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

Kenya's Wilson Kipsang set the current marathon world record of 2:03:23 at the 2013 Berlin Marathon last Sept. 29 after breaking away from countryman Eliud Kipchoge after the 35K mark. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The following essay is adapted with permission from the new book, “1:59: The Sub-Two-Hour Marathon Is Within Reach—Here’s How It Will Go Down, and What It Can Teach All Runners about Training and Racing.”

Although it might seem entirely incredulous to most runners—even fast, high-level runners—the 2-hour marathon barrier will definitely be broken. There is widespread consensus in the running community, including coaches, exercise researchers and elite marathoners, that a 1:59 marathon is entirely possible.

Where opinions differ, however, is when it will occur. Many close to the sport believe it will be in the next decade or perhaps longer that the current world record of 2:03:23 goes to 1:59:59 or faster. Others maintain that the record won’t take place in our lifetime. I am much more optimistic—I truly believe a 1:59 will be recorded within the next several years. Why am I so confident? Because the advancements in training, how elite runners race the marathon and several other factors will make this great athletic leap possible.

What will it take to break the 2-hour barrier? This amazing accomplishment will require raw talent, optimal body size and the right kind of athletic genes, but it will require much more too. Here’s a look at some of the training and racing factors in greater detail.

Continual Progression

Ever since 26.2 miles was made the official marathon distance more than a century ago, world-record times have been steadily dropping. American runner John Hayes was the marathon’s original world record-holder after clocking 2:55:18 at the 1908 London Olympics. Distance running made huge strides following World War II, largely due to rigorous year-round training and new training methods, and the marathon record dropped to 2:15 by the end of the 1950s.

As the first major running boom took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, times descended even further to 2:08. While times have continued to drop—in the past 15 years, eight world records have been set on Berlin’s flat and fast marathon course—it took 25 years for three-and-a-half minutes to be trimmed off the first sub-2:08 efforts in the mid-1980s.

The current world record of 2:03:23 was set by Kenyan Wilson Kipsang last September at the Berlin Marathon. (Another Kenyan, Geoffrey Mutai, won the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:03:02, but running’s international governing body does not recognize that mark as an official world record because the Boston Marathon is held on a point-to-point, net downhill course.)

Those fast times are still 3 minutes and change away from breaking the 2-hour barrier, but 3 minutes and change isn’t very long. Sure, it would mean a 1:59:59 runner would finish about 1,200 meters ahead of the current world record-holder in a simulated race and nearly 2 miles ahead of Meb Keflezighi’s 2:08:37 effort at this year’s Boston Marathon. But it’s also about the time it takes to soft-boil an egg, brush your teeth or fill your car with gas, so it’s all relative.

While the incremental improvements in the marathon are smaller and farther between, the important part is that the times are still getting faster. Few would have believed the world record would be down to 2:03:23 when Steve Jones lowered the record to 2:08:05 30 years ago this fall. A runner almost 5 minutes ahead of Jones would be a full mile out front. Completely unthinkable back then, but that’s where the record is now. (For perspective, keep in mind also that the half-marathon world record has been broken 12 times in the past 21 years since Moses Tanui became the first runner under 60 minutes and now sits at 58:23.)

VIDEO: Wilson Kipsang Talks About The Possibility Of A Sub-2-Hour Marathon

Feet First

East Africa produces the majority of today’s fastest distance runners. These endurance athletes grew up in rural areas, where they had spent almost all of their youth going barefoot and running a lot. As a result, they developed highly efficient natural gaits by running without shoes on the soft dirt roads throughout Kenya, Ethiopia and other countries. They also became highly developed aerobic engines by running consistently high mileage volumes from a young age.

Fifty-four years ago this month, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila raced barefoot to Olympic marathon victory on Rome’s asphalt roads, winning in a then-Olympic record 2:15:16. Bikila had been a last-minute addition to the Ethiopian team, replacing an injured teammate. Runners were supposed to race in Adidas shoes—the German footwear company was the Games’ official footwear sponsor—but Bikila found none that fit comfortably. So he decided to run without shoes.

