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by Dave Milner | published October 2, 2007

Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie just slashed 29 seconds from Kenyan Paul Tergat's 4-year-old world marathon record. GebreselassieGebrselassie, whom we may now impute (click here to argue) is the greatest distance runner in history, clocked 2 hours 4 minutes and 26 seconds. That's about 4:45 and change per mile, or around 71 seconds per 400 meters. Amazing.

Every time the marathon world record is lowered, which is not a common occurrence (11 times in the last 40 years), speculation seems to increase regarding the possibility of a sub-2 hour marathon.

Is a sub-2 hour marathon possible? Without performance enhancing drugs, I mean.

The 2-hour marathon is arguably the single most captivating barrier in distance running. It's 4:34 and change per mile. So, Haile, his heir apparent Kenenisa Bekele, or whoever else might feel inclined to take a crack at it, would have to run over 11 seconds faster per mile.

Is that possible? The now ex-record holder, Paul Tergat, said no. "Take it from me," he said in a recent interview. "It's impossible. I remember I ran 61 the last half of Berlin. I could hardly walk after that. So to run 60/60 is impossible. It would be a pipedream."

Tergat’s dismissal could be attributed to his title as the fastest marathoner ever (at the time). It is natural for him to see a 5-minute improvement on his record as being unfathomable. After all, he went through agony to run his record. He is right, but only partially. While a 2-hour time may not within the grasp of any of today’s competitors, or maybe not even anyone alive today, it is certainly within the realm of possibility.

I realize I may be comparing apples and oranges, but it was only 55 years ago that people were saying that a sub-4 minute mile was impossible too, the general school of thought being that one's heart would pretty much explode. Few sporting challenges have ever captured the public imagination in quite the same way. The feat was compared to the scaling of Everest (achieved the year before) or the landing of a man on the moon.

Even those who believed that the four-minute barrier could be broken thought it could be done only in the most perfect and exceptional circumstances. So-called experts confidently predicted it would have to be run in Scandinavia. The track would be hard, dry clay and rolled cinders. There would not be a breath of wind and the temperature would be an ideal 68°F. A large and enthusiastic crowd would lift the runners psychologically. The pace would have to be perfect.

Yes. like Geb, Roger Bannisuer had very capable rabbits to take him through three quarters of the way there, but the Englishman did it on a damp track on a windy day, before a small but enthusiastic crowd in a low-key dual meet at Oxford's Iffley Road track. Indeed, it seems much of the enduring fascination of Bannister’s barrier-breaking run was that this seemingly superhuman effort was achieved with the most amateur of approaches in far from ideal conditions.

Of course, the 4-minute mile ‘barrier’, like the 2-hour marathon barrier half a century later, was an entirely psychological one – just a convergence of time and distance and a nice round number. Yet the breaking of it capured the attention of almost the whole world and has kept Roger Bannister’s name a part of sporting folklore ever since.

In his comprehensive book Lore of Running, Dr Tim Noakes, the South African Exercise physiologist, examines the limits of running performance, from the mile to the two-hour marathon and beyond. He believes that Bannister’s success as a barrier breaker and, conversely, the failure of his Australian rival John Landy, "was because Bannister was able to convince his brain that it could achieve what none had done before. Landy’s brain, on the other hand, laboured under a false notion of his and other humans’ true physical ability."

The reason why Bannister did it first, when so many others had tried and failed, had as much to do with his mind as with his body. He had great self-belief and, above all, he was convinced that no real physiological ‘barrier’ existed. "Bannister and his coach," says Noakes, "used their conviction that some other runner - probably [Australian John] Landy - was about to break the barrier as the spur for their attempt on May 6, 1954, even though conditions were far from ideal on that day."

Ever since Bannister, athletics experts have been more wary of setting limits to physical feats. When Khalid Khannouchi broke the world record in April 2002, winning the Flora London Marathon in 2:05:38, speculation regarding a sub-2 began to increase. But Khannouchi himself was quick to pour cold water on the idea that the magic time might be just around the corner. He said he didn’t expect anyone to do it for at least another 50 years.

When Australian, Derek Clayton ran the first sub-2:10 marathon in 1967, I'm sure there were those thought that that was pretty much it for the record - that it would stand forever - but 40 years later the record has gone down more then five minutes. The explosion of big city marathons, the emergence of professionalism and the lure of big prize money has led to the steady erosion of records, with the men’s record being broken eight times since 1980. If it took forty years to shave off five minutes, is it reasonable to expect to wait another forty years to shave off another 4 minutes and 27 seconds? Probably, at least in my opinion.

