The 2 hour marathon – final frontier or limit of human endurance?

As I settled down to watch this year’s London Marathon, I was of course struck by the number of normal people with no real running background who had found a reason to take on the gruelling 26.2 mile course.  People who had found extraordinary strength from personal struggles that they never knew they had.  It got me thinking about the limits of our abilities and how often we really push ourselves to breaking point.  Looking at the thousands of runners on Sunday, it seemed to me that all of them had discovered that the mind is the limiting factor and were using their minds to overcome the challenge.  Pretty inspiring stuff I’m sure you agree!

In the build-up to the London Marathon I came across an article discussing the possibility of someone running a sub 2 hour marathon.  While I am obviously biased towards the requisite psychological approach to such an achievement, the physiological concerns are worth considering.  In order to achieve this time, an athlete would need to run 4:35 miles throughout the race.  To put this in perspective, a reasonable club runner would manage 7 minute miles which would equate to just over 3 hours and the world record for running just 1 mile is currently 3:43.13.  Put simply an athlete would need to run 26 times the distance at only 52 seconds off the mile world record pace.  By anybody’s reckoning that is astonishingly quick.

So it’s going to take an athlete in perfect condition with a very high VO2 max, strong pacemakers, flat course and no wind.  What about the psychological approach to this feat?  Paula Radcliffe describes her world record marathon run as feeling “like everything was flowing.  It wasn’t forced.  Nothing hurt.  You’re not even thinking – you’re just running.”  She is describing being in the ‘zone’ and seems to be critical to peak performance. 

Research shows that negative emotions increase the perception of physical pain and vice versa.  In order to suffer for 26 miles, it will be essential to get on top of your perceptions of pain and to find that ‘easy’ rhythm where we’re working hard but feel like we’re within ourselves. 

The other psychological consideration is that of paradigm shift.  The 1 mile record stood at 4:10 or faster from 1923 but people argued whether it would ever be possible to go faster than 4:00.  It wasn’t until 1954, 31 years later that Roger Bannister eventually dipped under the barrier with 3:59.4.  46 days later, John Landy also went under 4:00.  What had changed weren’t the physiological characteristics, but rather the mental belief that it was possible.  These athletes were fit enough to run the time but simply did not believe that they could do it.  Something I’m sure every athlete can empathise with?

So will a sub 2-hour marathon happen in my lifetime?  The experts are divided on the matter in terms of the physical limitations of the human body and I do share their concerns!  However, I also believe that when you’re talking about going around 3.5% faster, the psychological approach can contribute to that small percentage. 

The non-elite runners taking on their first marathon for a good cause show us every year that the mind can help us to do incredible things and that there are no limits if you truly commit to it.  No more limits!

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