A sub-two-hour marathon might seem unbelievable, but have no doubt – it will happen one day
When Paula Radcliffe ran 2:15:25 for the marathon in 2003, I was sitting in the London Marathon media centre next to Mel Watman – the former editor of Athletics Weekly and one of the most respected statisticians and journalists in the sport. Watman shook his head in amazement and told me that half a century earlier, when Jim Peters became the first man to run under 2:20 for the marathon, it was absolutely inconceivable that a woman would ever finish a marathon in one piece let alone in a time quicker than the best men of the day.
Of course it happened, just like most things eventually happen in athletics. Barriers are there to be broken and the human body is capable of “impossible” things. It is part of the beauty of our sport.
Given this, I am surprised that so many respected athletics experts and former athletes such as Tim Hutchings refuse to believe that the sub-two-hour marathon will be conquered – this century at least. Some of these doubters grew up during the period when Peters became the first man to break the 2:20 barrier, when the women’s record was outside 3:30 and when many people genuinely believed it was physically impossible to breach the four-minute barrier for one mile.
In more recent times we have seen Usain Bolt sprint to so-called “impossible” performances in the 100m and 200m. The men’s marathon world record has also tumbled down. But the pessimists remain unconvinced.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not think it will happen soon and none of the current great Kenyan marathoners such as Wilson Kipsang, Patrick Makau or Geoffrey Mutai have a chance. But I do think it will happen sometime in the future. Never, as they say, is a mighty long time.
Yes, the pace needed is frightening (2:50/km). But if you showed the current world record pace to athletes from the 1970s and 1980s, I am sure they would have also laughed in amazement.
I believe, though, that there remains lots of room for improvement. Right now, the best athletes are plucked from the hills of East Africa. They are usually given some guidance by a European coach and then thrown into road races where they sink or swim.
Their path so far to the current world record of 2:03:38, plus the 2:04-06 performances that have become common place, has been mildly chaotic to say the least.
Take the Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah, for example. He could very well be a future world record-holder for the marathon, but his career has unraveled in a relatively random fashion – from childhood in Somalia, to his teenage years kicking around a football in England, from one coach to another, to eventually hooking up with Alberto Salazar in the United States.
I have no doubt Farah’s diet, sleep, footwear, training etc are currently monitored with huge diligence and detail by Salazar and his team. But until the past few years – and certainly during his junior years - I’d guess that Farah’s attention to diet was pretty casual, he possibly wore whatever shoes he fancied and probably entered the same grassroots races as his pals.
How much faster would Farah have run if his career had been master-minded from birth with the same kind of Salazar-esque detail that we see today? Taking things one step further, imagine if the children of two world-beating Kenyans like Moses Mosop and Florence Kiplagat, or Tirunesh Dibaba and Sileshi Sihine, were nurtured from birth with only one goal in mind – to run as fast as possible over 26.2 miles. They would have an ideal diet and environment from day one, not to mention the kind of “hunger” for success that is so important.
No stone would be left unturned. Then, imagine a futuristic race organiser laying out a pancake-flat route with the kind of super-fast, synthetic surface that we currently find on athletics tracks.
Of course, this is guesswork and no one can ever predict exactly how the improvements will come about for the two-hour barrier to fall. In much the same way, when the first tadpole crawled out of the water in prehistoric times, there is no way it could have known its croak would one day evolve into all the languages of the world. But it did evolve, just as male marathoners will evolve.
Even then, it might take several generations of improvements as we creep gradually toward the two-hour barrier. The feat, when it is done, might also come from outside Kenya (perhaps future marathons will be dominated by South Americans, Indians or Chinese in the same way that Finns and Brits used to dominate proceedings). But one thing is sure – one day it will happen.
During my short time on this earth, after all, I have seen similar improvements already. As a teenager in the mid-1980s I saw Steve Jones set the world record of 2:08:05. Since then the record has come down by 4:43 and so it “only” needs a further 3:38 to achieve the so-called impossible.
» Jason Henderson edits Athletics Weekly and tweets at @Jason_AW