The Women’s 10,000m: Comparing 1988 to 2012

History of the women’s 10,000m track race

I was lucky to have matured as a runner just a few years before the 10,000m track race became an official event for women. Prior to 1986, I competed nationally (and a few times internationally) in the 1,500m and the 3,000m, but I didn’t have sufficient speed to be world class in those events. In 1986, I raced the 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland. The following year the women’s 10,000m was included at the World Championships for the first time. My 16th place finish in Rome guaranteed me a berth on the 1988 Olympic team if I could prove my fitness at the Canadian Championships in 1988.

Pam Am Games 1987 10,000m

My most miserable 10,000m race ever–the 1987 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. The humid heat was dreadful, even at 10:30 p.m. Photo from Athletics magazine, fall 1987.

The women’s 10,000m evolved dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. New world records were set frequently, often lopping huge amounts of time off the previous records. (View evolution of the women’s 10,000m world record here.) Of course, women were more motivated to train specifically for this event when it became part of international championships. Another factor was that in the early 1980s, road racers, primarily in the U.S., fought for the right to accept prize money from road races and still retain their amateur status. Some race directors had given top road race finishers money “under the table” before the 1980s, but once accepting prize money was allowed, many of the big American road races started offering generous, well-publicized prize money to the top ten or fifteen finishers, both male and female. This encouraged talented athletes to focus their training on events longer than the 3,000m.

However, the most significant factor contributing to the huge improvement in the times and depth of the women’s 10,000m rankings between 1988 and 2012 is the progress of female African runners.

When I was competing in World Cross Country in the 1980s, there were usually Kenyan and Ethiopian women’s teams taking part, but they weren’t serious contenders in the races. African men were dominant, as they still are today; why not the women? It was for cultural reasons. In the 1980s there was no Junior Women’s race at the World Cross Country Championships. Yet the African women competing in the Senior Women’s race were usually only 14 or 15 years old. Often they didn’t even have running shoes and ran barefoot. They showed talent and promise, but they always married and started having babies before they could get close to achieving their athletic potential.

Women’s times in the 10,000m really started coming down dramatically in 1999 with Ethiopian Getenesh Wami’s world record of 30:24.56. Ever since then, it is mainly Ethiopian women who have continued to break the time barriers. Five of the top ten women on the all-time ranking list are Ethiopian, and one is Kenyan. The 2012 Olympic 10,000m race is likely to come down to an awesome sprint between the three Ethiopian contenders (Meselech Melkamu, second-fastest all-time, Tirunesh Dibaba, double Olympic champion, and Meseret Defar, former world champion) and the three Kenyan runners (Vivian Cheruiyot and Sally Kipyego, gold and silver medallists respectively in the World Championships last year, and Joyce Cheruiyot).

There is one notable exception to the African dominance in the women’s 10,000m; in 1993 Wang Junxia of China set a world record of 29:31.78 which still stands. Chinese female distance runners, for a few years in the mid-1990s, ran several incredible records in distances ranging from 1,500m to 10,000m. I believe these records are tainted. Wang’s time wouldn’t still be listed as the record if anything had been proved against her, but it seems certain that drug use (and/or some other method of physiological manipulation) was involved. I do remember reports that many of the top female Chinese runners were in hospital shortly after achieving unbelievable performances. Many of these runners had one good season and were never heard of again.

In 1988 the women’s world record in the 10,000m belonged to Ingrid Kristiansen. Her time of 30:13.74, set in 1986, completely outclassed her competition for a couple of years. Other non-African women have achieved notable performances. Paula Radcliffe’s 30:01.09, set in 2002, still ranks her as #6 all-time. American Shalane Flanagan holds the U.S. record of 30:22.22. However, only someone who loves betting on a long shot wouldn’t put money down for an African winner in the 2012 Olympic final.

You can view the 2012 World Rankings in the women’s 10,000m here.

The Women’s 10,000m in Canada

Sadly, the women’s 10,000m is almost non-existent in Canada in 2012. There will be no Canadian women competing in the 10,000m at this summer’s Olympics.

