Whoever wins the women’s division of the New York City marathon on Sunday, it is a fair bet her time will be around 2 hours 25 mins. Last year, Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo won in 2h 25m 07s. That was barely quicker than Ludmila Petrova’s 2h 25m 44s in 2000. In between the fastest winner ran 2h 22m 31s (Margaret Okayo in 2003 setting a course record); the slowest 2h 28m 52s (Deratu Tulu in 2009).
In short, the elite of the elite women’s marathoners are not running New York much faster than their counterparts did at the start of the century. The average time of the top 15 women in 2013 was 2h 30m 52s, against 2h 30m 58s in 2000.
What has changed dramatically are the times of the pack coming in behind them.
The Active Times has analysed the results of the top 100 women finishers of the 13 New York City Marathons going back to 2000 (there was no marathon in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy). As the chart shows, times for women finishing between 16th and 100th have improved markedly since 2000.
The time of last year's 100th placed women, Switzerland's Melanie Meierstapher, would have been quick enough to give her 72nd place in 2000; and she would have beaten that year's 100th placed women by nearly 6 minutes, which translates into approaching a mile.
Finishing times for the top 100 women that year are represented by the green line; last year's times for the same group are the blue line.
The improvement is reflected in another way: the number of women finishing in the top 100 overall. In 2000, 14 women did so. And though the numbers have been up and down in the ensuing years, last year 15 did so, with the average place improving from 52nd to 47th.
While it is clear that the depth of women's marathon running is improving, it remains an unanswered question why the front of the pack hasn't shown the same improvement as those behind them.
No woman in any marathon has got within 3 minutes of Paula Radcliffe's world record time of 2h 15m 25s set in London more than a decade ago, the same year Okayo set the New York course record. Yet during that time the men's record has been broken six times.