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Clocking Out in Under Two Hours

David Yon, April 17

There are those barriers that for unknown reasons we become obsessed with.  In athletics, the most famous of course was the 4-minute mile.   Sports Illustrated called Roger Bannister’s sub four-minute mile race the “twentieth century’s greatest sporting achievement.”  At the time, many thought the barrier was simply physically and psychologically impossible to break.  Neal Bascomb does a great job of telling the story of the chase for “The Perfect Mile” in his book by that name.  Now of course, while a sub 4-minute mile is still a very good time, that pace would not be any near fast enough to even make the U.S.  Olympic team at the metric “equivalent” distance of 1500 meters.

While it may not have quite the same allure, the sub 2-hour marathon is indeed an “impossible” barrier that is coming within the sight, if not the reach, of the most talented athletes and coaches. When I ran my first marathon in 1985, the world record for the marathon was 2:07:12. It was held by Carlos Lopez, a Portuguese runner who set the marathon record on April 20, 1985, in the Rotterdam Marathon, an international marathon known for its fast times.  I could never imagine running the 4:51 per mile pace that time required for even one mile. So, the idea of dropping the pace to 4:34 per mile in order to break 2 hours was not something I expected to happen in the “foreseeable” future, i.e. my lifetime.   That pace (4:34) by the way, would produce a 5K time of approximately 14:14.  Stanley Linton won the Palace Saloon 5K race on Saturday in 15:21, and that was the best winning Palace 5K time since 1994.

The earliest I remember actually being aware of a new world record being set, was in December of 1981 and it was set by Robert De Castilla, a popular runner from the country of Australia. He took hold of the marathon record with a 2:08:18 finish at the Fukuoka Marathon, breaking the old record by almost 43 seconds, a giant margin.  It would take 3 years for Steve Jones, from Wales, to take the record down, lowering it to 2:08:05.  Six months later Ethiopian, Belayneh Dinsamo, stayed below the psychological 2:07:00 barrier with a 2:06:50 finish at Rotterdam.  With that record, many imaginations began to see a marathon finish time knocking on the door of 2 hours.  The race to break the 2-hour barrier began to seem a little less impossible.

Those dreams soon gave way to reality, however.  It took 10 years before someone broke Dinsamo’s record.  Ronald da Costa from Brazil became the first Berlin Marathon winner to break the world record when he finished in 2:06:05.  That would be followed in a comparatively short time period by record setting performances from Khalid Khannouchi, first as a citizen of Morocco (2:05:42) at the Chicago Marathon, and second as a citizen of the United States when he ran 2:05:38 at the London Marathon. Eliminating 5:38 would not be easy. But when Paul Tergat (Kenya) found a way under 2:05 and Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) responded and pushed the record under 2:04 – even if by only one second at Berlin in 2008 – the wall was in plain view.  But was it climbable? Geb’s record stood until Patrick Makau (Kenya) ran 2:03:38 in September of 2011.  Wilson Kipsang went next with 2:03:23 in 2013.  On September 28, 2014, Dennis Kimetto (Kenya) crossed the finish line in Berlin with a time of 2:02:57 the fastest time anywhere, anytime.   

On March 15, 2017, the New York Times ran a story about “Breaking the Two-Hour Marathon Barrier.” It was and is a good time to look at the quest with the fast spring marathon’s approaching.   The article examined a study done by two individuals from the University of Colorado and one from the University of Houston.  The study focused on biomechanical changes that could maximize the chances to run sub 2 hour and concluded that a 2.5% increase in average speed would be necessary to run under 2 hours instead of 2:02:57. The faster pace could be maintained with a 2.7% reduction in metabolic cost of running according to the report.  The authors advised that this efficiency could be accomplished by maximizing the terrain, a consistent tailwind, drafting strategies, and wearing the lightest running shoes. According to one study cited, adding 100 grams or 3.5 ounces of weight to a shoe reduces a runner’s efficiency by 1%. Maximizing all these components easily produced a sub 2-hour marathon – theoretically, at least. 

Unlike the 4:00 mile which was broadly considered impossible, the 2-hour marathon seems to be more a question of when rather than if.  There are actually a number of training groups now trying to focus on being the first under 2 hours.  Nike has among the most interesting efforts. They have signed up three world class marathoners, Lelisa Desisa, Eliud Kipchoge, and Zersenay Tadese, to go after the barrier in early May in the Autogromo Nazionale Monza complex near Milan, Italy.  It is a race car track with each loop 2.4 kilometers in length requiring a runner to complete 17.5 loops.  It is flat and a good surface to run on to chase the barrier. Nike is promoting its new shoe, with its light weight and unique design as (surprise) being a key to success.

It is in fact marathon season, and the season for fast marathons.  Rotterdam has been run with now new records and Boston will be complete by the time you read this. With American star Galen Rupp looking for a title and American favorite Meb Keflezighi looking to run his best at age 41 with a tough build up, there will be plenty of excitement at Boston. If the pace is fast you will hear all about why Boston can be a “world best,” but not a “world record” marathon.

London though has probably the fastest group of runners. Kenenisa Bekele will lead a field of superstars in the London Marathon on the 21st of April. Bekele, from Ethiopia, has the second fastest marathon time (2:03:03) and the world record at a number of shorter distances. Many consider him the greatest distance runner of all times. A sub 2-hour marathon would nail that home. He is fully capable of pushing the record to a point much closer to that 2-hour barrier.

Looks a tad warm in Boston.  Here is hoping for the best for all from Tallahassee and surrounding areas.