Why is this? In the mid-1980s, Canadian women had to fight hard to get one of the three 10,000m spots on national teams. The Olympic “A” standard for the 10,000m in 1988 was 32:45. For several years Canada had more than three women who could run faster than that.

Canada currently has many talented female middle-distance runners. Melissa Bishop and Jessica Smith have both run under 2:00.00 in the 800m and have been selected to the Olympic team. In the 1,500m, Hilary Stellingwerff and Nicole Sifuentes achieved the “A” standard and are going to the Olympics. Sheila Reid was not initially selected to run the 5,000, though she had run the Olympic “B” standard, but on Thursday July 12th, she was belatedly selected to be part of Canada’s Olympic team. Read a short interview with Sheila Reid here.

However, not a single Canadian woman has come close this year to running the 10,000m “A” standard of 31:45. Maybe such a standard (a full minute faster than the one I had to make in 1988) seems unattainable. The Canadian record of 31:44.74 was set by Courtney Babcock in 2003, almost ten years ago! Moreover, the all-time Canadian women’s rankings in the 10,000m show that seven out of the top ten times were achieved over 20 years ago. That list includes Sue Lee, Carole Rouillard, and me, ranked second, third, and fifth respectively, all-time.

An athlete certainly has to have a lot of innate speed to be able to run 31:45. Hard endurance training must be coupled with speed to achieve this time. I think if Canada is to produce international competitors in the 10,000m again, they will have to come from the ranks of the fast middle-distance runners.

I remember how Angela Chalmers, who competed for Canada in the 1,500m and 3,000m, won the Sun Run in 1996 with a time of 31:05. She could have been a great 10,000m runner but she never ran the distance on the track. Similarly, Emilie Mondor (who died tragically in a car accident in 2006) was known primarily as a 5,000m runner but won the Sun Run in 31:10 in 2004. Another of Canada’s all-time great middle-distance runners, Lynn Kanuka (Williams) could have run a good 10,000m on the track. Kanuka was a bronze medallist for Canada in the 1984 Olympic 3,000m and still holds the Canadian record in the 1,500m. Near the end of her running career, she won the L’Eggs Mini-Marathon 10K in New York City with a time of 31:45.

Perhaps athletes with sufficient speed aren’t motivated to compete in the 10,000m. It’s not a fun event. It may seem paradoxical, but though I loved 10K road races (and made a living by competing in them for several years), I hated running 10,000m on the track and ran only the races that I had to run to qualify for national teams. I wanted to compete internationally; I wanted to travel; and I knew the only way I could do it was by racing the 10,000m.

Sue Lee and Carole Rouillard, my contemporaries and teammates in the 10,000m, chose to focus more on track races than I did. They competed in the rare meets where a deep, fast  field was guaranteed in the women’s 10,000m: The Bislett Games in Oslo, the Mt. Sac Relays * in California, and Tokyo. Sue Lee set a Canadian 10,000m record in Oslo, and Carole Rouillard ran her 10,000m PB of 31:56.74 in Tokyo in 1991. I wasn’t willing to give up my road racing to peak properly and travel to these great track meets.

Why should the 10K distance seem so much harder to run on the track than it does on the road? Psychologically, it’s hard to count down all those laps. Theoretically, the race should be easier to pace when you’re getting a split time every 400m, but I found it easier to run fast on the road, where I didn’t have to concentrate as hard on keeping out of trouble in a close pack. Also, running 10,000m on the track means running the curve 50 times. It’s incrementally harder to keep the pace on a curve than on a straight. I found it difficult, on the track, to relax and feel the steady easy rhythm I could get into on a fast road race course.

There are other reasons why I’m probably not the only distance runner who doesn’t like racing 10,000m on the track:

  • It’s more damaging physically to race 10K on the track than the road because of the turns.
  • It can be hard to run a good 10,000m on the track in Canada because it’s too hot in the summer.
  • There usually isn’t sufficient depth of field in the event to get much help from other runners for most of the race.
  • It’s a boring event for most spectators. Only those who have a good understanding of the physical demands and psychological difficulty of the event can really appreciate and support the slow unfolding of the 25-lap race.

