(Note - this is a question Coach Pimm fielded in his newsletter, News and Views, April 28, 1997. At the time, the world record was 2:06:50 held by the Ethiopian, Belayneh Dinsamo. The current WR is 2:03:59, set in 2008 by the Ethiopian, Haile Gebreselassie. You can see the progression of the men's world record here. We're getting there.....)
Q- Peter I read an article in the April 18 edition of the Globe and Mail written by John Kettle who wrote in reference to the sport of marathon running, "improvement has not only been unattainable, but for more than a decade, previous achievement has not been matched". What's your view on this? And are we at the limit?
A- I saw the article which was written by a guy who bills himself as a futurist and he was trying to make what basically is a sound point, while making it interesting - which is why he chose the marathon to substantiate his point.
His point was that historical statistics can show that a limit to achievement is exists. I don't think this is particularly disquieting - after all, most of us are comfortable with the speed of light defining some sort of limit.
I think what bugged some of you about the article was that he insinuated that because the winning times of the men's Olympic marathons have not improved in the last 3 Olympics, we are closing in on the limit whereas runners know that there are factors other than those limiting human performance that would account for the apparent stalling.
These factors include running to win, as opposed to time; weather, and course conditions. Another increasingly apparent trend is the tendency for the world's best marathoners preferring to point towards the money races, rather than Olympic Glory
Kettle also insinuated that if the trend of improving times that occurred between 1896 and 1984 had continued, then by the year 2004, the wining time for the men's marathon would be sub-2 hours. The insinuation is that we are not on our way to seeing such a time posted by this time.
However, there's no question that we may in fact be seeing someone walloping the current world record. And as far back as the early 80's I made the point that if we put together in one athlete the running economy of a Frank Shorter and the maximum oxygen intake of a Steve Prefontaine (i.e., 85 ml./min./kg.) than we would see a marathon of around 2:01. Well it appears that there are such candidates in existence now - one is possibly Paul Tergat, who last year ran a sub 58 minute half marathon, which is the kind of capability required to run the 2:01. Mark my words.