Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Marathon Musings: The Two Hour Barrier

In the 1950s public attention was riveted on the sport of running, more specifically the four-minute mile.  Could a human run that fast?  If so, who would be the first to do it?  There were Scandinavians, Australians, Americans, and a British med student all vying to break "the four minute barrier."

It seems fitting today that, during Medtronic Twin Cities marathon week, the conversation within the running community is focused on another barrier--the sub two hour marathon.  Nobody at Twin Cities is participating in this quest, but last weekend in Berlin Kenya's Wilson Kipsang became the latest in a long line of Africans to set a new world record for the marathon by running 2:03:23 for 26.2 miles. Kipsang ran each mile in roughly four minutes and 42 seconds.

To run 1:59:59 one has to average 4:34 per mile.  Like the mile back in the 1950s, a lot of speculation has been made about if and when any human will be able to run that fast.  Ross Tucker, a South African sports scientist, has written extensively on the scientific perspective of the quest for a sub two.  His latest analysis is HERE.  Running journalist and broadcaster Toni Reavis contributed his thoughts on the quest HERE.  The sub two has become our generation's sub four.

Even though we've made huge advances in what we understand about the scientific aspects of human performance, in many ways we are still as under informed of the key elements of what it takes to achieve athletic breakthrough performances as we were in the 1950s.  Several years ago Tucker, his partner in the sports science blog, Jonathan Dugas; his wife Lara Dugas , who is also a research scientist; Amby Burfoot, and I had a meal and chat about a wide ranging issues in sports performance topics.

One of the more revealing comments on the state of sports science research came from Tucker, who noted that a crucial area for understanding the physiological limitations of human performance was at the cellular level.  What biochemical adaptations and genetic traits are key to running a four-minute mile or a sub-two hour marathon?  Tucker noted that the technology for measuring the most likely physiological variables that would allow us to unlock the mysteries of why Mo Farah, to use a recent example, can run a sub 3:30 1,500 meters, as well as sub 27 minutes for 10K is not yet available.  How he can finish a 10K race with a 50 second quarter? Genes, training, some cellular adaptation in his muscles, tendons?

If we had answers to some of these questions, it would give athletes and coaches, a better road map to design training to maximize each athlete's potential.  To formulate a race plan that would be the most likely to maximize one's ability to run the fastest over the marathon distance.  From what we know now, even pace, negative split--i.e. don't yo-yo your pace between fast and slow miles and go out at a speed for the first half of the race that allows you to run at least as fast or faster over the last half marathon--is the road map used successfully by most record breakers in the event.

The most important human organ in this process, if you subscribe to Tucker and Dugas' mentor, Dr. Tim Noakes's theories, is the brain.  Noakes, one of the most preeminent researchers in the field of sports performance, is an advocate of the central governor theory.  In simple terms this theory maintains that the brain is a regulatory mechanism that sends the appropriate signals to the rest of the body that govern how those other organs function under stress.  Through a complex biofeedback process the brain both helps us perform within the parameters of our physical limits and shuts us down if we go beyond those limits.

It is the "ear" that coaches refer to when they admonish their athletes to "listen to your body."  Learn the signals that you are going too fast, how to anticipate when you are able to safely go faster.  What is the feedback loop that allows you to go fast enough to manage your energy over, say, a 26.2 mile race near your limit without crashing, "hitting the wall?"  How the brain does this is the great mystery of human performance.  It's what Tucker is talking about when he notes what we don't know about the athletic body.

Science has come a long way since the '50s.  They've identified fast twitch, slow twitch and "intermediate" muscle fibers.  Demonstrated that the "gas" or fuel the muscles use to perform also has different characteristics and requires the appropriate amount of stress and rest(training) to fine tune how it is apportioned during a race.  To use a motor racing analogy, whether it be the stock cars of NASCAR or the sleek, aerodynamic machines of Formula One, the key is not maximum speed, but how you utilize the speed you have during miles of racing.

