What’s Next in the Quest for a Sub-Two-Hour Marathon?
The man who raised the possibility of the feat back in 1991 takes another look into the crystal ball
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The dust has settled. Eliud Kipchoge’s stunning marathon world record of 2:01:39 is in the books, and already the chatter is starting to look to the future. What comes next? Much of the talk has focused on how much faster current runners (including Kipchoge himself) can run, and how future marathons could be optimized to enable even lower times—for example with a record-eligible version of Nike’s Breaking2 race, complete with better weather and more competent pacemakers than Kipchoge had in Berlin.
Michael Joyner, the Mayo Clinic physiologist and human performance expert who’s been beating the two-hour-marathon drum longer than anyone, has a slightly different take. Sure, a yearly Breaking2-type event funded by a deep-pocketed sponsor would be great, he agrees. But the really interesting question is not what comes next, but who comes next—and how we can generate more Kipchoge-level talents in the not-so-distant future.
Here’s a lightly edited version of a conversation I had with him over email.
OUTSIDE: How unique do you think Kipchoge is? Is he a once-in-a-generation talent, or are there more like him who just need to be developed and nurtured appropriately?
JOYNER: When I think about the physiology of people like Kipchoge, I start with VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy, factors that when integrated both explain and predict marathon performance pretty well. The values for Kipchoge from the Nike 2017 effort have not been released and I have no inside scoop on exactly what they are, but I doubt they’re crazy high.
That’s the sense I got too when I was reporting on Breaking2. Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese both apparently had super-impressive lab testing, but I got the impression from what the scientists said that Kipchoge was pretty normal for an elite athlete. He was selected because he was the Olympic champion, not because he had an off-the-charts VO2max.
My guess is that his running economy is also either very good or outstanding. And he trains more than enough to maximize the mitochondrial and vascular adaptations in his leg muscles that will get his lactate threshold to 85 percent of his max or perhaps higher. A number of years ago, exercise physiology pioneer Dave Costill told me that Derek Clayton, who ran 2:08 in the late 1960s with a surprisingly low VO2max, could sustain about 85 percent of this VO2max at marathon pace. If Kipchoge is similar, he doesn’t need a crazy VO2max to run 2:01:39. So yes, he’s absolutely outstanding in all three key domains, but he is probably not a physiological superman or freak of nature as elite endurance athletes go.
Is there anything about Kipchoge’s upbringing and environment that makes him different from other elite marathoners?
We've all heard that Kenyan and Ethiopian runners get high levels of physical activity at high altitude from an early age. One underappreciated fact is that being born and growing up at high altitude stimulates lung growth, and altitude natives have about a 50 percent increase in lung surface area. This could be important because data that has emerged based on physiologist Jerry Dempsey’s work over the last 30 or 40 years that in at least some elite athletes, the lung can be limiting during very heavy exercise.
The other thing I find interesting about Kipchoge is his small size even for an elite marathoner. This means his surface-area-to-volume ratio is high and ideal for heat dissipation, and we saw in the Rio Olympics that he does well in the heat.
Conventional wisdom says the next Kipchoge will come from Kenya or Ethiopia. Do you think that's inevitable?
I have this crazy talent ID plan that I hope one of the deep-pocketed shoe companies will sponsor. It goes like this: go to the high-altitude big cities in the Andes and find all of the 14- to 16-year-olds who are enthusiastic soccer players, both boys and girls. Have them do an 800-meter or 1,000-meter time trial and take the top 5 percent or so of finishers and get them training for distance running. If you screened thousands of people, who knows what kind of talent you might find. From the 1970s into the 1990s there was this made-for-TV faux decathlon called the “Superstars” that included a half-mile run (around 800m), and the soccer player Brian Budd went 1:57 and change in 1979. I have always wondered if he was in the wrong sport.
I also wonder what might be out in the Himalayas, and back in the late 1970s I was living in Arizona and saw firsthand what the Native Americans of the Four Corners region of the Southwestern U.S. could do.
What about elsewhere in North America and other developed countries? Are there any future marathon champions lurking there? If so, what do we need to do to find them?
Frankly, there is a lot of wasted aerobic talent in North America in particular, and rich countries in general. Rusty Woods, an emerging elite cyclist who won a stage at the Vuelta last week, was a sub-four-minute miler who had injury problems as a runner, only to have his potentially wasted talent rescued via bike racing.
In this context, all of us old-timers have stories about some kid who went out for track after playing basketball and magically ran a 4:18 mile on minimal training and then vanished into the great wasteland of unexplored talent. Over the years I have also followed U.S. high school times and there are literally thousands of boys each year who break 4:30 for the mile or run an equivalent time for 1500m. I picked 4:30 as my index time based on an off-the-cuff comment that Frank Shorter supposedly once made: “How did I know you ran a 4:30 mile in high school? That’s easy. Everyone ran a 4:30 mile in high school.”
The epigraph from Once A Runner!
Who knows how many of these kids have ever trained seriously and how many keep running in college and eventually run marathons after years of serious training. My sense is only a small fraction, and this is among kids who have actually run in a race. Who knows what might happen with a truly comprehensive talent ID and retention program. I am not sure you could get Kipchoges out of it, but my guess is you could get more Galen Rupps. And with enough Galen Rupps an extreme, extreme outlier like Kipchoge might turn up. Anyone who thinks North Americans are destined to never catch the East Africans should watch the video clip of 20-year-old Jim Ryun running an unpaced 3:51.1 mile on a dirt track in 1967.
Anything else on your mind after watching Kipchoge’s record?
With endurance athletes like Kipchoge and the swimmer Katie Ledecky on the scene, we’re getting master classes on some of the topics covered in your book. Their ability to simultaneously push themselves maximally and at the same time stay relaxed and focused is a real treat and absolutely remarkable. As we have discussed many times, this is also a trainable skill accessible to us all that can carry over to many elements of life.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.