The Marathon: How low can it go?

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Berlin, where the marathon mark fell this morning.

I woke up to some amazing news this a.m.: just hours before, across the Atlantic in the BMW Berlin Marathon,  Dennis Kimetto of Kenya had set a new World Record for the men’s marathon, a blistering 2:02:57.

Put this in perspective.  Imagine running sub-70 second 400 m intervals, 105 of them in a row, with no rest. That’s what it takes to accomplish this—for any of us who have ever run track, that is simply astounding.

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Dennis Kipruto Kimetto, the new world record holder in the men’s marathon

The twitter universe was exploding with the news.  @ComradesRace (the home for the Comrades Marathon) effused:  “A sub 2:03 marathon insane!”  (At 90 km, and the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon, Comrades is, I might say respectfully, ‘insane!’)

“How is it even possible to run at this speed?” @ComradesRace continued.  @VolareSports wrote “Flat. Fast. Unforgettable.”

It’s incredible to think that the 2 hour marathon ‘barrier’ may be breached in our lifetime.  When I was a competitive runner in the late ’70’s and ’80’s, the men’s marathon time was around 2:08, and I remember when Carlos Lopes of Portugal set the mark under that at 2:07:12.  At the time–a smug 20-something–I was amazed that a near 40-year-old like Lopes could have set a track and field world record!!

Now that 40 is in my rear-view mirror, that age has a certain youthful ring to it…..

But to return to the subject at hand!  The marathon!  What remarkable news to wake to this morning.  The men’s mark is now below 2:03. It leaves one wondering whether a sub-2 hour marathon can be run.  “Expert consensus,” apparently, is divided on the issue. I, for one, would not argue against it.  Time and again, it seems the impossible barrier has been achieved by humankind–the notion of the improbability of the sub-4 minute mile comes to mind, a mythic wall that existed for decades until Roger Bannister smashed it.  It happened 60 years ago, and you can watch the iconic race in its entirety on YouTube.

I typically prefer to traffic in evidence rather than speculation.  I wonder if we’ll see a sub-2 marathon any time soon, but I know there is a wealth of medical evidence being used to support the health and welfare of athletes in these endeavors.  The marathon has been a subject of medical research for years, and this journal has published a large number of studies relating to various aspects of running this grueling race. The subjects have ranged from marathon-related cardiac events to many studies on the issues of fluid-replacement and avoiding exercise-induced hyponatremia. Browse through some of those offerings.

And look back, if you’d like, to what I’ve written in these pages about the Boston Marathon (insider scoop:  the Co-Medical Director for Boston, CJSM author, and one of the physicians I trained under–Pierre d’Hemecourt–is running Berlin today.  Hope you’re off the course already buddy!!!)

Enjoy your weekend.  And cheers to Dennis Kimetto for your amazing performance!

Onwards to 1:59:59……….

p.s. Thank you to my good friend and applied mathematics whiz, Professor George Wu of the University of Chicago, for providing me with the ‘napkin analysis’ of Kimetto’s feat.  Dr. Wu and I ran track together in college.  I think we may have once done a workout of 20 400m intervals at 70 seconds each, with a good amount of rest in between……105 of them, in a row, with no rest.  It really is mind blowing.

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About sportingjim
I work at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio USA, where I am a specialist in pediatric sports medicine. My academic appointment as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics is through Ohio State University. I am a public health advocate for kids' health and safety. I am also the Emerging Media Editor for the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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