The 2:00 marathon barrierby Ryan on Monday, September 30, 2013 (8 comments)
Wilson Kipsang: 2:03:23!
Every time a world record in the marathon is set, we start hearing the same talk. How long until the 2:00 barrier is broken? This is the first time a world record was set since this blog has been started. I've long thought about writing about this because I think a lot of people assume the trend in records is going to accelerate, when the opposite is more likely.
Don't get me wrong. I'd love to see 1:59:59. While I enjoy head to head racing more than time trialing, I won't deny the lure of numbers - especially for this math guy - is compelling. I just don't think we can count on it happening as soon as some think it will.
First, let's just take a look at the recent trend in records, starting with the most simple calculation. Wilson Kipsang broke the 2 year old record by 15 seconds. That's an improvement rate of 7.5 seconds per year. If the record kept improving by 7.5 seconds per year on average, we'd be looking at being on the verge of the 2:00 barrier 27 years from now, maybe at Berlin 2040. That's not terribly long from now but it's far from the expectations some people are throwing around that we will see 1:59 within the next decade.
Second, can we really expect the record to improve on average 7.5 seconds per year for the next 27 years? On the face of it, we might say maybe. The prior record took 21 seconds off a 3 year old record. Before that, 27 seconds off a 1 year old record. Even 29 seconds off a 4 year old record before that falls in line and, on the face of things, suggests the overall trend is even greater than 7.5 seconds a year.
However, the marathon is going through a sea change we can't expect to continue. It's in a renaissance. Distance events on the track are becoming less lucrative and, in the case of the 10,000 at least, even less plentiful. At the same time, the amount of money available to marathoners is increasing significantly. This is pushing many top athletes who would normally stay on the track into the marathon. The marathon record trend I mentioned above precedes this trend but the only runner who took part in the record trend I mentioned above who wouldn't be part of this trend away from the track and toward the marathon was Haile Gebrselassie, considered by some to be the greatest distance runner ever and by many to be at least among the greatest distance runners ever. Geb is a once in a generation runner. We can't expect a Geb to pop up and shatter the record every few years.
By the way, does anyone else remember back around 2000 when people were analyzing what Geb might do if/when he would move up to the marathon? I remember at least a couple people mentioning the 2:00 barrier as his to break at that time.
Likewise, this renaissance time in the marathon isn't going to last forever. Once the best runners from the track move to the marathon, they are there. There won't be new "best runners" to move to the marathon and change the equation again.
I'll go out on a limb and say this trend will continue a little longer but I suspect the pace of marathon world record improvements is going to slow down fairly soon because this change in the demographics of elite marathoners has mostly played itself out. Maybe sub-2:03 happens within the next 5-10 years but, unless there is another trend that I can't forsee at this time, I think the rate of improvement is going to slow - possibly dramatically - shortly after that time.
For those expecting a linear improvement or even accelerating improvements, don't count on it. Every time the record is lowered, it becomes a little more difficult and requires a little more perfect confluence of events to get the next one. That doesn't mean the next one is guaranteed to take longer or be captured by a smaller margin but it does mean the trend is toward less frequent records and/or smaller margins. In other words, the rate of improvement of the record, over time, will slow.
As an example of this, look at the improvements of the world record by decade. We see that there are times of rapid improvement and times of little to no improvement but the general trend is that the rate of improvement does slow over time. This trend will continue.
|Year ||World Record as of January 1st ||10 year improvement |
Obviously, world events played a big role in this progression. The most notable is that the improvement from 1940-1950 was suppressed before the trend was restored and then some between 1950 and 1960. A lot of this likely has to do with world events happening in the 1940s that took the world's focus and many of the world's prime marathon age men away from sporting events. Once the focus was back on sports, the sport made up for lost time.
More generally, though, look at the trend of improvements by decade. An improvement somewhere in the 5:00/decade was the standard through the early and middle part of the 20th century. Then the trend slowed to somewhere in the vicinity of 1:00-2:00/decade. As I was filling out the chart above, the results surprised me a little. I expected a more smooth curve. That said, I think it's safe to say this trend will continue. We already see that a record requires an ever more difficult confluence of events, from perfect weather to the perfect field to near perfect pacing. 5-10 degrees warmer than ideal? Forget the record. Not enough competition and pacers to push the eventual winner? He won't make it. Too much competition? The late miles will become more tactical - in other words, slower - as winning in a time short of a record becomes more lucrative than pushing your competitor to a world record and finishing second or third.
Maybe something unexpected will happen. Maybe sports science will come up with some new training method or (let's hope) legal supplement or recovery method that will carry future runners to rapid improvements that don't seem likely now. The problem with assuming this will happen, though, is that we are running out of obvious places for improvement. Maybe something is out there but how much flatter and faster can you make a course than Berlin or Chicago? How many more pacers can you give to someone attempting the record and would more pacers accomplish anything anyway? How much more talent can you draw to the event? These paths to improvement have pretty much been tapped out.
More likely, in my opinion, is that we'll see a gradual reduction in the trend of world record improvements. 1:00/decade may, in the near future, seem like a giant leap. The kind of improvement we saw in the 1970s may become the new norm and may even seem like a lot several decades from now.
Sunday, I posted on Facebook that I wouldn't count on seeing the 2:00 barrier broken in my lifetime. After writing this post, I think it's more possible than I thought it was when I posted that. That said, the 2:00 barrier is likely decades away. It wouldn't surprise me at all if we're still thinking about the 2:00 barrier 40-50 years from now.Quote