Sunday, September 28, 2014

How a Sub-2 Hour Marathon Will Happen

(N.B. Nike is now trying to do this very thing, here, three years after I wrote this article in their Sub-2 Project.  Read more here.)

In case you missed it, the men’s world record in the marathon fell (again) at the Berlin Marathon. The time for Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto?  2:02:57. For the math-declined, that’s a 4:41 minute mile average.

As runners, we sometimes throw around numbers and times of elite runners without the proper weight attached to them.  The most wonderful thing about running is that everyone can do it. Unfortunately, because everyone can, sometimes the otherworldlieness of the elites can be lost. Therefore, I am going to state that pace again just to reiterate how amazing it is. Four minutes and forty-one seconds per mile. On average. For twenty-six point two miles in a friggin’ row.

Non-runners cannot fathom how fast that is. For non-runners, a marathon itself is unbelievable. For slower runners, a 3:10 marathon is just as unbelievable as a 2:10 marathon.  For faster runners, sometimes we get caught up in the accolades of winning an age group or even a race here and there and think our talents are just slightly below the elites. But one thing I learned as my own personal marathon time went under three hours and eventually hit 2:49 was that the faster I run, the slower I realize I am. My PR is now 46 minutes slower than the world record. In my fastest marathon ever, I would have been about three feet in front of mile 19 when Kimetto crossed the finish. Egads.

I used to love the fact that my personal best started with a “2” because I could joke that I was still in the same hour as the world record. However, I don’t think I will be able to say that for very much longer.

In spite of what many (including those who have forgotten more than I know about running) have said leading into this race, I have zero doubt that a sub-2 hour marathon will happen.  I also think it will happen in the next decade to fifteen years. Let me give you a few reasons why.

1.    Records fall when psychological barriers are eliminated.  If you have never beaten your brother playing basketball, that fact gets in your head. Trying to best him will get progressively harder the more often you lose, even if everything else (e.g., skill levels) stay constant. With running, if you have never beaten a runner who also happens to hold a world record, chances are you will convince yourself you can never run that fast. However, there are so many new faces and younger runners taking on the marathon, most do not have that years-long defeat streak to say, Haile Gebrselassie.  As such, the mind-game defeating them before they get to the starting line is not there.

2.    Records fall in bunches. Part of the reason for records falling constantly is a herd mentality of training. The African dominance in running as of the past twenty years is due in part to the fact that the cogs of the machine are interchangeable. Whoever wins, wins. There are no great hopes pinned to the chest of a few runners like Ryan Hall or Dathan Ritzenhein in the United States. Going back to my first point, if someone you know you can run and train with on a daily basis is breaking records, then you think you can do the

3.    Science and technology continue to allow humans to get the absolute best out of their performance.  Included in this is the undeniable fact that some athletes may be illegally enhancing their performance.  Although what is or should be legal is a gray area. For example, why LASIK is legal in baseball but not steroids when both are artificial means of enhancing performance is something that sticks in my craw. With running, you can sleep in an oxygen tent to increase the oxygen- carrying capacity of your blood (very akin to blood doping differing mainly only in that the latter increases the amount of red blood cells in your blood) with no repercussions. But that is another article. My point is that we continue to learn more about how to train, rest, recover and train harder as each passing day goes by. There is no reason to believe this won’t continue.

I will readily admit that 173 more seconds is a lot of time to drop.  However, Kimetto’s record was 26 seconds faster than the previous world record. Yes, it would take six more efforts of someone bettering the world record by the same mark in order for the marathon to be under two hours. But it is not out of a reasonable realm of possibility to think this speed will continue. The world record has fallen by 62 seconds in the last 6 years. It has gone down by 41 seconds in just the past three years. Granted, it is entirely possible the record will go through a drought like it did most recently from 1988 to 1998 when no one broke lowered the mark at all.  But when Ronaldo da Costa finally did take down Belayneh Dinsamo world record he did so by a full 45 seconds.

Someone running a marathon under two hours would have to do so no slower than 4:34.57 per mile. That’s nearly 7 seconds per mile faster than the world record set in Berlin today. When you go into the tenths and hundredth of a second one is usually talking about a 100-yard dash. We have to do that for the sprints because the human body reaches a maximum speed and it soon becomes obvious that times will need to be measured in smaller and smaller increments. Until we don’t.

When Usain Bolt broke the 100 meter world record (way back in 2009) he did so by beating the current
world record by a full tenth of a second.  When your race is only 9+ seconds long, one tenth of a second is a lot of time (It has taken 31 years for the record to go down just two tenths of a second prior to Bolt.) Until Bolt came along many thought we might have to go into thousandths of a second to differentiate between new world records.  Bolt has shown that every time humans think that we have gone as high, fast or hard as possible, someone will show you that you haven’t seen anything yet. Apropos of nothing, Bolt's record was also set in Berlin. Hmmm.

As the world becomes more globally connected, massive amounts of the population have potential access to the rest of what we take for granted. Who knows how many potential Einsteins or Michael Jordans have been lost to war or famine in places where the basics of life are not so basic. There are undoubtedly untapped riches in the field of athletics as well. One of those kids, or one of the people they help push, will someday take down the two hour barrier.

And I am guessing they will do so at the Berlin Marathon.

1 comment:

Billy Tichenor said...

That's clearly a hypothetical diatribe, but I agree with the premise! Once ones mind accepts something is possible, it has a great impact on our eventual outcome especially in athletics. Same as Ryal Hall breaking the 1 hour barrier in the half.