Tilting at the Two-Hour Windmill


“In some ways, a goal of two hours is as arbitrary as the distance of the marathon itself: 26 miles 385 yards, established at the 1908 London Olympics, in part to accommodate viewing by the British royal family. But round numbers lend clarity to accomplishment. To run under two hours without the use of banned drugs would be to set a record that would stand with the four-minute mile as an ultimate test of human stamina.” – Jeré Longman (Man vs Marathon)

In a lengthy article in the New York Times, author Jeré Longman profiles Yannis Pitsiladis, the scientist whose Sub2 project is focused on research to enable a human being to run a sub-2:00:00 marathon by 2019.

The subtitle and text of the article describe the project as a “quixotic quest” but that doesn’t seem right to me. Don Quixote, caught up in a romantic ideal, fought real battles with imaginary foes, or at least with foes that were only fearsome in his own inflamed imagination. It seems to me that Pitsiladis is on a quest that is the opposite of quixotic, to fight an imaginary battle with a very real and concrete foe in the apparent limit to human endurance.

It’s a fascinating story, and Pitsiladis seems like a fascinating character — a scientist and provocateur, as the article calls him. It makes for a good story to portray him as a solitary figure out on the fringes of exercise physiology, scorned by the establishment and all the rest of us who are bound to the status quo by conventional thinking. But the sorts of things he’d doing, all focused on identifying impediments to improving on the marathon world record, seem to be an interesting mix of mostly reasonable investigations. He wants to identify the most promising young athletes in Ethiopia (and elsewhere) and develop them with more scientific training. That sounds reasonable. He is looking for technologies that might help the athlete monitor their bodies more usefully during the marathon effort. That sounds cool. He wants to understand and identify the optimal atmospheric conditions for sustained fast running — and thinks that running near the Dead Sea at an altitude that is lower than sea level will allow more oxygen saturation in the blood and improve performance naturally, with no need of EPO or other drugs. That sounds like it might work.

Will he succeed? I doubt it, not because it’s impossible, but because I think that three years is a very short time to find all the little optimizations that would add up to improving the world best by so much. In other words, I don’t assume a sub-2:00 marathon will never happen. Nor do I assume that the progression of marathon bests is destined to be incremental. Discontinuities are possible and have occurred before for various reasons. Maybe the Sub2 project (or someone else) will come up with a novel and legal innovation that ushers in a new era of times that seem fanciful today.

But I’m not really moved by one man’s obsession with this one huge and symbolic barrier. The article even remarks on the “arbitrary” nature of the goal. So the talk about being in interested in exploring the limits of human endurance is a little disingenuous. The two-hour marathon has become a much-discussed and much-hyped target, compared endlessly to the four-minute mile, which was also much-hyped, although we all like to think of it in more romantic terms. Nowadays, the idea that the four-minute mile was the ultimate test of the limits of humankind’s potential seems a little quaint. Improvements in technology, training, motivation, and opportunity have made running sub-four for a mile about 10 times more common than a major league pitcher in baseball throwing a no-hitter. Impressive, certainly, but the adjective “ultimate” no longer applies.

Anyway, what’s so special about running under two hours other than it’s inconceivable. Running under 2:02 seems inconceivable now, but if Eliud Kipchoge gets a good day and runs 2:02:30 or so, then I’ll be able to conceive of it. Meanwhile, armies of runners, marathon coaches, trainers, and race organizers are all scheming on how to make a marathon world record more likely. Do we really think one guy with some interesting ideas is going to accelerate a process that most likely is the sum of many, many factors?

Again, maybe.

But I think that “science” (in quotes because Pitsiladis invokes his scientific approach and contrasts it with current practice) is mostly a more gradual process among a broader community of researchers and technicians working towards a common goal. I think scientific breakthroughs are generally the result of years or decades of basic “plodding” advancements in a number of fields. That doesn’t make for as compelling a story, but that’s kind of the point. Maybe what rankles about Pitsiladis is how he’s trying to author an inspiring story, with himself and his athletes as the heroes.

At one point in the article, Pitsiladis is quoted as saying “We know nothing about the science of training, I really mean nothing. When I say that, people get really upset.

Harsh, but it’s true that we don’t know that much about how training works, about how training affects different individuals differently, about the performance of the body in extreme situations… but exercise science is happening, some of it good, some of it not so much, and we’re gradually finding out more things. I have more faith in this process, slow as it might be, than in what I regard as a bit of a stunt, which is finding an ideal subject, placing them in an ideal situation (altitude, temperature, a pack of pacemakers to draft off of), and having them run faster than the world record.

I suppose the Sub2 project does resemble Don Quixote in the sense that it’s a grand romance, and that the protagonist is in the grip of a megalomania that is both appealing and worrying for those around him. Don Quixote ended up broken and disillusioned. Too bad, because eventually we found better ways to build lances and identify the real giants among the windmills.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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