One measure of Catherine Ndereba's remarkable marathon run through the streets of Chicago last Sunday was the fact that Paul Evans finished only 12 seconds ahead of her. At 40, Evans is officially a veteran runner now, but he is still fast enough to mix it with the best. Last month he was fifth in the Great North Run. He was the first home runner in the 36,000 field.
He also happens to be the fourth fastest British marathon runner of all-time, after Steve Jones, Charlie Spedding and Richard Nerurkar. So when a marathon man of Evans' pedigree falls within the range of a female runner it is a sure sign that the times are a changing for the marathon women. They are changing rapidly, too.
For 16 years, ever since Ingrid Kristiansen missed the 2 hour 20 minute mark by 66 seconds in the London marathon, the world had waited for a woman to break a barrier which came to assume the significance of the men's four minute mile. Then, just like those big red buses in the English capital, two came along almost at once. In Berlin two weeks ago Naoko Takahashi, the Olympic champion from Japan, clocked 2hr 19min 46sec. In Chicago last Sunday Ndereba ran 2:18:47.
In doing so, the 29-year-old Kenyan ran 26.2 miles at an average pace of 5min 17sec per mile. She actually ran the first three miles at 5min 45sec pace, then accelerated to 5:15 in the fourth mile and held her speed the rest of the way. It was a staggering feat of speed endurance, many would argue the greatest athletic performance of all time by a woman. And yet the woman who achieved it – Wincatherine Ndereba, to use the rather apposite full-name printed on her passport – remains virtually unknown and unrecognised outside her homeland and the United States.
One reason for that, on these shores at least, is the fact that her Chicago run coincided with Paula Radcliffe's retention of the world half-marathon title on home ground in Bristol. The main reason is that Ndereba chooses to do the vast bulk her running on the roads of the United States.
The six marathons she has contested to date have all been in the States. She has yet to compete in a major championship – Olympic Games, World Championships or Commonwealth Games – and has made just one run of note in Europe. Two years ago she finished third in the world half-marathon championship race in Palermo, behind her compatriot Tegla Loroupe and the Japanese runner Mizuki Noguchi.
Ndereba has made a rare trip to Europe this weekend, to run in the Avon 10km road race in Budapest this afternoon, but on this side of the pond she is still an international woman of mystery – the enigmatic figure glimpsed on Eurosport's coverage of the Boston and New York marathons, her eyes invariably shielded from the world by sunglasses and her hair covered by a broad head-band.
It is different in the States, where the sporting public knows all about Catherine the Great, as the Chicago Tribune hailed her on Monday: the 5ft 2in East African who each summer leaves her husband and four-year-old daughter in Nairobi to set up base in Norristown, Pennsylvania and earn a lucrative living on the US road running circuit. Ndereba has won $322,625 in prize money this year, a figure that is likely to be trebled by appearance fees, endorsements and bonuses.
"If you don't have anything to sacrifice, you don't have anything to gain," the new world record holder said last week when asked about the lengthy separations from her family, which have attracted criticism in Kenya. "This is my career. There is no way you can tell one of your kids not to go ahead with his or her career."
Ndereba's marathon career started in Boston in 1999. She finished sixth in 2hr 28min 27sec. It was her winning run in Chicago last year that gave her the confidence to mount a world record attack in the Windy City last week, a 2:21:33 clocking that vented her frustration at being omitted from the Kenyan Olympic team – and that confidence was far from shaken when Takahashi took the world record under 2hr 20min in Berlin.
"That made it so much easier for me," Ndereba reflected. "It was like she broke a barrier. Before, women didn't think we could go under 2:20. In future, the next generation will run under 2:18. Maybe they will break 2:15 one day."
One day sooner or later, though? Once Jim Peters became the first marathon man to break 2:20, in 1953, it took 10 years and two days to breach the 2:15 barrier. After two advances in a week, the race is already on to see if the marathon women of the world can get there any quicker.Reuse content