What will it take to run a 2-hour marathon?

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1/ The course will be very boring

Runners used to set world records at the New York City Marathon. But since 1998, NYC winners have featured only three times in the year’s fastest 20 performances. Blame the 240m of ascent and the 26 sharp turns, which hinder momentum.

Today, records require a flat course such as Chicago, or a straight one (e.g. Dubai, which has only four turns). The Association of Road Race Statisticians in the US has calculated a ‘time bias’ ranking, showing how much of a boost (or drag) elites get at marathons around the world. On average, elites in the flat, quite straight Berlin Marathon finish 81 seconds faster than they do at other races, while runners in New York finish 83 seconds slower. (In Chicago and Dubai, they finish 14 and 68 seconds faster, respectively.)

One unheralded race is held in the Polish town of Debno, where, since 2000, elites have finished, on average, 79.2 seconds faster than they do on other courses. What might happen if elites tried for sub-two in Debno, where the course follows straight roads and which is presently held in early April, when the average temperature is 5.5°C?

2/ The pacemakers will form a human wall

Even on a still day, elites run so fast that air resistance slows them down, which is why record-breaking races have become, in effect, pacemaker-led time trials. Wind tunnel studies show that tucking behind a runner at a two-hour pace allows an elite to run roughly 100 seconds faster over 26 miles – which explains why up to six pacemakers are used in races such as Berlin. Pacemakers also ensure an even pace by reducing the energy wasted by strategies such as surges. But few pacemakers make it past 20 miles, leaving the leaders alone when the going gets tough. To run sub-two, elites will need to work together, drafting like pro cycling teams, almost to the finish.

3/ The payday will be huge, but not tied to one race

One reason marathoners are running faster is that road racing is more lucrative. When the Sheikh of Dubai put up $1m (roughly £702,271) in prize money, plus a $1m world-record bonus, in 2008, the Dubai Marathon became one of the world’s fastest, despite its heat. Prize money for road races has soared since 1998, while track purses have fallen.

But big money can also draw the best away from the fastest courses, and the winner-takes-most prize structure favours cat-and-mouse tactics as runners race each other instead of the clock. The solution? A big pot of money that runners can win no matter where they race, and that is shared equally among all who break 2:00 in that event.

4/ It will be a cold March day, perhaps in Poland

Elites used to run fast at any time but according to our analysis of yearly top-200 performances since 1950, runners began targeting cooler spring and autumn races in the 1970s. Since 2000, more than half the annual top-200 times have been run in April or October (the exception is Dubai, where the coolest month for a marathon is January). But elites generate more heat than other runners, so conditions that are even colder could suit them better – a review by the French National Institute of Sport of nearly two million marathon finishers found the best temperature for male pros was below 4.5°C. Staging big races in April and October has cut times to just under 2:03, but perhaps to go below 2:00 they should be held in March or November. According to the French research a race-day temp of 6.2°C produced the quickest times overall – but the top one per cent peaked at 3.8°C.

5/ They will have Paula’s efficiency (and vertical leap)

The most astounding marathon outlier of all time is Paula Radcliffe. Her 2003 WR of 2:15:25 is nearly three minutes faster than any other woman in history. Fortunately for us, physiologist Andrew Jones began studying her when she was a teenager and his data on her VO2 max and running economy reveal clues about the prospect of a sub-two marathon.

Your VO2 max is a measure of how much oxygen you’re able to deliver to your muscles during exercise. Oxygen helps convert chemical energy from food into motion, so the higher your VO2 max, the longer and faster you can run. While training can raise your VO2 max, elite marathoners have such high values that it’s hard to push them further. Doping with EPO or blood transfusions is one way of boosting a high VO2 max, and it’s possible that cheating may have contributed to the drop in the marathon-record time, and it could even be the ‘secret’ that allows runners to approach sub-two in the future. But Radcliffe’s numbers offer a reminder that such tactics aren’t necessary to achieve stunning performances: her VO2 max was exceptional when she was a teenager and it stayed at a relatively constant level during her career.