Four years later, Bikila, then sponsored by Puma and wearing its shoes, repeated his marathon win at the Tokyo Olympics by setting a world record of 2:12:11.

Abebe Bikila is still widely remembered and revered in Ethiopia and elsewhere, especially among runners. Yet the notion of following in Bikila’s footsteps by racing shoeless in a marathon, or even at lesser distances, is one pretty much universally ignored by pro runners. Top marathoners from East Africa, despite having barefoot childhoods, almost all have shoe sponsorships that can range anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 per year.

The issue of how running shoes can either help or hurt a runner is exceptionally complex. There is no room for blindly worshiping running shoes, nor should we shun them as the evil that barefoot purists claim. Understanding modern running shoes is important because it is a runner’s feet that will lead him to a 1:59 marathon—not the shoes. But how much time can be potentially saved by not wearing shoes in a marathon?

Legendary American running coach Dr. Jack Daniels looked at this question many years ago when he worked for Nike. He tested runners on a treadmill using various weights added to shoes.  He demonstrated that this could lead to a reduction in running economy of 1 percent. For a marathon runner, this can translate into a minute or more added to the finishing time for every 3.5 ounces of shoe weight. Yet almost all running shoes are between five and 10 ounces—in dry weight. (Sweat makes them even heavier).

I believe the odds of the world’s first 1:59 marathon are stacked in favor of a shoeless runner, although I realize it might seem unlikely. Just because top East African marathoners—many of whom grew up running barefoot—choose to compete in shoes as professionals doesn’t mean that they can’t return to their shoeless roots. It might take some time for these runners to make that transition and go back to running barefoot. But they should remember that they developed their natural, fluid gaits when almost of their running as youth were done barefoot.

RELATED: 2:03:23! New Marathon World Record!

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.

Is It In the Genes?

Are Kenyans genetically superior to distance runners from other non-East African countries? Personally, I don’t think the answer can be found in their DNA, because after a decade of advanced research, scientists still haven’t been able to locate any specific genetic markers indicating endurance superiority in Kenyan runners.

Instead, I’d like to argue that endurance ability is determined by personal and environmental factors—how one trains, where one lives, amount of rest and recovery, nutrition, and mental outlook. Sure, most elite Kenyan runners are small-stature, lean, and have whippet-thin legs, so they aren’t carrying extra weight, but equally important is living at high altitude, spending most of one’s early years active and barefoot, and coming from a place where running is a national sport.

Live High, Train Low

For decades, endurance athletes have sought altitude training as a way to get faster. But this is misleading. Living at higher elevations, such as 7,000–8,000 feet, can help improve running economy, while training at lower elevations, 4,000 feet or below, is best. However, just going to a higher altitude does not guarantee results. That’s because the process first requires a healthy body. A poor diet, for example, may not supply all the nutritional needs, such as iron, folic acid, or protein, necessary for altitude living to increase quality red-blood cells and better aerobic function.

Living at higher altitudes can better prepare a runner to race faster at lower elevations, while competing at altitudes of about 2,000 feet can measurably impair oxygen consumption and reduce endurance race times. Since the atmosphere’s barometric pressure is reduced, the body’s ability to take oxygen out of the air is also lessened. The brain senses this change and makes an adaptation through the production of more red blood cells by bone marrow, and even increasing lung size. These changes begin to take place immediately when arriving at higher altitudes.

The benefits of living at higher altitudes, typically between 4,000 and 8,000 feet, can result in a significant improvement of running economy, a reason it could speed up one’s marathon times by up to 4 percent. But training at these levels will reduce one’s pace and recovery times.

The ideal situation for endurance athletes, especially those seeking a 1:59 marathon, is as follows:

— Living at higher altitude, 7,000–8,000 feet

— Frequently training at lower elevations, 4,000 feet or lower

— Racing at the lowest altitude (sea level or below)

East Africans who reside at higher altitudes became dominant in endurance running in the 1960s but especially so since the late 1980s. Coming down to lower elevations to race provides an obvious advantage of more red blood cells to bring additional oxygen to muscles. But this effect is not because they train at high elevation, which may actually take away from their great racing abilities. The larger question is: How much faster could they run if their training took place at lower altitudes, where their daily training paces are faster and their recovery is also better, while living at higher elevations? It is certainly possible that we would have seen a 1:59 marathon by now if many of the top Kenyan and Ethiopian runners lived high, trained low.

