Five Records Athletes Are Dying to Break

And when they'll be smashed—because half the fun of records is watching them fall

May 24, 2016
Outside Magazine
cycling wiggins

Bradley Wiggins broke cycling's hour record last June, riding 33.88 miles.    Photo: Adam Davy/Associated Press

Who doesn’t dream of going faster, higher, deeper, or longer? Or love debating the merits of those who try? Sports records inspire greatness in our own pursuits and make watercooler talks infinitely more stimulating. We assembled five of the ballsiest sports records that push the limits of human performance. Then we asked experts when they think those records will fall—because half the fun is watching records get broken.

World Record Freedive

The most recent sanctioned freediving record was set this spring for free immersion diving—or diving without the use of equipment but using a rope to descend and ascend. New Zealander William Trubridge made headlines around the world when he dove 124 meters (about 407 feet). Grant Graves, president of USA Freediving, thinks that’s nowhere near as deep as Trubridge can go. “These athletes are not at the 1 percent bleeding-edge end of their capability,” Graves says. In fact, he suspects Trubridge is holding back on purpose.

“You don’t want to put ten meters on your own record, because that’s ten times you could break it and have another chance at getting press,” and drum up rivalry and sponsorship opportunities, Graves says, which can be hard to come by in a sport that’s decidedly niche. Expect Trubridge to go for it again should rival Miguel Lozano nab the record in the near future. Just don’t expect the record to stand for years. 

“They’re not like sprinters where they’re fighting for a tenth of a second a year,” Graves says. “These guys can set a record, then set a record a few days later.”

Cycling’s Hour Record

This record became a hot ticket among elite cyclists in 2014 after the UCI, cycling’s international governing body, allowed riders to use modern equipment. Previously, riders had to use gear similar to what Eddy Merckx used during his record-setting ride in 1972: bikes with round tubes, and no aero helmets or disc wheels. 

“The old rules felt like a bit of a waste of time for someone like me,” says Alex Dowsett, a British pro cyclist and founder of coaching service Cyclism. “To ride something that’s in the Stone Age didn’t really appeal.” His fellow riders must have felt the same, because the rule change ended what VeloNews called a “decade-long lull in interest.” Since the change, cyclists have broken the record five times, most recently last June, when Bradley Wiggins rode 33.88 miles to break Dowsett’s record, set one month earlier, of 32.89 miles.

“I think [Wiggins’ record] will stand for a while—adding another six laps is no walk in the park,” Dowsett says. In this tech-heavy sport, it’ll take a combination of innovation in equipment and training, he says. There’s more to be done with skin suit design, he points out, and even velodrome selection. When cyclists are banking, their power drops, but they make up for it in the straights. Dowsett believes flatter tracks, where that transition is less noticeable, may help riders achieve the greatest distances. 

When will we see a new record? Likely when a time-trialing superstar can fit in the endeavor. “All my training was geared toward riding 52.5 kilometers,” Dowsett says, referring to the record he beat. “Had Wiggins ridden his ride before, all of my training would’ve been geared toward riding 54.5 kilometers per hour. That’s where the target is now. It’ll take quite an athlete to beat it.”

The Marathon World Record

In 2014, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto set the current marathon record of 2:02:57 in Berlin, but nobody’s ever busted that two-hour barrier. So, in December 2014, Yannis Pitsiladis, a sports and exercise professor at the University of Brighton, launched what he called the Sub 2hr Project.

Although Pitsiladis declared his project’s goal was to make sub-two happen within five years, it’s really more than that. The timeline was put in place to nudge a bunch of people—scientists, athletes, running industry experts—to work toward a common goal. At the very least, Peter Weyand, a professor of applied physiology at Southern Methodist University and a member of the Sub2 team, says Pitsiladis believes it should further our collective knowledge about distance running by leaps and bounds over what we discover when the world’s greatest minds and bodies keep to themselves.