So how did she progress from good to great? If VO2 max measures your oxygen supply, the other side of the equation is oxygen demand. A measure called ‘running economy’ (like the fuel economy of a car) reveals how much oxygen your muscles require to maintain race pace. Reducing oxygen demand (by improving your running economy) is just as good as increasing oxygen supply. And that’s exactly what Radcliffe did – she followed a sophisticated strength-training programme that boosted her vertical jump from 28cm in 1996 to 38cm in 2003, altering neuromuscular recruitment patterns that may have given her a more powerful push-off. She also decreased her sit-and-reach flexibility by 4cm. Muscles and tendons act as springs that store energy; stiff springs may store and return more energy with each stride. So elites like Radcliffe tend to be less flexible in places such as the hamstrings and lower back; indeed, in one study of elite runners, those who were 20cm less flexible on a sit-and-reach test ran 27 per cent more efficiently. Despite Radcliffe’s ungainly form, her 15 per cent improvement in running economy between 1992 and 2003 corresponded with her ascent to world-beater status.

When it comes to running economy, some studies have found that Kenyans have an edge over European and American runners. Why is unclear, but having longer legs (as a proportion of overall height) and thinner calves may allow the average Kenyan to expend slightly less energy with each stride. It’s worth noting that the Kenyans who dominate world marathon lists generally do little, if any, weight training, which may represent an untapped source of improvement. No-one has yet managed the daunting balance between oxygen supply and demand required for a sub-two. So far, today’s top runners fall short because either their supply (VO2 max) is too low or their demand (running economy) is too high, but both sides of the equation already exist. Creating the sub-two marathoner doesn’t require a superhero with physiological traits never before seen in humans. It will just take someone who combines the best VO2 max and running economy of today’s fastest runners.

6/ They’ll be 5’6” and 9st

Between 1990 (the first year in which data was available) and 2011, the height of the average male marathoner ranked in the top 100 that year fell by 1.3in (3.3cm) and weight fell by 7.5lb. Smaller runners have less weight to haul around and they’re better at heat dissipation; thanks to a greater skin surface area relative to weight, they can sustain higher speeds (and thus, greater internal heat production) without overheating and having to slow down. Despite our sub-two runner’s short frame, he’ll also have disproportionately long legs that help him cover ground, and unusually slender calves that require less energy to swing than heavier limbs.

7/ They’ll believe in themselves (and their very fast friends)

Physiologists have shown that what you perceive as your limits depends on what you believe is possible. So runners can compare themselves with those who have gone before them and convince themselves sit’s possible to go faster. Such a state of mind requires athletes to enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a ‘flow state’ of full immersion in a task, mediated by brain chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. As Steven Kotler points out in The Rise of Superman (Quercus), among the best ways of triggering these chemicals is with ‘group flow’, when people are united in the pursuit of a goal, as they are at the training camps in East Africa that have produced today’s top marathoners.

Some observers believe the biggest difference between Kenyans and other runners is that every Kenyan runner believes ‘One day will be my day.’ It’s easier for a young runner to nurture that belief when he can train with, learn from and share in the success of world-beaters. Whoever runs a sub-two will have to start with the belief that it’s possible, that he’s the one to do it and that he won’t get there alone.

8/ They’ll have access to things we can’t imagine

Using the past to predict the future can’t account for the emergence of new techniques. When physiologist Michael Joyner and his colleagues wrote in the Journal of Applied Physiology on the prospects for a sub-two, the journal later published 38 responses from other researchers suggesting possible factors that might bring the barrier closer, like tracking subtle variations in heart rate, processing carbs more quickly and prenatal exposure to high altitudes. Only time will tell if one of these factors triggers a breakthrough for marathoners, as full-body swimsuits did for swimmers.

9/ They’ll be in their early 20s and fearless 

When 21-year-old Sammy Wanjiru surged to an early lead in the sweltering heat of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon it seemed he was on a suicidal pace. But he won by 44 seconds, clocking 2:06:32 – a time observers had thought impossible in temperatures that topped 28°C. That performance changed perceptions of the marathon. Before 2008, it was considered an older runner’s event, one attempted by those in their late 20s or early 30s after they’d honed their skills on the track. After the 2008 Games, however, younger runners began skipping the track in favour of 26.2 (this priority shift also corresponded to changes in prize money) and they ran hard from the gun. Wanjiru died in 2011, aged just 24, in a drunken fall from a balcony. We’ll never know how fast he could have become, but we will have a chance to watch the progression of those he inspired, such as 18-year-old Ethiopian Tsegaye Mekonnen, who ran 2:04:32 early last year in his marathon debut,after ripping through the first half in just 1:01:39. Remember that name.