Is it humanly possible to run a marathon in under two hours – legally? Yes of course, given enough time, but just how long will that take?
One key factor for success at long distance events is the ability to get oxygen efficiently to the muscles, thereby increasing an athlete’s VO2 max. EPOs (Erythropoietin) are a performance enhancing drug which help with red blood cell production and stimulate this process. But we want to know: can an athlete do it naturally?
A legal way to produce more red blood cells is to train at high altitude, which is one reason long distance athletics is dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians, due to their mountainous terrain.
It is also why Britain’s Olympic 5000m and 1,0000m gold medallist, Mo Farah, trains in Ethiopia as well as sleeping at night in an oxygen tent.
The world record for the marathon currently stands at 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in 2014. If anybody were to attempt to run the marathon in under two hours, then they would have to shave off almost three minutes from the current time.
Kimetto’s record is 3 minutes and 8 seconds away from the former world record of Brazil’s Ronaldo da Costa, set in 1998. 19 years later, we are looking for a similar chunk of time to be taken off. The world record has been slowly decreasing, but has not been touched in three years. Nike’s self-styled “Mission to Mars” continues to hold onto the dream.
Despite Kimetto’s superhuman achievements, ex-long distance athlete Jos Hermens argues that the Kenyan may have doped, due to the fact that Kimetto’s rise to the top was swift and that the following two seasons were mediocre in comparison – but that is all conjecture and nothing has been proven. Hermens, however, is on a mission to find the athlete with the potential to achieve that feat.
Aside from the search for a talented athlete who has a high VO2 max and excellent endurance, the location of the marathon could play a role.
Hermens suggests somewhere at sea level, so that athletes training at a higher altitude can come down to lower altitude and take advantage of extra oxygen uptake.
Some other factors that Hermens thinks would be useful would be the presence of a tailwind, which would propel the athletes forward faster; to have the race run downhill; or perhaps to allow runners access to a straw whilst they are running so that they can gain access to fluids more easily and frequently.
There are endless variables that can enhance the chances of a faster race, and insights into the latest cutting-edge scientific technology will also help coaches to understand how to overcome limiting factors. Hermens, however, is not so bothered about the race being International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ratified because, once the milestone has been reached, it simply becomes psychological from then on.
Psychology plays a key role in athletics and might give the top athletes that extra one per cent that they need. For example, when Roger Bannister famously became the first man to run under four minutes for a mile, suddenly more athletes were able to do it. At the time of Bannister’s run, the 800m world record was 1:46.6, so his midpoint splits did not need to be world-class.
Conversely, with the marathon explicitly organised in order to run a sub-two hour marathon, the athlete would need to be close to world record pace for a half marathon, which is 58 minutes 23 seconds. At the halfway point of his world record, Kimetto was at 61 minutes 45 seconds, before coming home for the latter part of the race in the slightly quicker 61 minutes and 12 seconds. Choosing good pacemakers may, however, make the task a bit easier.
While, in short, it doesn’t seem realistic for the time being, who knows what might happen?
Image courtesy of Daniel Julia Lundgren