Winning a Marathon

December 5, 2014

(This article was first published on More or Less Numbers, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

The proliferation and participation in the marathon has increased substantially in recent years.  No longer is the distance an event reserved for the super-athletic, but at least in the US one can from many vantage points on highways or streets see the infamous “26.2” sticker donning a rear windshield.  In a previous post I logged participation in marathons worldwide and as can be seen from the animation, certainly in the US this has increased over time.

As participation becomes more the norm we turn now to the question of actually winning a marathon.  The Association of Road Racing Statisticians (yes there is such a thing) maintains an excellent site with all sorts of data on the marathon event as well as other distances.  I created a large file from their data of all marathons each year in the world with their winners.  I plan on talking more about this dataset in future posts but for now we’ll look at winning a marathon in the USA.

According to this dataset, in 2013 there were 1,984 marathon events in the US (wow).  And seemingly Fall is the most popular time to host them (ya know before the Holidays).

So how fast do you need to run to win one of these or at least have a decent shot at winning?  Obviously lots of variance depending on which one – or as may be intuitive race purse/recognition is highly correlated with race speed.  In general for the past several years in the US, the time needed for a male on average is about 3 hours.  As more races have been created giving opportunity to more people, the average time needed to win a marathon has decreased slightly.  In 2013 you “only” needed to run in the 3:30 range to win a marathon, that is on average across 1,984 races.
Interesting to note that to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2013 as a male a time of 3 hours was needed (wonder if they based that on average winning times over the last 10 years).  Female winning times look similar in that they too have a slight bump in 2013/2014 in terms of “slower” winning times on average.
More recently across all the marathons in the USA, women are winning marathons at around the 4 hour mark.  Again, this all depends on the race one is entering.  But if you are like some of the people who run multiple marathons a year, hitting these averages gives you a decent chance at winning…especially as you heavily consider the number of participants and/or the purse involved 😉 
For those interested, most of the code for pulling this data and the graph(s) will be on my github page

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