Whether you look at Roger Bannister running the mile in under four minutes, Jim Hines taking the 100m under 10 seconds, or Bob Beamon breaking the long jump world record by over half a metre, athletics has long been fascinated with humans achieving the impossible. But what is the unthinkable achievement that we can expect to see happen next? Well a sub 9 second 100m is considered an impossibility to a lot of experts and others doubt that a long jump that surpasses 9 metres will have the same reverberating effect as Beamon’s jump. After all, it’s just five centimetres away from happening. One holy grail of athletics that could happen in our lifetime and would forever change the sport however is the elusive sub two hour marathon.
So how far away is it? Well the current world record, held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, stands at 2:02:57, leaving just under three minutes needed to be shaved off in order to achieve the unthinkable. But three minutes sounds like an awful lot to bring it down though, right? But over the last 20 years the world record has been falling four times as fast as previous decades and at its current rate we could see the two hour barrier being broken by 2030!
Of course there are so many different factors that can affect the time it takes to run any race and the marathon is no different. We will never know exactly when the big day will arrive but there are certain things that we can guess will be happening when it does. For example, it’s far more likely to be a cold day than a warm one and that means the chances of seeing it happen at a summer marathon is far less likely. If we saw marathons ran outside the conventional times of the year then we might see a two hour marathon even sooner than we previously thought.
Then you have to think about the course itself. How much of a change in altitude is there? Are there many sharp turns? So the last six world records for the men’s marathon have been set in Berlin for example and when you look at the course it isn’t really a surprise. Compared to other major marathons, like Chicago, New York and London, Berlin has fewer turns that go beyond a right-angle and it is flatter. So a betting man might fancy the first sub two hour marathon to fall in Berlin, assuming the temperature was ideal of course.
So they are the natural changes in conditions that can have an impact. But of course this race isn’t being run by robots and the runners are therefore subject to human emotions too. Which means you shouldn’t be surprised if we see the feat achieved in a marathon that comes with generous prize money or a lot of prestige. Just imagine if we saw the first marathon ran under two hours during an Olympic Games!
The quick assumption would be that it will probably be a Kenyan or an Ethiopian too, right? Well the East Africans have literally dominated the event, with 90 of the 100 fastest ever marathon runners coming from one of the two countries. So if the man to go down in history isn’t from there, the chances are he will have all the key traits of somebody who is. And what that means is they will have to have a supply enough oxygen in two hours to match the amount you need to run just over 26 miles. And that is easier said than done.
So will we ever see someone break the two hour barrier? Well, give someone the right training, the right characteristics and enough of an incentive and then place them somewhere that is the right temperature, doesn’t fluctuate in altitude and isn’t too bendy, then sure, we might just get to see it happen in our lifetime.