Issue 10, 2014
Top marathon runners are edging ever closer to that Mythical sub-two-hour mark. Dominic Bliss considers the mental, physiological and environmental factors needed for man to cover 26.2 miles in under 120 minutes.
A marathon in under two hours used to be unthinkable. But then so was the four-minute mile, and the 100 metres in under 10 seconds – both of which are now quite normal among professional runners.
With the current world marathon record (held by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge) at two hours, one minute and thirty-nine seconds, surely it’s only a matter of time before we see top runners regularly clocking in under 120 minutes. But how much time? And will freakish conditions need to be in place?
The world’s fastest running surfaces are synthetic athletics tracks. Marathons, however, are staged on city streets where uneven surfaces such as concrete or pedestrian pavements can slow them down by valuable seconds. The smoother and more even the surface, the better.
A massive boost for any runner is an impassioned home crowd, keen to cheer on his every stride. Unfortunately the fastest marathon routes are staged in Europe, not East Africa, where the strongest runners hail from. Hang on, though. What about Mo Farah? At the 2014 London Marathon in April, this Somali-turned-Briton raced racing in his home town with the cheers of a million Londoners spurring him on.
Top runners aren’t nearly as intimidated by the two-hour barrier as they used to be. Ever since the half marathon was first run in under an hour (by Kenyan Moses Tanui, in Milan in 1993), they’ve known it’s not a physical impossibility. But as London Olympics chief and Olympic gold medallist Sebastian Coe says: “The arithmetic of a sub-two-hour marathon is both instructive and quite sobering. You’ve got to run four minutes, 35 seconds per mile over the course.”
In a sub-two-hour marathon you’ve got to run four minutes, 35 seconds per mile over the course.Sebastian Coe / London Olympics Chief and Olympic 1500m Gold Medalist
They’re essential for any record to be broken. Just look how Kipsang was pulled along most of the way to his 2013 world record in Berlin by pacemakers Edwin Kiptoo and Philemon Rono.
Even though IAAF rules insist the gradient shouldn’t incline or decline by more than a metre with every passing kilometre, no marathon courses are all on a downhill slope. Nor are they dead straight, with most snaking through city streets. Near-sea level venues, however, such as Rotterdam or London allow faster times than high-altitude ones such as Mexico City.
Arguably, the biggest incentive for any runner is prize money. Most of the world’s major marathons offer very healthy winnings, as well as bonuses for new records. In addition, the World Marathon Majors, a series of the six top world marathons – Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo – currently offers a season-ending jackpot of US$500,000 to the male and female champions. Individual athletes’ sponsors dangle carrots too.
With anything but perfect weather, a sub-two hour marathon is unthinkable. That’s why most modern marathon records have been set in cool conditions that keep the muscles warm but don’t allow runners to overheat: Chicago in late October, Berlin in late September, London and Rotterdam in mid-April. “You’re going to need freak weather,” says Timothy Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. “Quite a pushing tailwind behind you, full cloud cover, very low humidity and cool temperatures.”
Shoes & clothing
Over the course of 26 miles an athlete wearing a sprint suit might run a few seconds faster. However, without any bare skin, he would risk overheating. “Over long distances, your body would heat up and this would actually impede performance,” says Mike Antoniades, director of international coaching network The Running School.
To achieve greater speeds and avoid injuries, long-distance runners must be smarter in their training techniques. “The kind of anti-gravity treadmills that Mo Farah and [female marathon record-holder] Paula Radcliffe have pioneered in the past decade or so will become commonplace,” says Jason Henderson, editor of Athletics Weekly magazine. “We will realise it was lunacy when we look back on the days when worldclass runners risked their limbs by churning out endless junk miles on cement, tarmac or bumpy trails.”
“You’d need the world’s best male runner and the world’s best female runner to produce offspring,” says Timothy Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. That would mean Wilson Kipsang hooking up with Paula Radcliffe. An interesting combination made even more tricky by the fact that they’re both already married to other people.