Earlier this month, Kenyan marathon runner Kelvin Kiptum shocked the athletics world.
On 8 October, Kiptum won the Chicago Marathon, breaking the men’s marathon world record with an astonishing time of 2:00:35, taking more than 30 seconds off the former world record, held by Eliud Kipchoge.
It’s difficult to express just how fast Kiptum’s marathon was. A marathon of this pace requires the runner to run 26 consecutive miles at a 4:34 pace. A single mile at this pace is an achievement in itself, a time even accomplished amateur middle-distance runners would be proud of.
Marathon runners continue to push the boundaries of what we thought possible for human beings. With the strides forward taken in nutrition, training, and technology, the athletics world has begun to cast its eyes forward to the elusive two hours – a figure which has sat at the front of every men’s marathon record since records began.
Breaking two hours in the marathon in official competition would be an incredible human achievement, immortalising a runner’s place in athletics and human history alongside the likes of Roger Banister and Usain Bolt, and arguably surpassing them.
Kipchoge’s record came in the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in 2019
The likely candidate for this achievement is the new record holder, Kelvin Kiptum. Kiptum shattered the marathon record in just his third-ever official marathon, continuing his record of winning every marathon he has participated in. At 23 years old, he is only just beginning his career over 26.2 miles, and is in pole position to post the first official two-hour time.
The other potential candidate for a two-hour marathon is Eliud Kipchoge. Kipchoge is, without a doubt, the greatest marathon runner of all time. He has two Olympic gold medals in the event, and is the only man to have run a sub two-hour marathon in the past – an incredible achievement, but one not recognised as official for a number of reasons.
Kipchoge’s record came in the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in 2019, a project which specifically set out to prove the two-hour marathon was possible. The run took place in Vienna in October, on a course specifically chosen for its straight and flat nature. A team of 41 pace runners and a pace car helped Kipchoge keep up with the breakneck speed required, but as it was not an open race, and due to the presence of both the pace runners and car, it was invalid as a record.
Nonetheless, the attempt was successful with Kipchoge running an incredible 1:59:40 marathon, shattering the world record and the fabled two-hour barrier. It proved to the world that a marathon in under two hours was possible, but the achievement will forever be marked with an asterisk.
The humans capable of running these distances at such incredible speeds are near superhuman.
The majority of these great long-distance runners are a perfect genetic storm of astounding lung capacities and low lactic thresholds, often being born and raised in high-altitude regions of Africa.
Both Kipchoge and Kiptum were born, raised, and train in mountainous regions of Kenya, running on difficult and bumpy roads over 2000m above sea level – all of which helps to develop efficient lungs with huge VO2 maxes, i.e. the amount of oxygen an athlete can use during exercise. They run at a pace that would be considered a sprint for most people, even amateur runners, for over two hours straight.
However, a sub two-hour marathon would not just be an incredible human achievement.
The women’s marathon record was broken by an unheard of margin of over two-and-a-half minutes in Berlin in September by Ethiopian runner Tigst Assefa
The technology at play allowing these runners to run at their maximum potential has been advancing significantly over the past few years, most notably in the shoe department. Behind the battle between athletes aiming to be the one who conquers running’s greatest challenge, there is a further conflict, particularly between Adidas and Nike, to be the shoe manufacturer that breaks the record.
The race to break two hours has been a corporate one for years – take Nike’s Breaking2 project in 2017 which aimed to achieve what the INEOS 1:59 event eventually would and see two hours broken in a non-regulation race. Kipchoge ran in both, but fell agonizingly short in Nike’s attempt, running just a second off the pace each mile to record a 2:00:25.
The sports brand that is being worn by the runner that breaks the record will similarly have a place in history, and no doubt receive a massive boost in brand popularity. Adidas and Nike are both pushing hard, pouring millions into research and development to give their athletes a boost in breaking records. At the Chicago Marathon, Kiptum broke the men’s record wearing Nike’s new Alphafly 3 shoes, something Nike were quick to boast about on their social media accounts.
The women’s marathon record was broken by an unheard of margin of over two-and-a-half minutes in Berlin in September by Ethiopian runner Tigst Assefa, who was wearing Adidas’ Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 shoes. Adidas, like Nike, were quick to gloat about their athlete’s, and their shoes’, success. The technology used in the shoes – thick cushioned soles that stay rigid, but are also super lightweight – delicately toes the line of legality. Kipchoge ran his 2019 unofficial record in a pair of Alphaflys later deemed illegal by governing bodies, but ran the Berlin Marathon in an approved pair.
With the technology, nutrition, and training improvements the current crop of talented long-distance runners have access to, the question on the lips of the athletics world seems to be when, not if, two-hour mark will be broken.
The most likely place for the record to be broken would be the Berlin Marathon, which occurs every September. This year’s edition was won by Kipchoge with a time of two hours and two minutes, although it was soon overshadowed by Kelvin Kiptum’s record-breaking effort in Chicago weeks later. Kiptum didn’t participate in Berlin but has suggested he will appear next year. A good event to mark in your calendars now. The Olympics also take place next year in Paris, but the nature of the Olympic marathon, run in not-so-ideal summer conditions on unestablished and cobbled-together tracks, means records are rare and unlikely.
The four-minute mile, famously thought of as a white whale of sport, was broken in 1954 by Roger Bannister
The London marathon, won by Kiptum this year and known for its flat course, is another possible candidate, but the unpredictable conditions of British spring can make this an unstable race. With the pace of improvement currently in the sport, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to suggest the two-hour mark could fall next year or in the following years.
Talk of the elusive sub two-hour marathon encourages speculation of a different kind. The two-hour marathon, long thought to be an impossible feat for a human to complete, has technically already fallen, and been proved possible.
But if two hours isn’t an impassable wall as once thought, then where is that wall? It has to be somewhere – a human will never run a marathon in two minutes. Scientific research, most famously that conducted by Michael Joyner in 1991, has suggested that a human with optimal technique, stride, VO2 max, and lactate threshold, could theoretically run a marathon in just under one hour and 58 minutes.
But nothing can account for the human race’s endeavour and striving to keep going faster. The four-minute mile, famously thought of as a white whale of sport, was broken in 1954 by Roger Bannister. Since then the four-minute mark has been officially breached by almost 1,800 athletes.
So when, not if, the two-hour marathon is finally conquered, what’s next?