Wouter Hoogkamer, a postdoctoral researcher in sport neuromechanics at the University of Colorado, spent the first weekend of May on the edge of his seat, watching to see if his calculations — the ones that show that, under the right conditions, a sub-two hour marathon is possible — proved true. But with four miles left to go in Eliud Kipchoge’s attempt, he knew it was a fool’s errand … for that day, anyway.
“I knew that there was no way he would be able to make up the seconds he needed to get under two hours,” Hoogkamer said the day after the attempt. To the layperson watching the event unfold, it looked like there was still a chance, even going into that final mile, but Kipchoge was at his limit — and anyone who’s tried to run a sub-6 minute mile, or sub-5 minute one, knows just how impossible it is to shave 24 seconds in the course of 5,280 feet. And that’s how close he was: while he may not have broken 2 hours, Kipchoge did shatter the standing record, making the unofficial time to beat 2:00:24.
Hoogkamer believes we’ll see it soon enough. A marathoner himself, he’s run Boston in 2:41. That time would be competitive in most circles, but not with the incredibly speedy crew he’s dedicated his work to.
At the University of Colorado, Boulder, he led the research behind a study published in the journal Sports Medicine that calculated and crunched the data to see just how someone, some day, could go under 2 hours. (Without drugs, he’s quick to mention.)
There are three primary factors he came up with — basing his calculations around Kenyan Dennis Kimetto, who holds the official world record of 2:02:57, set in 2014 at the Berlin Marathon.
THE RIGHT COURSE
Of course, the attempt must be done on a course that technically falls within the parameters of a route that could host a record recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations — in other words, it can’t all be a huge downhill! Hoogkamer says the most important factors looking at a suitable course are the downhill grades, a lack of lengthy uphills and consideration of wind. The ideal course would be a point-to-point with a slight downhill for the second half, running with a tailwind the entire time.
A DRAFT OR A TAILWIND
Cyclists know the value of a tailwind and a draft, Hoogkamer says. But runners tend to forget those things. If you’re running with someone in front of you blocking the wind, you can save serious time — and a tailwind has a similar effect. For example, a 13 mph tailwind could shave off about 3 minutes of time in the marathon. He also admits that there might be a psychological component in having someone to draft off of: You’re likely to stick to your competitor’s heel and do everything in your power to hold that pace. From a strictly physics-based standpoint, reducing air resistance for the drafting runner by just 36% would improve running economy by 2.7%. That could be the difference between sub-2 hour and a 2:03 marathon pace.
THE LIGHTEST SHOES
If you’re already at peak racing weight, then you should consider shoes. Shoe weight can slow you down by a few seconds, anyway, but this study and calculation relies on those seconds getting shaved off. Hoogkamer’s calculations showed shoes that were 100 grams lighter than what Kimetto wore in Berlin would be needed: 130-gram shoes would save almost 1 minute off of the overall marathon time.
“For years, minimalist shoes have been all the rage in the running world. While that type of shoe is not as widespread as they once were, the running footwear industry has taken cues from what a minimal shoe can offer a runner,” says Brent James, Product Line Manager, Run Footwear at Under Armour. “Beyond promoting “better” running form, a minimal shoe that delivers adequate support can be a useful tool for all runners aiming to get faster. The goal now is not just a minimal shoe, it’s: what’s the least amount of shoe I can get away with?”
Hoogkamer says the tough call for marathoners is how to find a balance between light shoes and those that have enough support to blast runners through 26.2 miles of pavement pounding.
In the perfect scenario — with all of these three factors in mind — a sub-2 hour marathon could be coming soon.
SUB TWO-HOUR MARATHON FOR WOMEN
So, will a woman ever go under 2 hours? Hoogkamer believes it’s possible, though he doesn’t expect to see it anytime soon, possibly not in our lifetime. For now, the women’s version of the 2:00 is breaking 2:15:25, the record set and held by Paula Radcliffe all the way back in 2003.
WHAT ABOUT THE AVERAGE RUNNER?
For the average runner looking to run their fastest marathon, Hoogkamer has some more general tips.
- Dial in your biomechanics. Even the fastest runners — like the ones Hoogkamer thinks can go sub-2 — still could stand to improve their stride and run economy. For the average person, a running coach can provide simple tweaks and suggestions to make you a more efficient runner. All the gear and perfect conditions in the world won’t help if you run like Frankenstein.
- Choose a course suited to speed. Think flat or slightly downhill. (Not too downhill though, that’s cheating in Hoogkamer’s book.) If you can find a point-to-point that often features a tailwind, even better.
- Find a group or even one other runner to pace off of. Most big marathons will have group leaders who carry balloons or signs with the finishing time, and starting with them will keep you motivated — and give you a runner or 10 to draft!