Ok, let’s cut to the chase: I will bet you the Boston entry fee that no human being will run a marathon on a record-eligible course in under two hours in the next ten years, that is, by December 31, 2023. Would you bet against me?
Speculating about when the first sub two-hour marathon will happen is a topic that seems to pop up every year as we approach the spring marathon season. It’s harmless fun, I suppose, but for various reasons I usually find most such speculations really annoying. Here’s a recent example, from SpikesMag.com:
The problem I have is that it’s easy for someone to argue that a sub two-hour run is imminent, while claiming that “statistics” back them up. Then they cherry pick numbers to support their position. Throw in a few historical references to the first sub-four minute mile, and the thing practically writes itself. It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” And let’s go out on a limb and say it will be “sooner than you think.” Genius.
If I’ve learned anything from spending the last 15 years working in a department of Ph.D. mathematicians and physicists it’s that even the most sophisticated statistical techniques are worthless if you’re not asking the right questions. And even if you are asking the right questions, in attempting to answer them, you’ll come up with other questions. Making good predictions depends on keeping in mind the limitations of your data. One problem we have in predicting marathon times is sparse data. Since World War II there have been only 32 improvements to the marathon WR, or one every two years.
The current marathon WR is 2:03:23, set by Wilson Kipsang who ran that time at the Berlin Marathon 9/29/13. The previous WR was 2:03:38, set by Patrick Makau, also at Berlin on 9/25/13. In fact, the previous five WRs have been set at Berlin, going back to Paul Tergat’s 2:04:55 on 9/28/03. So the record has been lowered by 1:32 in the last ten years.
So we will know and appreciate what we are talking about when we talk about a sub-two-hour marathon, running 1:59:59 means averaging 4:33 per mile, 14:08 per 5k, and, of course, 59:59 for each half. Those are pretty scary numbers, but (so the argument goes) it always looks impossible until someone does it, and then in retrospect it looks inevitable. Thank you, Roger Bannister.
So let’s assume that it will happen, the question is when. And to answer that question, we have to grapple with the question of WHY — why is the marathon world’s best where it is right now. Why has it improved over time? What factors will lead to further improvement?
And it occurs to me that this question has more than academic interest, and significance beyond a fan’s appreciation for elite distance running. The question of what leads to improvement is one that all of us struggle with in our OWN running, however humble our times. The runner who is training for a Boston Qualifier, or to break 3:00 hours, or just to set a personal best, has to figure out why they improve. The easy answer is “more training,” but that hides a world of complexity.
In Part 2, I want to look at the last 100 years of marathoning and make some observations about the WR progression (stopping along the way to critique the previously mentioned article). More importantly, I want to try to make an inventory of possible explanations for past improvement, consider likely factors for continued improvement, see if there’s any data for those factors, and only then venture a guess at when we’ll see that first sub 2:00.