As we say good riddance to 2020, we decided to dust off The XC crystal ball in order to foreshadow next year's biggest stories, and what surely will be a more action-packed and positive 2021. It'll almost certainly be an Olympic year (for real this time), and we're going to get all six Marathon Majors in less than two months next fall. That's going to make for a wild ride.
Here, we predict a few breakthroughs in North American distance running, a summer and fall at once riddled with modified races and peppered with world-beating performances, what could happen at the Tokyo Olympics, a new marathon king, and more.
Someone will run faster than Eliud Kipchoge's 2:01:39 (and it won't be Keninisa Bekele)
Six of the seven fastest men's marathons in history have been run in 2018 or later. Sure, the shoes have a lot to do with it, but as far as this prediction is concerned, who cares? Now that 2:02 marathons and sub 58-minute half-marathons have become normalized, it's just a matter of time until someone runs faster than The Yoda of Running.
The U.S. Olympic squad brings home no medals in distances 800m and longer at the 2021 Olympics
In 2016, Americans won seven Olympic medals in distances 800m and longer. But several of those medalists, like Galen Rupp, Evan Jager, Clayton Murphy, and Jenny Simpson, have not consistently ranked on the top lists in recent years. Donovan Brazier, Ajee Wilson and Shelby Houlihan are all threats to win 800 and 1,500m medals in Tokyo, but each will face stiff competition coming from East African countries. A goose egg in the medals column would be surprising, but it is not that far a stretch.
Elite running thrives in 2021, but it’s another rough year for everybody else
George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of San Francisco told ABC in late December that if 40% of people get the vaccine, we’ll be wearing masks next year at this time. If that's the case, this fall's major races will probably look a lot like the 2020 London Marathon, with its prioritized elite field and cancelled mass participation race. And in COVID-19 time, everything take longer than expected, so non-elites will most likely continue to deal with virtual versions of large scale events, mail-delivered medals, and pretty bland instagram accounts throughout the fall and until 2022.
Wavelight technology gets BANNED... and then gets reinstated
This summer, Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda broke the men's 5,000m and 10,000m records, and Ethiopia's Letesenbet Gidey broke the 5,000m record by almost 5 seconds, smashing her old personal best by 17 seconds in the process. Both runners paced themselves using cutting-edge Wavelight technology - they followed lights that travelled at world record pace on the inside rail of the track.
The new pacing system is causing controversy - Kenyan two-time 5,000m champ Helen Obiri called the technology cheating and likened it to doping. In light of complaints (no pun intended) World Athletics will temporarily ban the technology, only to reinstate it in 2022, in light of, uhh, more complaints.
Moh Ahmed wins Canada’s first men’s Olympic distance running medal since 1932 - and he wins two of them
Canadian Phil Edwards won the 1,500m bronze medal... at the 1932 Olympics. Over the next 88 years, no Canadian man has won an Olympic medal in a running event 1,500 metres or longer. That will change in 2021.
Predicting Ahmed as a podium finisher in Tokyo is not bold - he is the defending bronze medalist at the 2019 World championship 5,000m, and in 2020 he ran faster than everyone in the world, except for Joshua Cheptegei, who set a new world record. Pegging him for a medal in the 10,000m is kind of bold. Ahmed ranks 15th in the 10,000m world top list since the last Olympics. To do so, he will have to beat at least two of Cheptegei, Hagos Gebrhiwet, Yomif Kejelcha, and even Mo Farah.
Eliud Kipchoge wins the Olympic marathon (again), but loses his world record
This Kipchoge slayer will either drop out of the Olympic race, or not even be named to a national team, before running 2:00:xx in the fall and sending the "Marathon GOAT" debate into chaos.
We are on the edge of a breakthrough in marathoning — 13 of the 19 sub 2:04 marathons in history have come in the past three years. New half-marathon studs like 57:32 runner Kibiwott Kandie and Jacob Kiplimo, as well as former half-marathon world-record holder Geoffrey Kamworor and longtime great Kenenisa Bekele, will all threaten Kip's world record.
One major marathon gets cancelled, even with all of them moved to the fall
Remember: Big city marathons come with big operating price tags. The Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York) will all be crammed into about a six-to-seven week period in the fall of 2021. And each of them require more than 30,000 participants in order to make sense financially. Sure, a race like Boston could take place with a reduced field, as its course shuts down a relatively unused secondary road. But keep in mind that New York City didn’t even happen as an elite race, and Berlin also got pushed. This was because shutting down those cities for a lesser, more affordable experience didn't make sense to anyone involved.
So, going into the fall, if there is any uncertainty about the success of mass immunization, these big events will have to make a very tough calculation: what’s the dollar number they must hit in order for these races to make sense?
Also, and perhaps even more terrifying: nearly 50% of road races in North America disappear by the end of the year.
It’s a breakthrough year for American/Canadian distance running
Amid 2020's general tumult and uncertainty, the U.S. and Canada quietly had stellar showings on the roads — this will continue in 2021. Sara Hall will drop two more minutes from her current marathon time of 2:20:32 and set a new American record. In Canada, either the men's record of 2:09:25 or women's record of 2:24:50, will go down.
Someone big gets popped for doping
People have been running fast — it's probably the shoes. But maybe, in at least one case, it's something else (cue ominous music.) As the Olympics approach, and the competition for top spot gets tighter, one high-profile runner will morally err and Asbel Kiprop their way out of the sport's pantheon and into its Twitter jail.
Gary Robbins is going to finish the Barkley Marathons
He’s attempted the world’s toughest race — a 100-miler in the mountains of rural Tennessee — three times, and famously came very close to finishing it in 2017. If the race happens this coming April, Robbins will be there, and he will get it done.
Also, there will be some chatter at the Tokyo Olympics about perhaps including an ultra into a future Games. We say hell yes to that.