Marathon records broken

Today came the news that Brigid Kosgei had smashed the women’s marathon record that had stood for 16 years by a massive 81 seconds, with a new time of 2:14:04. What I found interesting in the report was this little item.

Some will also point out that Kosgei was wearing the Nike Next% training shoes, which have been estimated to give between 60-90 seconds of performance benefit over other shoes.

In a post back in 2016, I wondered about what the possible theoretical limit was for athletic performances that are based on speed. Since a time of zero is impossible, there must be some non-zero time beyond which the human body just cannot do any better. I speculated that the record for the men’s marathon, which was then 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds set by Dennis Kimetto in the 2014 Berlin Marathon, would eventually be less that two hours, and quoted Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, who predicted in 1991 that it would be possible to get to a time of 1:57:58, and other experts who also predicted that getting under two hours would happen but would take until at least 2028.

In 2018, Eliot Kipchoge broke Kimetto’s recod by a whopping 78 seconds, with a new record time of 2:01:39 and yesterday he became the first person to do it under two hours with a time of 1:59:40.2. But this will not be a world record because he did it under special conditions with pacers and electronic means to help speed him along. So the official marathon record remains his old one and still over two hours.

Kipchoge, who said he trained four and a half months for this race, was supported by 36 pacemakers who accompanied him in alternating groups, one of the reasons the IAAF will not ratify the time as a world record.

The groups were helped by a pace car with a laser beam, projecting the ideal position on the road.

It seems quite extraordinary that a new shoe design such as Kosgei wore could provide such a boost. But despite improvements in shoe technology and training and running techniques and carefully selected conditions and aids, there will have to be some limit that cannot be broken. But we may never know when we have reached it.


  1. dangerousbeans says

    “Smashed” the record. It’s an improvement of 1%, seems pretty marginal to me.
    I suppose at these margins and levels of effort drafting behind other runners is going to have an effect. I imagine there was also a lot of careful route selection.

  2. says

    Theoretical records are unrealistic because performance always declines through exhaustion. Thoretically, someone could run a mile in 3:20, but it would require an average of ten seconds per hundred metres. Even at 200 metres, performance begins to tail off.

    Motorsports is not athletics, but times and records have been dropping like flies since electric vehicles came in. Even after Pikes Peak was paved to the top of the mountain, naturally aspirated vehicles have difficulty breaking the ten minute mark. This year, Volkswagen’s electric entry shattered last year’s record by over forty seconds, at 7:57.148. Similar advances in speed happened at the Isle of Man, breaking 160kmh average within five years, not forty as with gas power.

  3. johnson catman says

    re dangerousbeans @1: I thought the same thing. “Smashing” the record by going three seconds faster per mile. Of course, I am not a marathoner, so my opinion means little.

  4. Steve Cameron says

    Kipchoge was also wearing those Nike shoes that Kosgei had. I heard a news item from the Economist about those events and the shoe. Apparently the route for the under 2-hour run was specially chosen as well for its ideal conditions.

  5. says

    Steve Cameron (#4) -- The Austrian course is almost perfectly flat. There is a 15m bump at both the start and end, but aside from that, there’s only a 50 metre climb, and that’s stretched out over ten kilometres, followed by a 50 metre drop over the next four.

    I’ve often wondered why marathons aren’t held on auto racing tracks. Imagine a race somewhere like Pocono in Pennsylvania: 4km long, almost perfectly flat, very low banking so a pack could run wide (18 metres at its narrowest point). The facilities needed already exist (e.g. medical centre) and that far north won’t get excessively hot.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Intransitive @#5,

    Perhaps the reason they don’t run on racing tracks is that over the long distance, a huge separation opens up between the leaders and the ones at the back of the pack, and the latter would be lapped by the former by different amounts. Given the large number who compete, keeping track of how many laps each person has completed would become pretty difficult. It would be hard for spectators to know who are the leaders since they would all be mixed.

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