As thousands of participants and spectators celebrate Africa’s first IAAF Gold Label Standard Marathon at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon this weekend, all eyes will be on the clock at the finish. Will Asefa Negewo’s race record of 2 hrs 08 min 41 min, set last year, be beaten?
Assuming the gale force gusting winds die to a whisper on Sunday, will any athlete be capable of running faster than 2 hr 8 min for the 42195km distance? Just how fast can an athlete run in Cape Town? How fast anywhere in the world?
As elite athletes edge incrementally towards the 120 minute mark, the inevitable question has arisen: “is it humanly possible for an athlete to run the marathon faster than 2 hours? Is it possible that an athlete might succeed within the next three years? Might it be achieved in Cape Town?
At the recent launch of the Sub2 Hour Marathon Project in Africa at the UCT Sports Science Institute, two South African sports scientists, Professors Yannis Pitsiladis and Andrew Bosch, stated that they believed that a legitimate “clean” sub-2 hour marathon is possible in the near future and have invested considerable resources to ensure that it happens.
Last week the first of this two-part article on the Sub 2 Hour Marathon Project looked back at the 109-year history of the fastest men over the “standard marathon” distance of 42.195km. Here we explore what it will take to run marathons fast - potentially faster than two hours.
The progression of the marathon world record in recent years suggests that it will be unlikely that the two hour mark will be bettered before 2030. “But we believe that by providing the right inputs, including ideal physical and mental preparation, and getting the best athletes to run in perfect conditions, the sub-two hour mark can be bettered in the next three years,” commented project co-leader, Pitsiladis.
Given that Eritrean athlete, Zersenay Tadese, ran the Lisbon Half Marathon in 58 min 23 sec in 2010 - currently still the world record - it could be argued that there is little doubt that it is physically possible to achieve a sub-two hour marathon time. Based on the half marathon best, the successful athlete, who would undoubtedly enjoy fame and fortune for life, would enjoy a 3 min 24 sec “cushion” for potential drop off of performance over the full marathon.
The key to success therefore, must lie in the mental, rather than physical conditioning of the athlete. Emeritus professor of sports science at UCT, Tim Noakes, describes the brain as the “central governor”, determining absolute performance.
“The brain is regulated to prevent catastrophe,” explains Noakes. “The function of the brain is to modify behaviour in anticipation of catastrophe. It is interested in survival, not maximal athletic performance. If an athlete is not dead at the finish line, he has not given maximal performance!
“Since the brain regulates exercise performance, the athlete who wins a close race ‘chooses’ that outcome. This conscious or subconscious choice reduces the illusory symptoms of pain and fatigue produced by the brain.
“So the key is to convince the athlete that he is capable of the performance. Roger Bannister believed his coach, Franz Stampfl, that he was capable of running the mile in 3 min 56 sec. Jim Ryun, the youngest ever sub-4 minute miler, believed his coach that he was ‘beyond extraordinary’.”
Pitsiladis’ project partner, associate professor of exercise science and sports medicine at UCT, Andrew Bosch, believes that the project will succeed if all the factors affecting optimal performance can be harnessed by the athlete or athletes and their support teams.
These factors, which comprise the means to achieve optimal marathon performance, include a scientific approach to training, the broader application of science and medicine (to ensure optimal monitoring and feedback during training, equipment, notably shoes, and nutrition) and ideal recovery strategies, including cold water immersion, massage and compression.
Also key, according to Bosch, are externalities, including ideal course and weather conditions, monetary incentives and optimal prize structures and external motivation, including significant crowd support.
“If the sub two hour marathon is to be achieved,” concluded Noakes, “it will have to be run by an athlete who embraces the philosophy of the 1960 Olympic 1500m champion, Herb Elliot, namely that ‘to run a world record, you have to have the absolute arrogance to think you can run faster than anyone who’s ever lived, and the absolute humility to actually to it.’
“The athlete who most closely embodies this philosophy in my opinion is Wade van Niekerk, so it will have to be an athlete of his calibre,” said Prof Noakes.