A very interesting read in the Guardian today regarding the possibility of humans ever running a sub two hour marathon. This speculation always crops up when the marathon record is broken, most recently by the venerable Haile Gebrselassie who last week brought the mark down to 2:03:59.
The discussion always divides into the “No, never!” camp and the “Of course!” chorus. On the one hand, Haile’s 4:43.7 average mile pace is mind boggling to the average student of the sport and a further lowering to the required 4:34.6 seems impossible. But, the same thing was said about the four minute mile and the 10 second 100 meters, times which top runners surpass with regularity these days.
But really, how far can it go? It is obvious that there has to be some limit. While “records are made to be broken”, at some point a record will never be broken without a significant change in human physiology. Humans can only run so fast and for so long. I guess the real question is “What’s so magical about two hours?” Aren’t time barriers like four minutes or 10 seconds or two hours just convenient points? There is nothing about the fundamental units of the second or meter that tie into human sports performance, short of the mind, the belief that you can do it.
While there must be a limit somewhere, I’m not convinced that two hours is that limit. I tend to agree with David Bedford:
Bedford believes it will be achieved simply through what he calls a continuing evolution of times. ‘For example,’ he says, ‘if you take Kenenisa Bekele as the No1 10,000-metre runner at the moment, he is significantly faster than Haile Gebrselassie over the distance – so therefore I believe that when he and his generation move up to the marathon we will start to see times like two hours two-and-a-half minutes or even two hours two minutes. And this will continue. So what I think we are talking about is maybe three generations from now athletes getting it into their heads that it is possible.
And then, what of the next generation? Will it be 1:59:00?