A Sub-Two-Hour Marathon? An Exercise Physiologist Weighs In

Download Audio
Kenya's Dennis Kimetto finished the Berlin Marathon in 2:2:57, a world record. (Tobis Schwarz /Getty Images)
Kenya's Dennis Kimetto finished the Berlin Marathon in 2:2:57, a world record. (Tobis Schwarz /Getty Images)

Last Sunday, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto set a new world record by finishing the Berlin Marathon in 2:02:57. That’s 26 seconds faster than the previous record — which was set just last year when Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang broke the previous mark by 15 seconds.

All this has led many to conclude that a sub-two-hour marathon is imminent. Exercise physiologist Ross Tucker joined Bill Littlefield from South Africa.

BL: Ross, we’re just 2:57 over a two-hour marathon. So why isn’t it as easy as a recreational runner shaving a few minutes off her best time?

[sidebar title="Meet Merry Lepper: A Trailblazer Of Running" width="630" align="right"]Until the 1970s, women weren’t even allowed to officially compete in marathons. But in 1963, Merry Lepper broke the rules and became a pioneer for female runners.[/sidebar]RT: Because imminent means different things to different people, and when you’re at the level of these athletes, 2:57 — which to you, me and most recreational runners, sounds like an easy target to set yourself for your next race — for these guys that’s four seconds a kilometer. That’s a lifetime. So even if we can knock 20 seconds off it each time, you’re still looking at nine world records to go before we get to sub-two.

The fundamental issue is that when you’re at the limit of what human beings have ever done — never mind yourself — the margin for error is so small that if pacing is not good, if your training is not good, if the weather is not good, if the tactics are not good, the record is off.

BL: This is presumably why, though the record has been broken seven times since 2002, you suggest we should focus on how much it has not been broken.

RT: Exactly, so it’s very easy to get caught up and say, “Look at all these successful attempts,” but you know there are seven or eight attempts a year, and so for every one that we’ve seen, we’ve seen perhaps 10 go missing.

BL: How is it the last six times the record has been broken it’s been in Berlin? How important is the course?

When you’re at the limit of what human beings have ever done ... the margin for error is so small.

Ross Tucker, exercise physiologist

RT: Fundamentally non-negotiable. The problem is that all the courses have got little things that affect them. London: too many twists and turns; sometimes it’s windy. Chicago: it’s been too hot; it’s been too cold; it’s been too windy. Boston: too hilly; too hot. New York: too many hills. Berlin is the one that stands out and says, “Weather permitting, we’ve got the perfect conditions.”

BL: Before we get serious about a sub-two-hour marathon, you have suggested we should pay attention to the half marathon. Why is that?

[sidebar title="Epstein's 'The Sports Gene'" width="630" align="right"] In his 2013 book, David Epstein traveled the world,  investigating the role genetics play in forming elite athletes. He spoke with OAG's Doug Tribou. [/sidebar]

RT: There’s a certain degree of connectedness between these events. You know, the marathon doesn’t exist in isolation, and if we want to see a sub-two-hour marathon, there are implications for what we should be seeing in a half marathon, what we should be seeing at 10 kilometers. And we’re not seeing those yet, so it’s too early to speculate about the sub-two.

BL: I wonder if there is a limit. Will be see a sub-two-hour marathon?

RT: If I said “Yes, there’s a limit, and we won’t see a sub-two-hour marathon” then someone will find this on the internet in 50 years’ time, and I’ll probably look like a fool. Because scientists have been made fools of before. In the 1950s, the big barrier was the sub-four-minute mile, and sure, we now know a lot more than we did then — but experts at that stage were saying, “No, it’s not possible.” Now the world record in the mile is 17 seconds faster than the supposed limit. So we’ve been shown up before and I’m sure we’ll be shown up again.

I have a feeling that unless there are major shifts in technology and major changes, most of the world records are starting to level off. There was a group of scientists in France recently who produced a paper showing that by the mid-2030s, the records will have leveled off. Whether that happens before or after sub-two, I’m not sure. I think we’ll see a sub-two, but I think we need to be a bit more patient than people might be willing to be at the moment.

Related Links: 

This segment aired on October 4, 2014.


More from Only A Game

Listen Live