Progression of Men's World Marathon Record since 1967

2:09:36 Derek Clayton December 3, 1967
2:08:33 Derek Clayton May 3, 1969
2:08:18 Robert de Castella December 6, 1981
2:08:05 Steve Jones October 21, 1984
2:07:12 Carlos Lopes April 20, 1985
2:06:50 Belayneh Dinsamo April 17, 1988
2:06:05 Ronaldo da Costa September 20, 1998
2:05:42 Khalid Khannouchi October 24, 1999
2:05:38 Khalid Khannouchi April 14, 2002
2:04:55 Paul Tergat September 28, 2003
2:04:26 Haile Gebrselassie September 30, 2007

We can probably attribute some of the recent drop in the marathon record to the introduction of faster courses, rabbits, and huge financial incentives. But we may also attribute much of the chiseling away of the record to a better understanding of exercise physiology by more runners across the globe.

And nay-sayers will pose the questions: 'What could people possibly be doing to train better right now? To be more informed? Isn't the reason people thought "your heart would stop if you ran faster than 4:00 for the mile" because they knew little about exercise physiology?

Well, now we know (or at least think we know) most of what there is to know about physiology and training methods, and, those nay-sayers might opine that times are not going to get much faster. People are already training about as well as they ever will. Good times are a product of good training, and there isn't a great deal left, one might argue, for us to learn.

If you want my two cents', I believe that there is still much to learn about how our bodies respond to extreme exertion, there will be a sub 2-hour marathon, and yes, I will live to see it. This prediction is not borne out of an optimistic outlook concerning my longevity, but rather a cold hard look at decades worth of research.

According to legendary exercise physiologist Jack Daniels and his tables in Oxygen Power (imagine a whole book of VDOT tables like the ones that appear in his best-selling book Daniels' Running Formula), a 2:00:00 marathon performance equates to a VDOT value of 86.0. The 5K and 10K times that equate to such a VDOT are 12:29 and 26:03, not terribly far from the current world records. Those world records - 12:37.35 and 26:17.53 respectively, are, according to Daniels' math, worth 2:01:10 for a marathon.

"According to my calculations" Daniels says, "the equivalent half marathon (of a 1:59:59 marathon) is 57:09, but that is strictly comparing the two in terms of equal energy use, and the marathon always involves the heat and dehydration factor, in addition to being able to supply the necessary energy for that duration of time.

"In terms of 10K equivalent, I calculate 26:03, but that would have to be an accurate 10K on the same surface conditions on which the marathon would be run. I was asked some 40 years ago when we would see the first sub-2 hour marathon and my answer was that we have to first break an hour for the half. Well, now that has been done, but we still have a ways to go."

One other factor, seldom mentioned, is complete dedication to the marathon. Paul Tergat broke the world record in his third marathon, but he was 34 years old at the time. Renato Canova, coach of several world class runners, says that “when you move to the marathon at 32, 33 years old because you are no [longer] able to run fast on the track, it’s possible to run a good marathon, but not your best marathon.”

Over 30 years ago, Arthur Lydiard, the renowned New Zealand coach and exercise physiologist, pronounced that a 2:05 marathon would be the limit of human performance.

One variable that could easily be changed for the better, though, is the running surface. I'll guess that the sub-2:00 will be achieved on the first course that goes with a tartan surface: think Mondo track 1 mile around. Look how much faster the 10K track times are compared to road races.

Scientific breakthroughs in training and equipment may help tomorrow’s runners in their quest. But the reality is that many of the factors that produced the world’s first sub4-minute mile may also deliver the first sub 2-hour marathon.

The 4-minute mile was hailed as a triumph of the human will. And when the 2-hour marathon is run, as it surely will be, it is to be hoped that it, too, will be a triumph of the human will rather than a victory for pharmaceutical excellence.

So it's possible, yeah, but everything, it seems, would have to be perfect. The weather, the course, the rabbiting, the surface, the shoes, the refuelling along the way, and, apparently, the crowd support.

Geb repeatedly thanked the crowds in Berlin for helping him to victory. His estimates the value of their support ranged from, “Fifty per cent,” right after the race, to, “60 to 70 per cent,” at his press conference, an hour later. But, whatever help you get from your friends, when you’re a marathon runner, and now a marathon world record holder, deep down you know: It’s all your own work. And no one deserves it more than Geb.

TR editor DAVE MILNER has run five marathons, all closer to three hours than two. While pursuing a degree in Exercise Science he had the good fortune to be coached by Dr Jack Daniels, for whom he underachieved on a grand scale. The last time he gave his two cents' to an East African distance runner, he received change back.

Click here for a post-race interview with Gebrselassie courtesy of Sean Hartnett and Track & Field News.


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