The sub-27 minute man doesn’t have anything in common with his opponents.
Written by: Mario Fraioli
Put a random spectator in the stands of any major track meet and even the untrained observer can’t help but notice the striking similarities of the top runners across the finish line in the men’s long-distance races. Ectomorphs of African descent abound, which, in the world of competitive distance running, has been the case for the better part of the last 20 or so years.
And then two weekends ago at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, a Paul Bunyan lookalike named Chris Solinsky emerged from the Oregon woods and forced everyone at Stanford’s Cobb Track to take a surprised second look at the winner of the men’s 10,000 meters.
At 6 feet, 1 inch and 161 lbs, Solinsky has always stood out amongst the other runners on the starting line simply because of his size. But when he crossed the finish line first in 26:59.60 against a world-class field in the 10,000 meters on May 1st at Stanford, it was also the color of Solinsky’s skin that had everyone in attendance wondering what it was about the scene that didn’t look quite right — and with good reason.
In an analysis posted last week on the Science of Sport’s website, Ross Tucker, PhD, took a look at the heights and weights of the 31 men who have broken 27 minutes for 10,000 meters. The findings were interesting, to say the least. Before Solinsky’s breakthrough performance at Stanford, the average height and weight of a sub-27 minute man was 5 feet, 7 inches and 122.5 lbs. More interesting, however, was Tucker’s observation that anyone who had ever broken 27 minutes for 10K prior to Solinsky was of African descent.
“And the other notable observation of Solinsky’s performance is that not only is he the largest runner ever to make it into the sub-27 club, he’s also the first man from outside Africa to do it,” Tucker wrote. “Of the 31 members, 20 are Kenyan (including a few who happened to be running in Qatar vests), 6 are Ethiopian, 2 are Moroccan (one of whom ran for Belgium and then got caught doping), and one each for Uganda and Eritrea, and now America.”
The link between these two observations is nothing short of fascinating. Tucker gives mention to a study conducted in 2000 by Frank Marino which concluded that smaller men had a performance advantage over larger men when completing an 8K time trial in warmer conditions. Marino cited the smaller runners’ ability to better regulate their body temperature as the main reason for the difference in performance. Tucker also made an interesting observation of Marino’s results, noting that the smaller men in the study were of African descent, whereas the larger men were white.
While these findings might help shed some light on why Africans have long dominated the distance races on the track, what they don’t do is explain how Chris Solinsky is suddenly a sub-27 minute man worth keeping an eye on at the world level. Whether he’s a genetic freak, or an insanely hard worker, or simply has a better cooling system than other athletes his size, it can only be concluded that Solinsky is the obvious exception in an event long ruled by ectomorphic African runners.