The evolution of Boston Marathon run times

Photo by Pietro Rossini/BU News Service

By Grace Knoop
Boston University News Service

John J. McDermott, the first Boston Marathon Champion ran his marathon at a time of 2:55:10 in 1897. In 2021, Champion Benson Kipruto won the professional male category by running the marathon in 2:09:51. According to experts, run times have improved due to improved running technology — specifically, shoes.

Dan Fitzgerald, co-founder of the Heartbreak Hill Running Company and coach to hundreds of runners in Boston, notes how the evolution of running shoes has led to such a decrease in times over the years, especially marathon times. 

“Racing shoes were very, very light, not very friendly to runners who are not at the most elite levels, in particular in the marathon,” said Fitzgerald. 

Runners involved in the first Boston Marathon in 1897 were running in a period of time when running shoe companies were non-existent. New Balance was not founded until 1906 and others did not follow quickly behind them — companies like Reebok and Adidas did not arrive until the 1950s. 

Following the beginning days of running shoe companies, the amount of research that has led to the shoes that will be worn by this weekend’s runners is extensive, according to Fitzgerald. The discovery of carbon fiber plates in running shoes and energy-returning foam has helped runners not only run faster but safer. 

“What has been discovered is that a very, very bouncy energy-returning foam,” said Fitzgerald. “Coupled with that carbon fiber plate really provides good energy return, and really a decrease in the amount of fatigue in the runners, which I think is probably the most key.” 

Along with the new discoveries and technology in running shoes, runners are just more aware of what it takes to be the best athlete possible in this day and age. Louise Donlon, senior physical therapist at the Boston University Physical Therapy Center, discussed how much has changed just in her time as a physical therapist.

“More than just running, people are more in tune in knowing that they should be doing something more than running,” said Donlon.

Running a marathon comes with set training plans, rigorous workout regimes, and diet plans that all come together to hopefully run a personal best on race day. Access to the best equipment and the knowledge what how to stay healthy as a runner explains the faster running times over the years. Only time will tell how run times will continue to evolve over the next 126 years.

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