Last year, when University of Brighton professor Yannis Pitsiladis announced Sub2-Hrs, an organized effort to break the two-hour marathon barrier within five years—a milestone akin to the four-minute mile or the ten-second 100 meters—a chorus of naysayers sprang to their feet in protest. Exercise physiologist Ross Tucker even called the effort “disingenuous” on his sports science blog.
Any number of theories have been floated as to why the Sub2-Hrs effort will fail, but all of them may be missing the point. The object of the exercise, according to team member Peter Weyand, a professor of applied physiology at Southern Methodist University, is to assemble a team of experts in various segments of human performance including genetics, physiology, training, nutrition, medicine, biomechanics and see what happens.
The exact details of the Sub2-Hrs project aren't yet available. It's unknown at this point, for example, if there will be some compound where athletes will train and live together under the supervision of clipboard-carrying scientists. Weyand said the plan is to screen runners who have dominated distance running (likely East Africans), for genetic variants that might predispose them to success, then apply the skills of other experts toward improving those elite athletes’ running efficiency, diet, avoiding injuries, and so on, so that one of them may break that two hour barrier within the next five years.
“There are a number of basic questions about why people run the way they do,” Weyand explained. “What movement patterns are best for performance? Are they the same patterns that prevent injuries? There is a sea of unanswered questions.”
“So you broke the two-hour marathon. So what? Pat yourself on the back. What’s it good for?”
The genetics of distance performance are also mysterious. Jason Moore, professor of genetics within the department of community and family health at Dartmouth Medical School, who is not affiliated with the Sub2Hrs effort, pointed out that while the science of gene analysis has progressed in leaps, scientists are still struggling with how to make sense of the resulting data flood. The biological chemistry of genes and gene activation is extremely complex and influenced heavily by environment, diet, exercise, and epigenetics (the degree to which genes are dialed up or down depending on such factors).
“We need computational, statistical tools to put all those layers together and that is the real barrier to understanding how pieces and parts work together to influence athletic performance,” Moore says. So he’s skeptical of the effort to screen for success.
He argued that even if a runner associated with the Sub2Hrs team should break the barrier within five years, the achievement wouldn’t prove anything. “Somebody will break the barrier naturally as a result of people trying to break it. In science we look for replication. One runner will not be enough for any scientists to believe” that the Sub2Hrs team’s techniques led directly to breaking the mark. If five or ten runners associated with the team did it, that would be a different story.
The Sub2Hrs organization doesn’t necessarily disagree with such analysis, or even the doubts of its critics. Rather, Weyand said, the critics may be looking at it in the wrong way.
While the team is serious about trying to break the record within the five-year deadline, the goal is a lot like the goal John F. Kennedy set of going to the moon in a decade. There wasn’t much point in going to the moon. Nobody was sure if it was possible, or even how to go about it. But saying you were going to do it hastened the technology and engineering that eventually made it happen, built the American space program, and spun out any number of useful innovations.
“You know, I think probably most people with a science background do not see [breaking the two-hour barrier] as a be all and end all, all right?” Weyand said. “So you broke the two-hour marathon. So what? Pat yourself on the back. What’s it good for?” The answer he said, is that the effort, and the collaborations it may build, could “answer questions of broader public good…. It’s hard to know what you do not know. The whole minimalist footwear movement raged because there were so many unanswered questions: Does running barefoot or in minimal shoes improve performance? The condition of muscles and tendons? There are no clear answers.”
So the point isn’t so much to break the two-hour mark as it is to try to break it and reap the rewards of the fallout that might result.
Brian Alexander is a writer and author based in California and a frequent contributor to Outside magazine. His most recent book is The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, written with neuroscientist Larry Young. Follow him on Twitter at @BrianRAlexander.