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?
I tend to agree with Dave Bedford that it will be possible once the current record is eroded to the point where it seems possible. The 10k and half records will have to come down significantly first.
One thing I am fairly certain of; unless Dave Bedford significantly changes his recruiting strategy the record won't be coming back to London. Berlin have shown willing to structure their race around one athlete, Haile - a high risk strategy because if he has a bad day then the race loses (see Chicago and Tergat) significantly - whereas Dave Bedford has always jammed his race full of as many of the top athletes as possible.
I know that Khannouchi set the WR in London racing against Gebrselassie and Tergat, but that sort of occurence is the exception rather than the rule. If Bedford sets up the men's race the way he set up Paula's WR then we would definitely see a new men's WR in London.
"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."
Was it? I am skeptical of claims like this. Who said it? On what basis was the claim made? It is too akin to the sort of thing we hear from creationists all the time about what scientists supposedly proved in the past that turned out to be wrong, and when we investigate what was actually said, it was nothing of the sort. Most experts in most fields are loathe to proclaim anything impossible for all time, but there are on occasion claims made that something is impossible at the moment, and that gets turned into "forever" via the social grapevine. So, what legitimate running expert ever said the 4 minute mile will never be broken? Ditto for the 10 second 100 meters.
That said, we can all agree that the 10 second marathon will never be run, so obviously there is some limit, and once training and equipment have been optimized, the progressive records over time should yield a fit to an asymtotic limit. Perhaps a mathematically inclined historian of running will do such a study.
Not to sound Palinesque, I don't have any quotes at my fingertips but if I get a chance I'll look up a few. Two good sources are the books The Perfect Mile and The Quotable Runner. I haven't picked up either in a couple of years but I certainly remember quotes from runners at the time who attempted the sub 4 mile and didn't make it. Paraphrasing: "It is impossible. I shall never again attempt it." Without a doubt there were people (runners themselves, not just spectators or pundits) who fell into the two camps.
Also, there have been marathon limit projections based on historical trends. They have varied a bit, and some have wound up at sub 2 hour. I *think* there's data on these in Noakes' The Lore of Running.
Jim, I would probably have agreed with you until I read this article a few years ago:
I tend to think that this idea of impossibility was invented to emphasise (over-emphasise?) Bannister's feat, probably by the people seeking to secure their position as the sole authority in the sport.
There have been stories about sub 4 miles in years past, but I am always curious about the accuracy of the measurement and whether or not it was net downhill or wind-aided (as these were not generally run on tracks). The Perfect Mile gives a good taste of what was happening in the decades prior to Bannister's run (and to be clear, the title does NOT refer specifically to Bannister's first sub 4).