Healthy Fueling

The elite runners who live and train in Kenya and Ethiopia are thin and sinewy. They don’t follow a special diet tailored to endurance. Nor do they load up on sports drinks, energy bars or mineral supplements. They eat the same foods that everyone in their village also eats.

The most popular dishes in Kenya are ugali (a bland corn mush), githeri (a mixture of boiled corn and kidney beans) and sukuma wiki (chopped boiled kale). Meat is in short supply, so many runners eat it sparingly. A common snack for these endurance athletes is roasted corn on the cob without salt. They also love their tea, heavily doused with sugar.

If this small nation that’s comprised of 42 ethnic tribes—most pro runners are Kalenjin, which has a population of 2.5 million or 11 percent of Kenya’s total—can produce the fastest distance runners, then doesn’t it logically follow that its endurance athletes must be eating right? The answer, surprisingly, is a definite no. But there’s even a more relevant question: How much faster could the elite Kenyans run if they ate a diet tailored toward optimal running performance?

However, the Kenyan diet is lacking; in fact, it’s nutritionally substandard. Total daily protein amounts, along with a variety of vitamins and minerals are low even by the modest Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) standards. There’s also an excess quantity of refined carbohydrate and processed fats. In 2004, a nutritional study published in the “International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism” examined the diets of several elite Kenyan runners and discovered that 76 percent of their daily calories came from carbohydrates, mostly refined. Meat was consumed, but only in small portions, averaging four times a week (3.5-ounce servings).

The Kenyan runners’ chronically deficient diet can lead to health problems that often begin by their early 20s and worsen in their 30s, with an increase of injuries and illnesses in what should be their racing prime. There’s also a subtle increase in body fat. Poor nutrition is further exacerbated by living, training and racing in the West and the exposure to fast food and refined carbs such as white flour, processed food, as well as soft drinks and sugary beverages. The effects of poor, long-term nutrition among East African runners should be a wake-up call if they want to remain on top.

A Fast Course, A Fast Race

Certainly no runner will be able to run under 2 hours without a fast, flat course and an elite field of optimally fit runners and pacers than can help maintain such a furious pace. Berlin might be the best bet. The last five men’s world marathon records—by Paul Tergat (2003), twice by Haile Gebrselassie (2007, 2008), by Patrick Makau (2011) and Kipsang—have been set at the Berlin Marathon. Already, there has been talk about going after the world record in this year’s Berlin Marathon on Sept. 28. But other possibilities could include London, Chicago or Rotterdam, the only other places the world record has been set since 1984. If you combine women’s records, Berlin leads the pack with eight world records in that 30-year span, followed by Chicago (4), London (4) and Rotterdam (3). But even with a fast course, the weather (temperature, humidity, wind, etc.) will also have to be ideal.

Conclusion

We are in the midst of a new and exciting era in distance running. From ultras quickly selling out and becoming more competitive to legions of new runners attempting to complete their first half or full marathon, running is in little danger of slowing down as one of the world’s favorite and most popular participatory sport. So imagine the global excitement that will ensue when running’s final and most elusive barrier—the sub-2 hour marathon—is at long last broken. We will see many new individuals take up running for the very first time, running shoe companies will experience a large spike in sales, and one can certainly expect to see an influx of hard-charging pro runners wanting to claim the marathon world record as their own. And the times will keep dropping.

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About The Author:  

Dr. Phil Maffetone has trained and coached endurance athletes for more than 35 years and is the author of numerous books on health and fitness, including “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” and the popular textbook “Complementary Sports Medicine.” Maffetone has worked with Dr. George Sheehan, six-time Hawaii Ironman world champion Mark Allen, famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard and marathon great Grete Waitz. For more about his work, visit PhilMaffetone.com.

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