Just over a week ago, the Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge completed a marathon in under two hours—1:59:40, to be exact. This was the first time a runner has completed the marathon distance (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, set by Mr. Kipchoge in 2018, is 2:01:39. For him to finish under two hours now is a remarkable feat considering that the world record has fallen only two minutes in the past 10 years. This 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 4:35 per mile pace at a running speed of over 13 miles per hour for two hours. Most runners I know would be hard pressed to complete the final 385 yards at that pace…forget about the 26 miles that came 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!
This was a vindication of sorts for a failed effort to break the two-hour mark in 2017. Like the previous attempt, the recent race as much about sports science and running technology as it was exercise physiology and human performance. The shoes Mr. Kipchoge wore were designed by Nike to be exceptionally light and provide extra recoil to propel him forward, the next generation version of the shoes he wore previously. The race was run on a road in Vienna that was smooth and flat and was completed early in the morning when the temperature was cool.
During the race, a group of runners ran in front of Mr. Kipchoge to break the wind so he could draft behind them, 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 laser line on the road for the runners to follow. Water and sports drinks were provided by assistants on bikes so the Mr. 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. However, because of the pacing strategy used, this run is not considered a world record.
Aside from the technology and support, Mr. Kipchoge is an exceptional distance runner. This is due primarily to the fact that he has been running his whole life. Running was literally a form of transportation for him growing up in Kenya and he has dedicated years to marathon training. He also lived and trained at high altitude for most of his life, another factor that improves performance. And he has benefitted from the best coaches, trainers, and nutritionists. Ultimately, though, Mr. Kipchoge’s record-breaking marathon performances are due to his physical and mental preparation and dedication.
Breaking the two-hour marathon barrier highlights the sports science, technology, and training advances that are currently being explored. 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!