Why Kipchoge’s spectacular Berlin run sets the stage for faster marathons

Kenyan long distance runner Eliud Kipchoge sets a new world record at the Berlin Marathon. EPA-EFE/Hayoung Jeon

Eliud Kipchoge’s spectacular 2:01:39 marathon world record at Berlin on the 16th of September 2018 raises a number of questions about just how low the record can go and when another record might happen.

The prior record of 2:02:57 was set by Dennis Kimetto at Berlin in 2014, and starting in 2003 when Paul Tergat ran 2:04:55, the record has been broken seven times at Berlin. The six prior world records at Berlin all lowered the mark by between 15 and 45 seconds. Kipchoge took a 78 second bite out of the record.

The Kenyan’s extraordinary success didn’t come as a complete surprise. In May last year he ran 2:00:25 for the marathon distance in a special “exhibition” staged by Nike run on the car racing track at Monza in Italy. The race included a phalanx of pace makers along with Nike’s latest and greatest racing shoe.

On top of this, since he started competing in marathons in 2013, Kipchoge has had an amazing string of competitive success in major races winning 10 of 11 including a gold medal at Rio. He also has a superb record at shorter races.. His only non-win was a second place finish at Berlin in 2013.

As impressive as these performances are, I have been saying since the early 1990s that it might be physiologically possible for a human to run faster – and perhaps even to run a marathon under two hours.

I based this on my research which focused on the various physiological factors that contribute to fast marathon running. In my papers I looked at what would happen if one person had the best values ever recorded for the “big three” – maximal oxygen uptake, the so-called lactate threshold, and running economy or efficiency.

So what do the 2:01:39 record and 2:00:25 exhibition time by Kipchoge tell us about what might be possible – and when it might happen?

What we’ve learnt

First, for both runs the temperatures at the race starts were a bit higher than what might be ideal – about 8℃ - 10℃. Things also warmed up during the runs. I believe that on a slightly cooler day, Kipchoge could go faster. The response to small changes in temperature can vary between individuals, but a slightly cooler day should be conducive to a faster time, maybe 20 or 30 seconds.

Second, for the 2:00:25 run in 2017, the course had minimal sharp turns and the pacing was perfect with plenty of elite runners doing essentially a relay in front of Kipchoge to reduce wind resistance. By contrast the Berlin course is full of turns, and Kipchoge covered the last 40% or so of the race alone.

A faster course and better pace making could clearly also help take time off.

These two issues could be solved by having an open race on a flat fast (low altitude) loop course with minimal turns. The Monza track comes to mind. And the race would need to be run when the weather was likely to be good. Running it at night could keep things even cooler.

There could also be lots of fast runners recruited to run the race with cash premiums to anyone who hit fast times for intermediate distances. In marathon running top athletes only have a limited number of paydays per year, so to get all of the top runners at the same race on the same day would take a creative prize money scheme, appearance fees and a big purse.

The third key point is an infusion of talent. Kipchoge is now 33-years-old. He has been at the top for about 15 years and sooner or later he will slow down or retire. He clearly has a number of good years left, but not an unlimited number. The good news is there are some emerging talents in distance running including a 12-minute 43-seconds 5000m track run (4th fastest ever) by 18-year-old Selemon Barega of Ethiopia just a few weeks ago.

While it’s certainly reasonable to expect that whoever comes next will be from the high altitude zones of Kenya or Ethiopia, Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway who will turn 18 on September 19 is running some very fast times at shorter distances. I also wonder what hidden talent there might be in the mountains of South America and Himalayas.

Right conditions

The two terrific runs by Kipchoge set the stage – under the right conditions, on the right day – for the right athlete to go even faster. Sometimes after a big improvement a record plateaus for years and other times there are big jumps followed by smaller incremental improvements every few years. My guess is that we will likely be entering an era of smaller improvements and perhaps someone will break two hours by the later 2020s or middle 2030s.
On the other hand I would never bet against Kipchoge going faster, perhaps way faster, in the next few years.

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