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Why a sub-two-hour marathon is not an impossible dream

Why a sub-two-hour marathon is not an impossible dream

The barrier won’t fall this weekend, says AW’s editor, but it will one day

Tomorrow, May 6, is my 48th birthday. It’s also the anniversary of the first sub-four-minute mile and it could go down in history as the date the sub-two-hour marathon barrier was breached.

Momentum has been building for the two-hour marathon for as long as I’ve been alive. The 1970 movie The Games – which was directed by Michael Winner and featured an Olympic marathon showdown between runners from four corners of the world – talked about running 26.2 miles inside two hours. This was at a time when real runners (from outside Hollywood) had only just managed to creep inside 2:10 for the first time, too.

The actor Michael Crawford played a milkman-turned-runner called Harry Hayes in the movie and on the eve of a fictitious Olympic marathon final he was urged by his coach, Bill Oliver, played by Sir Stanley Baker, to try to break two hours because winning gold wasn’t enough.

“The two-hour marathon,” he told his athlete as he prowled around the changing room just before the race. “The impossible thing! In 100 years from now they’ll be telling their children about it – and we’ll do it!”

Looking astonished, the runner responded: “It’s nearly 4min 30sec per mile … for 26 miles. It’s impossible, Bill.”

The coach replied: “That’s why we’ve got to do it.”

Michael Crawford (1)

Flash forward almost half a century and we’re still talking about the first sub-two-hour marathon. Many people continue to insist it’s “impossible” as well.

Since 1970, though, the world record has come tumbling down, which has naturally heightened the anticipation that it could one day happen. As a teenager in the 1980s, the record hovered in the 2:08 zone courtesy of Steve Jones and Rob de Castella. Carlos Lopes then brought it down to 2:07:12 before the relatively unheralded Belayneh Dinsamo and Ronaldo da Costa took it into 2:06 territory.

At the turn of the millennium, Khalid Khannouchi ran a couple of 2:05 world records followed by Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie bringing it inside 2:05 and, in 2008, below 2:04. Since then, Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto have improved it further as a flurry of record-breaking marathon performances have taken the mark to its current level of 2:02:57 – set by Kimetto set on the freakishly-fast Berlin course in 2014.

Now, a Nike-sponsored team of runners headed by Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge will attack the distance on a motor-racing course in Monza this weekend. It is an event that has captured the imagination of the distance running world and the question of whether a sub-two-hour marathon is possible divides opinion like few other areas of athletics.

Broadly, there are two types of people – sub-two optimists and pessimists. I am one of the optimists and believe it will happen one day. The pessimists, however, tell me it’s “impossible” (in the near future at least) and some go as far as to say it will “never happen” although my answer is that “never is a mighty long time” and who knows how humans might evolve and progress in the coming years.

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 AW 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 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.

Saying that, I do not think the sub-two-hour marathon will be done anytime soon. It might take decades, or even centuries, before it falls. Unless Nike create an artificial gale-force wind to push the athletes along, it won’t happen this weekend either. In fact, I think there’s more chance of Kipchoge registering a DNF in Monza if he attempts to run the first half inside 60 minutes.

But it is possible one day. Yes, the pace needed is frightening. But if you showed the current world record pace to athletes from the 1970s and 1980s, they would have also laughed in amazement.

There also remains lots of room for improvement. Right now, the best marathoners are plucked, quite randomly, from the hills of Kenya or Ethiopia. They are usually given some guidance by a European coach and then thrown into road races where they sink or (more often) swim. Yet imagine if the offspring of world-beating distance runners were reared from birth with one goal in mind – to break the world marathon record – with every training step and mouthful of food carefully planned from the beginning.

Plus, while the modern athletics world likes to think it uses cutting edge sports science, there remain a number of basic questions that we do not know the answer to. Is static stretching good or bad? Should runners wear minimalist footwear or shoes with lots of cushioning and support? What kind of diet is best – protein-rich or lots of carbs? With all these seemingly simple issues, no one really knows the answers.

Most of all, we simply cannot imagine the changes that will happen in coming years in areas such as injury prevention and human physiology. Will medical advances make injuries a thing of the past, for example? How will our bodies – physically and mentally – improve (or possibly deteriorate!) in coming years? No one has a crystal ball and the changes are totally unpredictable.

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 and cultures of the world. In much the same way, we simply have no idea how our ability to run fast for long periods of time will evolve in the coming hundreds, thousands and even millions of years.

Since my grandparents were born, the world marathon record has fallen by about half an hour. During my short time on this earth it has improved by 6min 39sec. So it ‘only’ needs a further 2min 57sec to hit the magical two-hour mark.

Is that really so impossible?

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