Nevertheless, all of the above “excuses” can be dealt with and conquered. Running a good 10,000m on the track simply requires the same “essentials” as any distance running event:

  • Consistent, grueling training
  • Good pacing
  • Flexible race strategies and, most importantly
  • GUTS

* I competed at Mt. Sac once, but I was in my thirties and already being plagued by cardiovascular problems and injuries. Mt. Sac is a spectacular track meet, especially for distance runners with its “Distance Carnaval and Invitational” section—I highly recommend any Canadian wanting to run a good 10,000m to put it on their racing calendar for late April. In 2012, the meet offered eight sections of 10,000m races (four men’s, four women’s) starting at 7:00 p.m. and going on until 11:40 p.m.!

Olympic Training Log

July 2, 1988

AM: Rode bike to Earl Haig. Did track workout. 15 min warmup at good pace, 2 strides. Ran with Joseph, Paul & Roselyn. Did 1st 1,000m and last 200m of guys’ 1,600m. (2 min rest between sets.) Times 3:11, 3:12, 3:11, 3:11. I ran hard, led 1 or 2 laps of each. Foot sore in warmup, but warmed up completely, fine in workout. Felt good, pleased with times. About 5 miles. Rode bike to gym, did “push-strength-endurance” workout, about 53 min.

July 3, 1988

AM: Biking day. Did 17 min warmup with George, then Beth’s 17 km time trial route, 30:42. (George about 32:25.) Pushed really hard. Then rode bike continuous for 2½ more hours, part easy, went hard again down Jane St. Quads very tired after.

July 4, 1988

AM: Ran 30 min hard on golf course. Foot very sore at beginnning, but warmed up completely and OK after. Did 4 x 70 sec on grass with 30 sec rest—found it hard after long run. Jogged back to car. About 6 miles.

PM: Rode bike to gym. Did 31 min continuous on stationary bike followed by 4 sets of 3 min bike, knee-touch situps, backward press.

July 5, 1988

AM: Rode bike to pool. Warmup 850m under 18 min. 4 x 200m—3:50–3:55, pool fairly crowded. Then did about 10 min water running. 6 x 45 sec running in place with rope (30 sec rest), 2 x 60 sec with 45 sec rest.

PM: Rode bike to gym. Weights “pull-strength” + situps, inner thigh machine, knee lift with cable. Worked hard 70 min + 3 min bounding.

July 6, 1988

AM: Ran hard on golf course with Paul, 20 min. Followed by 6 x 600m on fairway, almost 2 min with 45 sec rest. Found them hard. About 5½ miles. Heel very sore for a few minutes but warmed up.

AM-2: Drove with George to time trial route. Did 10 min easy warmup, covered route in 29:01 in spite of fatigue and heat. Pushed very hard.

PM: Did Lifecycle workout. 24 min level 6 and level 9 at end—spinning quite well. 10 min more, level 9 and level 7 test.

July 7, 1988

AM: Rode bike to pool. 800m warmup. 10 sets of 100m, 50m. Couldn’t take consistent rest or get many times because pool very crowded. Several 100s about 1:53.

PM: Did “push-endurance” workout plus leg lift on incline, heavy hamstring curls and leg extension, hyperextensions. Worked hard 67 min.

July 8, 1988

AM: Did track workout at Earl Haig with Dave and Paul. 15-min warmup, easy pace because of heat. Heel very sore first 5 min, gradually warmed up. 1 stride. 4 x 1 mile with 2 min rest. Times 5:19, 5:15, 5:13, 5:16. 2 laps easy warmdown. 6½ miles. Foot hurting after but not too bad.

Noon: Did Lifecycle workout at club. 24 min levels 6 and 9, extra 10 min levels 9 and 7.

This week: 23 miles running, 2 bike time trials, 1 long bike ride, 1hr51 min stationary bike, 2 swim workouts, (+ 1 water running), plus 3 weight workouts.

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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One Response to The Women’s 10,000m: Comparing 1988 to 2012

  1. Mark Zipf says:

    Good article Nancy and great observations about running 10k on the track. Road racing was always a lot more fun.

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