Two hours: The quest to run the impossible marathon

Two hours to cover twenty-six miles and 385 yards. It is running’s Everest, a feat once seen as impossible for the human body. But now we can glimpse the mountaintop. The sub-two hour marathon will require an exceptional combination of speed, mental strength, and endurance. In this episode, award winning journalist, Ed Caesar is sharing a section of his fascinating book: Two Hours – The Quest to Run the Impossible MarathonEd traces the history of the marathon as well as the science, physiology, and psychology involved in running so fast for so long. And he shows us why this most democratic of races retains its brutal, enthralling appeal—and why we are drawn to test ourselves to the limit.

The two-hour debate is irresistible, inevitable. It arises every time a man breaks the marathon world record. In 2003, for instance, Paul Tergat crested the tape at the Berlin Marathon in 2:04:55. Before that race, only “world bests” were recognized. Tergat’s time, which crushed Khalid Khannouchi’s seventeen-month-old world best by 43 seconds, was the first ratified marathon “world record.”

At the postrace press conference in Berlin, the victor was asked the question. “I believe records are set to be broken, and to fall lower is possible,” said Tergat. “But what remains impossible is running a marathon in under two hours.” He then smiled, and added: “Maybe time will chide me.”

Time has a chiding habit. The history of athletics is also the history of bad predictions. Take the case of the Australian John Landy, one of the world’s best middle-distance runners in the early 1950s. At the peak of his powers, he yearned to become the first man to break four minutes for the mile, and many believed he had the heart and the talent to do so. But, after several tilts at the barrier, in which he failed by two or three seconds each time, he declared himself defeated.

“It is a brick wall,” said Landy in April 1954. “I shall not attempt it again.”

It was not a brick wall. On May 6, 1954, despite dire prognostications from armchair pundits, some of whom believed a human would die if he attempted to run a mile in under four minutes, a junior doctor named Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4 for the mile at the Iffley Road running track in Oxford, England.

The world of athletics moved on fast. Six weeks after Bannister made history, Landy himself obliterated the new world record, running 3:58 dead. In the years that followed, sub-four minute miles became commonplace among elite athletes. (In 2011, the fifth American high school boy broke the barrier.) The four-minute mile was only unbreakable until one man broke it.

“Après moi,” said Bannister, “le déluge.”

Within the next few years—or decades, depending on whom you listen to—another brick wall will crumble when a marathon is run in less than two hours. Before that moment, there will continue to be well-placed onlookers who think a sub-two marathon will never be run. Their opinions will stem from strong roots. When Tergat told the press conference it “remains impossible” to run a marathon in under two hours, he was reflecting on the abyss into which he had just pushed his own body in order to run 2:04:55. In that moment, the prospect of running a whole five minutes faster than his new world record was unfathomable.

Five minutes in a marathon is too much slack for the brain to handle. But nobody is suggesting a 1:59:59 marathon will be reached in one giant leap. In 2011, a new world record of 2:03:38 was set by Patrick Makau, in Berlin. That performance beat Haile Gebrselassie’s 2:03:59 from 2008 by 21 seconds, which in turn beat Gebrselassie’s previous best from 2007 by 27 seconds, which beat Tergat’s landmark of 2:04:55………….


Tim Noakes, one of the world’s leading exercise physiologists, and the author of Lore of Running, believes that these incremental advances are connected to how the brains of top athletes communicate with their bodies


“When you start running,” he says, “you know what the world record is, so you don’t have to run ten minutes faster than the world record. Your whole focus is to run one second faster than the world record. That’s what your brain is keyed in on. And that programming occurs all the time in running and is terribly important.”

The brains of elite athletes are only as obstructive as they are programmed to be—as one recent, brilliant experiment showed. In 2011, at around the same time that Geoffrey Mutai was tearing up the marathon world, Professor Kevin Thompson of the University of Northumbria, in northeast England, assembled a group of enthusiastic bike riders for a laboratory test. These cyclists were placed on stationary bikes in front of screens, hooked up to oxygen monitors, and asked to race a computer-generated cyclist avatar. Each rider had previously set a personal best for a 4,000m time trial on the machine. The avatar they were now racing represented that personal best. Or so these guinea pig cyclists thought. In fact, Thompson was lying. He had set the avatar to race 2 percent faster than their personal bests because he wanted to know if an athlete’s body could be tricked into performing better. It was his belief that even world-class performers, who thought they were regulating their energy output to their absolute maximum, possessed a “reserve” of around 2 percent that could be tapped into, given the right motivation (or a little deception).

Thompson was right. Almost all of the cyclists finished ahead of the avatar. When they were told about the stunt that Thompson and his colleagues had pulled, a few aired their suspicions about how tough the ride had been compared to their earlier attempts. But the fact remained: the mind could be tricked. All the cyclists believed that when they set their personal bests they were cycling as hard as they could. They weren’t. Bodies have more than one limit. An athlete’s brain, constantly walking the tightrope between regulating exhaustion and maximizing performance, plays games to stay alive. So, why break the world record by two minutes when you can break it by two seconds?

If two hours is reached, it will be in such baby steps—each one taken by a member of the tiny, elite fraternity of athletes with the talent and industry to inch the sport closer to the impossible marathon, world record by world record. In Berlin, Geoffrey Mutai was only the latest in a more than century-long line of pioneers who had engaged in this multigenerational quest.

The pioneer will also have been the beneficiary of intellectual progress. Records fall because of technical innovation as much as physiological improvement. The Fosbury Flop revolutionized the high jump; the somersault turn shaved seconds off swimming records. Running may seem to be the most rudimentary of sports, but there are countless ways in which the runners of today are blessed with advantages their predecessors were not: better shoes, better training ideas, better racing conditions.

From TWO HOURS by Ed Caesar. Copyright © 2015 by Ed Caesar. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY

"I believe records are set to be broken, and to fall lower is possible." 

Paul Tergat, Berlin Marathon winner 2003

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