The outcome could be seeing sub-two in early 2020. Weyand couldn’t say when he thinks it’ll happen or how, just that it most likely won’t happen at the Olympics, where the marathon is “typically more tactical and not as fast as in major marathons.” But he does have a short list of who might get there first. 

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele is enrolled in the Sub 2hr Project. This year, the 10,000-meter and 5,000-meter world record holder placed third in the London Marathon, and “not at full health,” Weyand says. Weyand’s also eyeing Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor, who fell down at the start of the World Half Marathon Championship in March, got trampled, then came back to win in 59:10. 

“Obviously nobody can sustain the same pace as in the half. But 58:23 (the half record) is long under one hour. That says we’re not necessarily that far away. With the right conditions, right pacing, right athlete,” Weyand says, it could happen. 

He’s not opposed to taking a page from cycling’s book and setting up the attempt under ideal conditions rather than waiting for a miracle at a major race—like surrounding an athlete in a pack near the Dead Sea to cut wind resistance and increase oxygen saturation.

The Highest Waterfall Kayaked

Back in 2011, we asked how much higher waterfall-plunging kayakers could go. At that point, Tyler Bradt had set the record in 2009 at 189.5 feet when he paddled off Washington’s Palouse Falls and nobody had beaten it. Rafa Ortiz equaled that feat in 2012, but his run didn’t make the record books because he momentarily popped out of his kayak after impact. To this day, nobody’s run anything higher.

“I do feel like after Tyler ran Palouse, the heat turned down, respecting how legit it actually was,” Ortiz wrote Outside in an email. But, he added, “I don’t doubt that it is possible to set a new record.” The height he believes to be humanly achievable is around 200 feet, just as top paddler Rush Sturges told us in 2011. But Sturges believed someone would run a waterfall that tall by 2013. We’re still waiting.

“Our main thing is finding the right waterfall,” Ortiz writes. “And as much as I feel like a 200-footer would be totally doable, I don’t know the existence of the perfect one yet, or of anyone finding it yet.” 

Fastest Solo Around-the-World Sail

In 2008, a 51-year-old Frenchman named Francis Joyon sailed east to west around the world in a trimaran in 57 days, 13 hours, 34 minutes. That’s the current world record. 

A few factors explain why that record has stood for so long, says Craig Leweck, the editor in chief of sailing news site Scuttlebutt Sailing News. The primary one being that it takes a special kind of person to do it. There aren’t too many people who are comfortable sailing at 20-plus knots in highly unstable multihulls while asleep.

Once one of those special people decides to make an attempt, a lot of other factors come into play. The big one is—you guessed it—weather. Weather forecasting has improved immensely since 2008, Leweck says, but you still can see only about five to six days ahead, which leaves 90 percent of the course’s weather unknown. 

“You could have all your ducks in a row, but weather could still derail your efforts,” Leweck says. That’s exactly what happened to French skipper Thomas Coville, who aborted his 2014 record attempt after weather conditions would’ve led him to reroute on a more dangerous—and surely slower—trajectory than he’d planned. 

“There’s a commercial aspect, too,” Leweck says. These attempts take cash. A ton of it. He couldn’t pinpoint an average entry-level amount, but suffice it to say that boats and navigation equipment cost a lot of money. So does waiting for the perfect weather window to launch. “You could be waiting around for a month, six weeks,” Leweck says. “During that period, maybe you’re not making any money.”

Still, there are special people with the funds and desire to do it. Most racers who attempt the record have sponsors earned through previous sailing accomplishments, like French racer François Gabart. The 33-year-old recently won a prestigious solo transatlantic race called the Transat Bakerly aboard a trimaran dubbed the MACIF, for the French insurance company of the same name. Next year, according to a press release, Gabart will take the MACIF around the world in a run on Joyon’s record. If anyone can take that record down in the near future, it’s likely Gabart. “He seems like he’s succeeding at these levels,” Leweck says. “He’s some kind of wonderkid.”

Filed To: Athletes, Fitness, Adventure

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