Tufts by Numbers: Will record breaking ever end?

The fastest finisher of Monday’s Boston Marathon finished the 26.2-mile race in just under two hours and 10 minutes – an impressive feat considering it means that the champ, Geoffrey Kirui from Kenya, ran each mile of the marathon in under five minutes. More impressive is that according to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the record for fastest marathon ever ran by a man is set at a remarkable 2:02:57 by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya from the 2014 Berlin Marathon. For women, Paula Radcliffe of the United Kingdom holds the record of completing the 2003 London Marathon in 2:15:25. Most notable, however, is the steady improvement of these times as athletes beat each other out of world record holdings. Human capability now is not far off from the illusive two-hour marathon and records that were once thought to be impossible lie just around the corner. Now, athletes, coaches and fans wonder if these records will ever peak and what we can predict from past improvements for the future.

The first sanctioned marathon of 26.2 miles occurred at the 1908 London Olympics and was won with a time of 2:55:18 by American Johnny Hayes. Now, Kimetto’s current record has shaved almost an hour off this time. This massive improvement represents decades of record breaking and expectation shattering as a new understanding of fast was born. Looking to the next century, can we expect humans to be running marathons in a mere 60 minutes? Or is there bound to be a plateau of athleticism and ability? I took a look at the record data and research for both the men’s and women’s races to attempt to extrapolate how fast our little legs really might be able to carry us in the future.

According to The Washington Post’s collection of men’s marathon record times, the fastest marathon run time at the end of 1909 dropped more than five minutes from the held record set earlier that year. The history of women’s marathon record breaking is even more exciting, as a remarkable eight minutes were cut off the record time in 1964. These leaps are astounding when noting that today, the record drops by seconds each time that it is broken.

Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic, conducted a study in 1991 to model optimal marathon performance. He predicted that with optimal setting and athleticism, a male runner could complete a marathon in 1:57:58. If these predictions are correct, then the under-two-hour marathon isn’t far off in comparison to recent improvements.

But, will humans ever be running marathons in significantly less than two hours?

Research on animal and human ability says probably not. According to Mark Denny, a professor of biology at Stanford University, models of statistics on race speed improvements of dogs, horses and elite human athletes assert that humans are likely to hit a limit of maximum speed while technology advancements may allow us to continue to slowly improve. Thus, though we may continue to see record breaking past the two-hour mark, new times may be in large part a testament to technology rather than to human ability.


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