Running’s last Mount Everest: in pursuit of a two-hour marathon

Photo: Adventure Marathon
Photo: Adventure Marathon
Photo: Adventure Marathon

Mount Everest provides sport with a well-worn metaphor for the pinnacle of achievement, but its association with running goes deeper. The tie was forged during twelve months that redefined the limits of human achievement. On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of the world, and on 6 May the following year, 25-year-old medical student Roger Bannister ran the world’s first sub four-minute mile.

Both feats have been achieved by an increasing number of people since (and bettered significantly). As of February 2014, there had been 6,871 ascents of Everest by 4,042 different climbers. This is three or four times the number of people who have run a four-minute mile, with the record currently standing at Hicham El Guerrouj’s 3:43.13 run in 1999.

Attention has turned to new horizons in endurance sport, and much debate has been stimulated over the possibility of a two-hour marathon. The much-fabled distance of 26.2 miles is completed by millions of people annually in races held across the globe. According to Running USA, the average time for a male competitor in 2013 was four hours and 16 minutes.

The world of professional marathon running is a different beast. Averaging mile split times of 4:42 at just under 13 miles per hour, Kenyan Dennis Kimetto holds the current world record for the marathon. He won the 2014 Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:02:57. Kimetto’s time was the first to break the 2:03 barrier, but others are following in his rapid footsteps. In 2011, Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai broke the Boston Marathon course record in a time of 2:03:02, and compatriot Moses Mosop finished just four seconds slower (although the time was not ratified by the IAAF). 2016 saw the second fastest official time, 2:03:03, posted by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, again in Berlin.

The trend is clear: male professional marathon runners are getting faster. Since 1980, six minutes and four seconds have been shaved off the world record, and times continue to draw closer to the new Everest. Statistically speaking, the two-hour marathon is a certainty. The question is when it will happen.

Depending on when the statistical curve of speed progression begins, the first sub-two-hour marathon should be run sometime around 2022 (using data back to the 1960s) or 2035 (if counting from the 1980s). So, endurance sport’s final Everest requires a waiting game from spectators and hard training by athletes, right?

It may not be that simple. Despite its length and hours-long completion times, the marathon is still a sport of fine margins, and seconds are painstakingly fought for. Runners such as Kimetto, Mutai and Bekele are benefactors of a genetic lottery that has assigned them the correct ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibres and high oxygen intake (their VO2 max), which is then assisted by living at altitude their entire lives. Combine these physical attributes with a mental toughness commonly associated with the impoverished beginnings of most East African runners, the dedication needed to run over 120 miles a week and some race day luck. You’ll see that a world record is possible. Indeed, only a handful of men have run back-to-back sub-62-minute halves over the marathon distance, leading some to dismiss the idea of running two hour-long half-marathons consecutively as impossible.

Although minimalistic, runners’ equipment is vital. Since 2013, competitors Nike and Adidas have worked with athletes to create the perfect shoe to break the two-hour boundary. If being a part of history is not enough, the incalculable shoe sale profits involved for the company whose sponsored athlete breaks this mark offer clear motivation. Similarly, the advances in sports energy drinks and gels will play a significant role in the races ahead.

Further debate centres around where to stage an attempt on the two-hour mark. Although all five of the World Marathon Series races are held on the roads of major cities, they might not be the ideal location for a record attempt. Of these cities, Berlin is consistently the fastest. The competitive nature of races often results in tactical exchanges during the final few miles, with a slowing of pace as the pressure of winning takes hold. A more focused assault could be made on the record if a group of the fastest athletes could be persuaded to pace an attempt, possibly using a track rather than roads. Logistical issues surrounding IAAF rulings, interruptions in the racing calendar and paying the pacers equally all stand in the way. Kimetto earned $154,000 in Berlin: $40,000 for winning, $30,000 for a sub-2:04 time and $50,000 for breaking the world record.

Where does Mo Farah fit into the equation? Although Farah will not run under two hours when he turns his attention to the marathon after next summer’s Athletics World Championships in London, he is an interesting prospect. The earliest marathon Farah will feature in if his preparations are successful will be London in April 2018. Britain’s greatest athletic Olympian is also the fastest ever over a half marathon, running 59:32 in Lisbon last year. Compared to Kimetto’s best, 2012’s 59:14 in Berlin, Farah is in the frame. It is too early to predict how Farah will do over the full marathon distance, which is a race where so much can go wrong.

Over all this speculation resides a dark cloud. Recent doping scandals, especially with Kenya’s athletics programme, have shrouded future record attempts with doubt, and accusations of cheating will be hard to stomach for any athlete who honestly surpasses the marathon record. At the limit of endurance sport lies great rewards, both monetary and through the immortalisation of fame, and thus the temptation to cheat is great.


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