For the first time, someone has run a marathon under 2 hours and three minutes. Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto achieved this feat over the weekend in Berlin, setting a new world record with a winning time of 2:02:57.
Kimetto’s feat has spurred interest in the question of whether the race can be run under two hours. It is always risky to bet against humans reaching some mark because history shows us that things that were thought to be impossible get done. A century ago, it took almost three hours to run a marathon and today’s times would have been considered preposterous. And yet, there has to be some limit set by biology. The problem is that it is hard to predict what that limit might be.
The science of endurance running is highly complex, but physiologically, there are three main factors which determine how quickly someone can run:
- their maximal rate of oxygen consumption, known as VO2 max
- their running efficiency – how quickly they can cover the ground
- their endurance capability – what percentage of their VO2 max they can sustain.
Opinion among sports scientists varies on exactly where the limit of human endeavour lies.
What will it take to break the two-hour mark?
First, it will need an elite athlete in tip-top condition, probably one from east Africa.
Second, it will need to be on a fast, flat course such as Berlin, London or Rotterdam. Berlin is known as one of the quickest and has produced four world records in the last 10 years.
Third, perfect weather conditions. No wind and temperatures of around 10-15C.
Fourth, decent pace-makers to lead the race and take the elite round at the right speed.
As the marathon gets closer to the magic mark, race directors will dangle huge financial carrots to incentivise runners to break it. The first person to dip under two hours will run into the record books a very rich person.
People are predicting that it will take another 20 years at least to get under two hours.