In motor racing, the maximum speed of the cars is regulated, dampened, to deal with the weakest link, the human behind the wheel.  At 200 miles an hour hurtling around a racetrack there is no time to think, just react.  The faster you go, the shorter, more minuscule, that reaction time is.  So allowing the cars to go faster than they already do risks more than dented fenders.  A marathoner who goes too fast is merely analogous to a race car driver whose pit crew misjudges the amount of fuel needed to finish the race.  Like the car that runs out of gas, the runner who misjudges his or her pace is soon stalled on the inside of the track with an empty fuel tank.

The interesting thing about marathon running is that every participant faces the same challenge--energy management.  In training you work to develop your "miles per gallon," allowable racing speed to maintain proper fuel management.  On race day you use that knowledge to modulate your effort so you get to the finish line with "gas" still in the tank.Tucker's piece outlines the current thoughts on limits and the parameters of what an elite athlete seeking to break the two hour barrier might need to accomplish that feat.

Tucker hypothesizes that a low 57 minute half marathon and/or a sub 26 minute 10K are prerequisites for identifying the ability to run a sub two.  In a way this sets artificial barriers within the vital organ of performance, the brain.  An athlete who does not believe he can run under two hours is not even going to attempt it.  Take the chance to risk crashing in a quest to break the "unbreakable."  The thing about the Kenyan athletes that has, to me, always seemed like their greatest strength is that they raced and thought outside the boundaries.

I remember vividly sitting in Moses Tanui's living room in the mid early 1990s and asking Moses if he thought he could run under two hours for the marathon.  "Yes," came his quick, unequivocal answer. "I've run under one hour for a half and I felt like I could keep going and do it again," Tanui said.  He never did, but he believed he could.  He was willing to take the risk.  It was Tanui who set off on a late race surge in the Bank of America Chicago marathon that resulted in Khalid Khannouchi breaking the World Marathon Record not long after our conversation.

Tanui admitted after the race that he'd gone too fast, too soon.  He'd learned a lesson as did others about how to manage your energy over the marathon distance.  Joan Samuelson never raced for time, she raced to win.  I remember just as vividly, but not quite as pleasantly, running the first mile of an earlier Chicago Marathon following Samuelson and Ingrid Kristiansen, the top two female marathoners of their era(apologies to Greta Waitz, who belongs among this group).  As we passed the mile mark, I looked at my watch,. It read 5:08.

Needless to say the rest of my race was not pleasant.  Joan motored on to win the race and set an American record.  Joan always raced by "braille," how she felt.  The object of her race was to win, not to run under 2:20, which was something I believe she was quite capable of doing.  On paper, Joan did not have the 10K or shorter distance credentials to go that fast, but if the competition would have pushed her to that level, I have no doubt she would have done it.

Same could be said for Minnesotans Dick Beardsley and Bob Kempainen.  From their 10K bests they were not logical choices to run under 2:09, which both did.  They were competitors thrown into a situation that forced them to go faster and they did.  Ultimately that will probably be what determines who and when the two hour mark is reached.  Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop were competing with one another in a "take no prisoners" dual in the right conditions at Boston when they altered the thinking of what was possible in the marathon ever so slightly.

Sometime soon the conditions will be right for someone to go under 2:03.  Next year's Virgin London Marathon(if nobody does it prior, say in Chicago in a couple of weeks) could be the opportunity to see something special if Farah and Kenenisa Bekele both come into the race healthy and there is at least one other runner who they fear--Kipsang maybe--to push the pace.  Both are likely to focus on themselves and not take chances in the unknown territory of their first marathon, but if forced to go faster, they appear to have the physical tools to put it all together.  Kipsang has demonstrated that he does.

It won't be sub two, but it could well foreshadow what is to come in the event and when we can all crowd around our computers or television sets and watch with legitimate anticipation  hoping to witness something very special happening.

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