The Best Runners of the Decade

best runners, best runners of the decade

Usain Bolt celebrates his Olympic victory. Photo by friskytuna/Flikr.

The end of the “aughts” is upon us, and it’s been quite a decade for running. Here are the 10 runners who thoroughly dominated their fields in the past 10 years—The Best Runners of the Decade. My picks are completely unscientific and subjective, and I’m sure they will incite at least a little grumbling. But these 10 runners have dazzled the world with feats of strength worthy of Festivus, and racked up the hardware to prove it. Drum roll please…

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Oscar Pistorius, known as “The Blade Runner,” has four Paralympic golds. Photo by Elvar Freyr/Flikr.

10). Oscar Pistorius (South Africa)

Double amputee Oscar Pistorius has set amputee world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters; and he’s broken his own world records 27 times. He won gold medals in all three events at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and the 2006 World Championships. He also has a gold in the 200 meters from the 2004 Paralympics. The man known as the “Blade Runner” lost his legs at 11 months old—he was born without the fibula in both limbs. He began running in able-bodied races in 2007, but controversy over his prosthetic limbs temporarily banned him from competition—critics said they gave him an unfair advantage. But he fought back and the ruling was reversed in early 2008. He’s aiming to compete in the 2012 Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes. And at 23-years old, I’m sure we’ll be hearing his name in the decade to come.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Amy Palmiero-Winters runs to a world record at the 2006 Chicago Marathon. Photo courtesy of Amy Palmiero-Winters.

9). Amy Palmiero-Winters (United States)

When Amy Palmiero-Winters ran the Cleveland Marathon in 2006, she shattered the world record for female amputees by a staggering 27 minutes. But she didn’t stop there. Just a few months later at the 2006 Chicago Marathon she smashed her own world record by another 22 minutes. But that’s not all. Her time of 3:04 was 12 minutes faster than her personal best from 13 years earlier, before she lost her left leg in a motorcycle accident.

Since then, she has continued to blaze trails for amputees. In October of 2009, she became the first female amputee to finish a 100-mile ultramarathon—the Heartland “Spirit of the Prairie” 100-Mile Endurance Run. But she didn’t just finish the race—she won, beating every able-bodied female, and with the second fastest time in the event’s history. The 37-year-old now has 12 world records to her name in everything from the marathon and 50 miles to 100 miles and triathlons, along with three Triathlon World Championship titles. Her story was so inspiring that Runner’s World readers chose her as the magazine’s first-ever Reader’s Choice Hero.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Scott Jurek runs to victory at the 2007 Spartathlon. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

8). Scott Jurek (United States)

There’s distance and then there’s distance. In the burgeoning field of ultramarathons, Scott Jurek is the king of the road. He’s won no less than 25 ultramarathons, and set 10 course records in the process. He’s twice won the Badwater Ultramarathon, aka “the world’s toughest footrace”—135 miles from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif., in temperatures up to 130 degrees. And he’s the seven-time champion of the Western States Endurance Run, as well as the course record holder. In 2006, he was the first American to win the Spartathlon, a 246K race from Athens to Sparta, which he’s now won three times. His crowning achievement? In 2005, he won his seventh consecutive Western States 100; just two weeks later, he won Badwater in course record time, scoring a rare ultramarathon “double.” More than any other endurance runner, Jurek, 36, has simply dominated ultramarathoning this decade. And his name is already being mentioned alongside the likes of Yannis Kouros, the greatest endurance runner of all time.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Catherine Ndereba races to her second marathon World Championship title. Photo by Eckhard Pecher.

7). Catherine Ndereba (Kenya)

They call her “Catherine the Great” for a reason. Based on the World Marathon Majors scoring system, Ndereba is the most decorated marathoner in history—male or female—with eight wins, eight second places, one third and two fifths in Majors, Olympic and World Championship competition. Among those are four wins in Boston, two in Chicago, two World Championships, two Olympic silvers and one world record. She has also won the Philadelphia Distance Run—a half marathon—seven times. Though her amazing career (and world record) has been eclipsed by Paula Radcliffe—who races with much less frequency—Ndereba, 37, is still one of the best marathoners to hit the road. Ever.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Usain Bolt celebrates after his 100-meter win at the Beijing Olympics. Photo by Richard Giles.

6). Usain Bolt (Jamaica)

I’ll probably catch some flack for putting Bolt so low on the list, considering the worldwide sensation he’s become. In 2009, he made Time magazine’s short list for person of the year and the readers of voted him the second most influential man, topped only by the fictional Don Draper, the ad tycoon of AMC’s Mad Men. But the people ahead of Bolt have more wins and years of triumphs this decade—Bolt has really only been active in 2008-09. Plus, I think the glamour and glitz of running fast often outshines the toil and trouble of running long.

But when it comes to running fast, no one is faster than “Lightning Bolt.” Bolt burst into the international imagination at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when he won triple gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4×100-meter relay, breaking three world records in the process. He repeated the feat at the 2009 World Championships in August, winning the 100- and 200-meter titles and smashing—and I mean smashing—his own world records along the way. He’s the first man to hold the 100- and 200-meter Olympic and World titles simultaneously. And at just 23 years old, he may well be on top of next decade’s list.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Tirunesh Dibaba celebrates her new world record in the 5,000 meters in 2008. Photo by Ragnar Singsaas.

5). Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia)

With possibly the best nickname in professional running, the “Baby Faced Destroyer” is known for her killer finishing kick. She won her first World Championship in 2003 at just 17 years old, making her the youngest champion in history. And in 2005, she was the first woman to win both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at a single World Championships. This decade alone, she has won four track World Championships, five World Cross Country Championships and two Olympic gold medals along with four career world records. She is the current Olympic champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and the first woman to ever win this elusive “golden double.” And she’s been undefeated since March 2007—the longest current winning streak in women’s track. She still holds the world record at 5,000 meters (indoor and outdoor) and 15K. Just coming back from a foot injury that kept her out of the 2009 World Championships, Dibaba is certain to do some more destroying next decade—she’s only 24 years old.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Hicham El Guerrouj (left) toes the line at the Athens Olympics, where he won two golds. Photo by Elporfavor/Wikimedia.

4). Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco)

El Guerrouj might be the best miler in history. Period. He has seven World Championship titles, two Olympic golds, one Olympic silver and 5 world records to his name. In 2002, he was undefeated in 11 races at the mile and 1500 meters. And at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he took gold in both the 1500 and 5000 meters. He retired after the Athens games, but still holds all five of his world records—in the mile (indoor and outdoor), 1500 (indoor and outdoor) and 2000 meters. Just how fast was he? His records have been on the books the entire decade—since 1997, 1998 and 1999. And his win in the 1500 meters in Athens was one of the most sensational and gut-wrenching victories of the games.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Kenenisa Bekele celebrates his 10,000-meter victory at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Photo by André Zehetbauer.

3). Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia)

A distance running sensation, Bekele was voted runner-up for “Best Male Distance Runner of All Time” by both the editors and readers of Runner’s World magazine. He is the reigning Olympic champion, World champion and world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters—an incredibly rare triple “golden double.” All told, he’s racked up three Olympic golds, one Olympic silver, five world records, six track World Championships (indoor and outdoor) and a record 11 World Cross Country Championships; from 2002 to 2006 he won both the long and short course cross-country races, an unparalleled feat. At 27 years old, Bekele has an impressive career behind him, but I suspect the best is yet to come. And if he follows in the footsteps of his compatriot and mentor Haile Gebrselassie, the next decade may see Bekele moving up to the half- and marathon. Stay tuned.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Paula Radcliffe runs to her third win in the New York City Marathon in 2008. Photo by fergie_lancealot/Flikr.

2). Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain)

Paula, Paula, Paula. She’s a media darling for a reason. As the reigning queen of the marathon, Radcliffe has won eight of the 10 marathons she’s finished. In Chicago in 2002, Radcliffe broke the marathon world record in only her second attempt at the distance. But just six months later she smashed that record—in her home country no less—by almost two minutes. In doing so, she put herself in a field of one. She has the three fastest times on record and no other woman has even come close; the fourth fastest time, run by Catherine Ndereba, is more than three minutes slower than Radcliffe’s best.

Radcliffe continued to dominate the women’s marathon throughout the decade, winning the World Championships and Chicago once each and London and New York three times each. Oh, and I did I mention she took almost two years off to have a baby? Along with her 8 major marathon wins, she has 4 career world records, three half-marathon World Championship titles and two World Cross Country Championship titles. She still owns the world record in the marathon and 10K road. There’s talk of Radcliffe, 36, finally taking Olympic gold in 2012—and in London at that. It would be a fitting capper for a truly dazzling career.

best runners, best runners of the decade, 2000s

Haile Gebrselassie, at the FBK Games in 2009, is the greatest distance runner ever. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

1). Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia)

If running had royalty, Gebrselassie would be the undisputed king. He has a World Championship title or world record at every single distance from 1500 meters to the marathon, including seven World Championships, two Olympic gold medals and an astonishing 24 career world records (26 counting the non-ratified ones). And did I mention he has asthma too? Hands downs, he is the best runner of his generation and maybe the best runner of all time. Both the editors and readers of Runner’s World voted Geb the “Best Male Distance Runner of All Time,” and I agree. No other runner—distance, sprinter or otherwise—has matched his accomplishments in both world records and hardware.

The 2000s have been very kind to Geb. He went undefeated in 2000 and 2005. And between 2005 and now, he has won eight world-class marathons and set 10 world records. His pièce de résistance? In 2008 at the Berlin marathon, Geb became the first and only person to run a marathon under 2:04—he came in at 2:03:59, breaking his own world record. And he did it at the age of 35 no less. At the turn of the decade he still holds four world records—in the marathon, 20,000 meters, 30K road and one hour run, and he’s not through yet. He’s said he wants Olympic marathon gold in 2012. If anyone can do it, Geb certainly can.

There you have it. The Best Runners of the Decade. Who do you think deserves to be on the list? And who will be on top next year?

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.


12 2009

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  1. 1

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  2. Karla Bruning
    Karla #

    Sure, feel free to quote it. I’m @KBruning on Twitter. Cheers, Karla