Earlier this month a runner attempted to complete a marathon (26 miles and 385 yards) in under two hours. For distance runners and sports scientists, a sub two-hour marathon is a bit like the four-minute mile once was—an arbitrary, but significant, goal. The current world record for the marathon is just under 2 hours and 3 minutes (2:02:57). To cut 3 minutes off that time would be a remarkable feat considering that it took almost 20 years to lower the record three minutes from 2:06 to 2:03. The continued quest for a sub-two hour marathon is the topic of my Health & Fitness Column in the Aiken Standard this week.
First, let’s put a two-hour marathon in perspective. To do it would require sustaining a running speed of over 13 miles per hour for two hours. Most runners I know would be hard pressed to complete the 385 yards at that pace…forget about the 26 miles that come before it! It is also more than twice as fast as the average marathon time of over 4 hours. If you are brave you can experience how fast this is yourself by getting on a treadmill and cranking the speed up to 13 miles per hour. Hang on, though, because you won’t last long!
The recent attempt to break the two-hour mark featured the accomplished Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge, whose personal record was just over 2:03. The effort was as much about running technology as it was about human performance. The shoes he wore were designed by Nike to be exceptionally light and provide extra recoil to propel the runner forward. The race was run on a Formula One track in Italy that was smooth and flat and was completed early in the morning when the weather was cool with low humidity.
During the race, a group of runners ran in front of Kipchoge to break the wind so he could draft much like race cars do. These runners also acted as pacers, keeping him at the right speed to break the record. There was even a pace car that projected a line on the road for the runners to follow. Water and sports drinks were provided by assistants on bikes so the Kipchoge didn’t need to slow down to replenish fluid and carbohydrates. In all, it was a perfect scenario to run a sub-two-hour marathon.
Despite all the preparation and efforts during the race, Kipchoge just missed the goal, finishing in 2:00:25—less than one second per mile off the mark! This suggests that breaking the two-hour barrier for a marathon is achievable, but is still a significant challenge. In fact, because of the pacing strategy used, this run is not considered a world record.
Other groups are also working to get a runner past the two-hour mark. One, led by sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis, is taking the approach of enhancing training and to promote better performance. I have written about the physiological foundations of running performance related to the sub two-hour marathon previously.
While the two-hour marathon is still a goal for many, the sports science, technology, and training advances currently being explored exciting. Like the “shark skin” suits worn by swimmers and aerodynamic bikes used by cyclists, improvements in running technology are likely to be both beneficial and controversial. None of these advances can offset the physiological adaptations that result from years of dedicated training, so the best way to prepare for your next race is to put in time running, whether you are wearing the newest, fastest shoes or not!