Dipra Debnath: The record-time marathon is a feat of human intellect

Sunday, November 3, 2019 - 12:04pm

On Oct. 12, 2019, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge, 34, entered territory never before occupied by humankind. After one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds of impeccable running, Kipchoge became the first person to ever run the marathon distance of 26.2 miles in under two hours. This is a feat that marathoners worldwide have been creeping toward for as long as the marathon event has existed, but has been considered by many prior to this achievement to be impossible.

Despite the feat, some still believe that a sub-two-hour marathon is out of reach. Kipchoge’s run will not be counted as an official world record by the International Association of Athletics Federations because it was not performed under federation-approved conditions. Kipchoge’s time was clocked at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, Austria, an event that was specifically-engineered for the Kenyan’s solo sub-two-hour attempt and was not an IAAF-recognized marathon competition. Furthermore, Kipchoge was always flocked by a team of pacers who ran at the pace necessary for the target finishing time and rotated in groups onto and off of the course. This rotation was another deviation from IAAF protocol.

Some will point to the optimization of conditions as grounds for the feat’s illegitimacy. The pacers themselves were led by a car that projected a laser guide onto the road, aligning the pacers to optimize aerodynamic efficiency for Kipchoge. The date was selected by meteorologists for ideal weather conditions, and Kipchoge ran on a straight and flat course wearing newly-developed Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% shoes, which are commercially-unavailable.

However, to think these optimized conditions undermine the accomplishment of this undertaking is to do injustice to the unique talents of our species. The sub-two-hour marathon is a landmark example of what humans are able to do with a combination of willpower and ingenuity. Everyone involved in preparing the event knew the time wouldn’t count — what they were interested in was seeing if the seemingly impossible could be accomplished. Getting a person to run 26.2 miles as fast as possible is a challenge akin to landing people on the moon: It requires endless practice and discipline from those who will physically undertake the task, application of science and research from experts in the field, optimization of all controllable factors and perfect environmental conditions. We all know of Neil Armstrong because he was the first person to physically set foot on the moon, but there was a large team behind the Apollo 11 mission that made America’s lunar dreams a reality.

Kipchoge is the marathon’s Neil Armstrong. As the greatest marathoner of all time, holding the official world record of 2:01:39 that was set just one year ago, there was no one more qualified to attempt the INEOS 1:59 experiment. Even if his 1:59:40.12 time does not appear in official records books, he will be remembered as the man who crossed a sacred threshold, and if there is anyone in the near future who will break 2:00 in official conditions, as of now, it is likely to be Kipchoge. However, it took a large group of dedicated people putting their heads together toward a common objective to accomplish this goal this time around.

A roadblock in improving on records in athletics is that, with every boundary pushed a little bit further, we edge closer to the unknown limits of what humans are physically capable of doing. This is where the case of the marathon diverges from that of the moon landing. Technology improves as quickly as human minds can innovate, which is quite fast, given that manned missions to Mars could become a reality in the next couple of decades. Humans’ physical evolution is significantly slower than this. It is unlikely that marathon runners have genetically evolved at all since 1896, when the marathon was held at the first modern Olympiad and the gold medalist ran a time of 2:58:50.

Despite this, marathon times have dropped significantly since then. If people’s physical talents are not getting any better, then there must be other factors in play with regard to dropping times. A lot of the heat directed at Kipchoge’s accomplishment is related to the shoes he wore during the event, which some say may contain elements that have spring-like properties, though Nike states that the purpose of these elements is only to distribute forces that may be felt by the wearer. Criticizing scientific and technological advances for improved race times, however, is a fruitless endeavor. A look at the fastest official marathon times for every elite male marathoner in the world shows that the top 14 marathoners ever clocked their fastest times after 2011. There is not a single time before 2003 in the top 100.

Runners’ genetics have not evolved since 2003, but technology, training and sports science have. Shoes have become lighter and more aerodynamic, training and rest schedules have been optimized, recovery techniques have been improved upon and sleep and nutritional science is brimming with new findings. Science and technology have been used to bring out the most in how quickly human beings are able to run 26.2 miles.

This is what makes Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon so exciting. The feat demonstrates that humans — with the power of what we know and what we can create — can continue to unearth potential in what we are physically able to do. Accomplishments in modern athletics are every bit as much a product of human intellect as they are of human physiology. Kipchoge’s achievement results from a cooperative effort between the world-class athletes who paced him, the scientists who determined the best running configurations and weather conditions for the event, the researchers who developed Kipchoge’s shoes, the trainers who planned Kipchoge’s training and the extraordinary physical gifts of Kipchoge himself.

The next step is for someone to cross the finish line of an official marathon in under two hours. As our understanding of training, recovery and footwear continues to advance, I have no doubt it will be done in the future. When it is, it will be another opportunity for us to see what we are made of.

Dipra Debnath can be reached at dipra@umich.edu.