A Sub-2-Hour Marathon?!?! It Could Happen Sooner Than You Think

Breaking Through the Plateau

The 1:59 marathon may turn out to be 1:59:50, 1:59:59, or some combination of numbers that will seem almost irrelevant, not unlike Bannister’s sub-4-minute mile. Ask most runners about that most famous of sports records and they will recall it as 3 minutes and fiftysomething seconds (it was officially 3:59.4). Even the title of Bannister’s own memoir is called “The Four-Minute Mile.”

There’s another reason why I emphasize “1:59” rather than “2:00.” That’s because if the runner   dwells on “2” and not “1,” the brain is actually affected by a misapplication of mental visualization. The brain needs to know that it can go 1:59 and formulate an indelible picture of 1-5-9, and not 2-0-0. The highly trained and healthy body will follow the brain’s instruction. The bottom line is that even if many runners are physically capable of approaching the sub-2-hour barrier—just as there are many who are capable of running under 2:04 now—it will take a mentally strong runner to get there first.

Bannister was extremely smart, disciplined and meticulous in his training, but also confident that breaking the 4-minute barrier in the mile was entirely possible. The first sub-2-hour marathoner will have to come from a similar makeup.

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Optimal Training

Making world-record comparisons between 26.2 miles and shorter distances like the 10K or half-marathon are not physiologically appropriate. Instead of looking at going sub-2 hours in the marathon as simply requiring a runner to take 7.78 seconds per mile off Kipsang’s record for 26.2 miles, a better way is to look at percentage improvements. To run 1:59, a runner would have to break the current world record by 3.2 percent, and even less using Geoffrey Mutai’s unofficial Boston marathon record.

There is a powerful component of aerobic fitness involved in the marathon. For 26.2 miles, the body obtains 99 percent of its energy from the aerobic system. The mix of important fuels—from both glucose and body fat—is different than that used during running shorter races, when more anaerobic power is required. For example, to run a fast mile on a track, the approximate ratio of aerobic to anaerobic contributions is 60 to 40 percent. Aerobic energy contributions, with reduced anaerobic need, rise to about 88 percent for the 5K and 90 percent for 10K.

Training to run a faster marathon is made possible because runners can influence the aerobic system much more than they can with anaerobic power, where genetics have a greater role. In other words, the shorter, anaerobic-based, speedier events employ more genetic features of the runner—much less so in a marathon. With new training techniques and systems—everything from the advent of anti-gravity treadmills to the 30K threshold runs many elite marathoners are now employing in their training—we’re already seeing the progression of aerobic development.

It fits the old saying that “sprinters are born and endurance athletes are made.” Furthermore, younger elites tend to excel in shorter events, while maturity later enables them to become more accomplished marathoners.

East African Dominance

Based on today’s fastest marathon times, there’s a strong probability that a runner from Kenya or Ethiopia will become the 2-hour barrier-breaker. The four fastest marathoners in 2013 were all Kenyans, with a range of 2:03:23–2:04:05. The only other country that regularly breaks Kenya’s 26.2-mile chokehold in winning big-city marathons is its neighbor to the north, Ethiopia. It just so happens that the next five fastest marathon times of 2013 belonged to Ethiopian runners.

Both Kenya and Ethiopia have a rich, proud, and historical tradition when it comes to distance running, not to mention an often intense rivalry at major races. Their marathoners now make up more than 90 percent of the all-time world records. As countries without the distraction of major professional sports like basketball, soccer, baseball or football, their national pastime is running. Top runners are treated as wealthy celebrities, heroes to children and adults.

The two African countries share many similarities—high-altitude, a predominantly rural or farming culture built around hard manual labor, children going barefoot and running to school almost every day, the presence of local running clubs and cross country races, an emphasis on rigorous training by elites accompanied by easy recovery runs, and the widespread recognition that running offers one of the only means to escape poverty. For example, the average annual wage in Kenya is $1,700, but a professional runner can bank well over $100,000 by winning a race like the Chicago Marathon, and even a lot more with performance bonuses, appearance fees, and a lucrative shoe deal.

With its local population 4,000 in the Upper Rift Valley, Iten attracts not just professional Kenyan runners, but also distinguished distance runners from all over the world. On a typical early morning in Iten, a small village that sits at 8,000 feet, you might see numerous packs of runners, fending off the chill in brightly colored running suits, getting in their first workout of the day, moving along in a dazzling blur on the surrounding dirt roads and hilly trails. Most of these runners will run again later in the day, with some squeezing in a third workout. These runs aren’t always fast; their recovery runs are more like slow jogs. When they aren’t running, they are usually resting or napping.

Having an optimal training ground, engaged training partners and life-changing inspiration will certainly factor into the first sub-2-hour marathon.

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