allyson Felix took silver in the 200 meters, and Lauryn Williams took silver in the 100. The party just went on and on.
But that’s not all. The U.S. medaled in both the men’s and women’s marathon for the first time in decades; Meb Keflezighi took the silver, and won the U.S. it’s first men’s marathon medal in 28 years. Deena Kastor took bronze, and won the U.S. it’s first women’s marathon medal in 20 years. The games seemed to be golden for USA running, and for those few days in 2004, it was truly magical to watch.
6). Kenenisa Bekele sweeps the World Cross Country Championships. Again and again and again and again.
It was 2002 in Dublin when Bekele of Ethiopia became the first person to win both the long 12K and short 4K races at the World Cross Country Championships. But he astonished yet again when he did it year after year for a total of five years. He’s won a record 11 World Cross Country Championship titles, but has proved to be a fierce competitor on the track as well; he’s undefeated at 10,000 meters, owns three Olympic gold medals and has dazzled the world with a pair of double wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at both the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships—the distance equivalent of Usain Bolt’s sprinting victory. The 5,000-meter World Championships race between Bekele and defending World Champion Bernard Lagat of the U.S. was a guts on the floor battle—Bekele won by one meter. One meter! Thanks to stunning performances like that year after year, Bekele was voted runner-up for “Best Male Distance Runner of All Time” by both the editors and readers of Runner’s World magazine. And at 27 year old, I’m sure he has more great moments yet to come.
5). Meb Keflezighi wins the New York City Marathon
Keflezighi managed to do what no other American could for almost three decades—win the New York City Marathon. The title to the biggest marathon in the world had evaded American runners for 27 years. But that all changed in November of this year. When Keflezighi pulled away from Kenyan sensation and four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot—ranked the third best marathoner of all time according to the Majors—at Mile 24, America was breathless. So when Keflezighi cruised to a surprise victory in a personal best time, it’s no wonder he pointed to the “U.S.A.” on his singlet. After he crossed the finish line, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. His tears, and his joy, captured America’s imagination, and reminded us what victory looks and feels like. Now, the Olympic silver medalist has his eye on Boston in 2010. Perhaps, the laurel wreath awaits. (For more on Keflezighi’s historic win, read this.)
4). Hicham El Guerrouj finally wins Olympic gold
He is the “King of the Mile.” But for the best miler in history, Olympic victory evaded El Guerrouj of Morocco time and time again. In Atlanta in 1996, he fell and finished last. In one of the biggest upsets of the 2000 Sydney games, the world record holder lost the gold in the final meters to Noah Ngeny of Kenya. And in 2004 in Athens, it seemed for a moment—as Bernard Lagat passed him—that El Guerrouj would be a bridesmaid yet again.
But at the last possible moment, El Guerrouj surged to win in one of the most exciting finishes of the games. He collapsed in tears, his body heaving with sobs. And I remember nearly crying with him as I watched from home. It’s one of those Olympic moments I’ve never forgotten. Just a few days later he won gold in the 5,000 meters in another exciting finish. He retired after the Athens games, but has seven World Championship titles, two Olympic golds, one Olympic silver and five standing world records to carry on his legacy—in the mile (indoor and outdoor), 1500 meters (indoor and outdoor) and 2000 meters.
3). Paula Radcliffe shatters, and I mean shatters, her own world record
In only her second attempt at the distance, Radcliffe broke the world record at the Chicago Marathon in 2002. But just six months later at the 2003 London Marathon, the Brit smashed that record—in her home country no less—by almost two minutes. At the time, the IAAF world ranking system put her performance on par with a 9.75 second time in the men’s 100-meter sprint. And the men’s 100-meter world record at the time was .03 seconds slower at 9.78. With a performance like that, Radcliffe put herself in a field of one. She has the three fastest times in history and no other woman has even come close; the fourth fastest time, run by Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, is more than three minutes slower than Radcliffe’s best. Radcliffe continued to dominate the women’s marathon throughout the decade, winning 8 of her 10 career marathons including London, Chicago, New York and the World Championships. And she managed to have a baby in the middle of all those wins. She’s talked about going after her record again, perhaps in London at the 2012 Olympics.
2). Haile Gebrselassie runs the world’s first sub 2:04 marathon
The greatest distance runner of all time, Gebrselassie has often gone where no man has gone before. Having broken 26 world records and world bests—which is itself a record number of running world records—Gebrselassie is used to breaking boundaries. But at the Berlin Marathon in 2008, he became the first and only person in history to run a marathon under 2:04. Clocking in at 2:03:59, the Ethiopian broke his own world record, won Berlin a third time and made headlines around the globe. And he’s still not through. Gebrselassie thinks he may be able to lower his record further, and has targeted the 2012 London Olympics for a shot at marathon gold; he already has two Olympic golds in the 10,000 meters. And as the undisputed king of the road, it seems anything is possible if Geb puts his mind, and feet, to it. He has a World Championship title or world record at every single distance from 1500 meters to the marathon, including seven World Championships and those 26 world bests. What’s another world record?
1). Usain Bolt wins Olympic gold, breaks his own world record and incites international frenzy
Other runners have more world records, more medals and more years under their singlets. But no other runner knows how to cross a finish line like Usain Bolt. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it wasn’t just that Bolt won the 100 meters or that he broke his own world record, so much as the manner in which he did it. “Lightning Bolt” actually slowed down to celebrate his victory in the last few meters as he handily cruised across the finish line, inciting international frenzy in the process. His fans said he was celebrating. His critics said he was showboating. But whatever it was, Bolt proved he is truly the fastest man on the planet. No one should be able to slow down in a 100-meter race and win. But Bolt has been defying the limits of human capability for a while now. He went on the win gold in the 200 meters and 4x100 meter relay with his Jamaican teammates, setting two more world records in the process. He repeated the feat at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, obliterating his world records even further. Thanks to his double set of performances the IAAF named him World Athlete of the Year in 2008 and 2009. And Bolt cemented his status as the world’s favorite running phenomenon with the most iconic moment in running of the decade.
Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed three marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com and Twitter@KBruning.
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