Run A Sub-2hr Marathon Comes Down To 15 Extraordinary Seconds
Where were your marathon friends on October 12, 2019? This could be the question we will all ask ourselves in 50 years as we recall the moment when a male runner broke the 2-hour marathon barrier four-minute mile? This weekend is the start of a week-long window for Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathon runner ever, to break the legendary barrier.
Kipchoge will run a pinball-straight 9.6km course along Vienna’s Prater Hauptallee. This time, there will be 4.4 seconds for competition. This is not an official marathon race. Kipchoge will be running in the 1:59 Challenge, a private race sponsored by Ineos UK chemicals company.
Official or not, Kipchoge still must keep moving at a frighteningly fast pace of 2m 52s/km (or 4m 38s/mile) for 42.195km. He will do it. Probably. But let me explain. I used statistical tools to answer the question of official marathon attempts and ran the ruler for more than 50 years worth of world records marathon times for men or women.
Medicine and Science of Sports Marathon
My research published in Medicine and Science of Sports and Exercise found that there was a 10% chance of breaking 2 hours on a given day. We would need to wait until May 2032 to see the moment. My analysis was limit to official International Association of Athletics Federations times. Here, runners must participate in an IAAF sanctioned competition where the course, competitors, timing and many other factors must all conform to strict rules.
Kipchoge knows that this weekend’s attempt is completely unofficial. Kipchoge is no stranger to this type of unique attempt. He has previously tried breaking the sub-2 barrier in May 2017 with another major sponsor at the Monza Formula 1 circuit, Italy.
He ran there, just like in Vienna, with dozens dedicated pacers, whose deliberate attempts to protect Kipchoge against wind resistance made it unofficial. But, the closed track, slick asphalt, high-tech shoes and army pacers didn’t give Kipchoge what he needed. He was just 25 seconds short of the 2-hour mark.
Official Marathon Story
Despite the fact that the attempt was not officially record, the official analysis is very useful in answering our question. Below is a graph that shows the progression of men’s marathon world records over more than 50 year. It is not a straight line. Instead, the progression is gradual and steeper in the beginning, then it becomes more shallow towards the end. The result is that elite marathoners who run faster will take longer to improve.
I used statistical tools to fit prediction curves (in the red) to the progression. These curves indicate the likelihood of a given time being run. They take into account both the average performance improvement and randomness of other factors bidikbola.com.
Zooming in on the graph to the right, we see that Kipchoge holds the current official world record for 2h 1m 39s. This was set in Berlin on September 16, 2018. It is on the 1-in-4 line. This would indicate that we would have expected to witness a time similar to this on the date in history with a chance of around 1 in 4.
So, while Kipchoge’s incredible effort is not negated, his Berlin world record did not significantly differ from historical trends. His Monza run of May 2017 was, however, completely different. Kipchoge’s 2h 0m 25s time would have been acceptable if it had been run in an official event. This would have given him a chance of just 1 in 23 chances, or 4%. This is a strong indicator of the enormous performance gains that these moonshots privately sponsored attempts can provide.
He Will Do It In Vienna, Then?
This analysis will allow us to have a great go at predicting the Vienna moment this weekend. Let’s suppose Kipchoge and the team achieve an equal performance to Monza 2017. We would expect a slight improvement in time given the official progression. The figure shows that Kipchoge is expected to run 2h0m 14s if we take forward the 1-in 23 prediction curve between May 6, 2017 and October 12, 2019.
Kipchoge can gain 11s by simply waiting for 2.5 years. It’s not free, but it does come at the cost of hard work, research, adaptations to training, equipment upgrades, etc. However, theoretically we expect these improvements to occur in time, as long as everyone is doing their job and pursuing the goals. The remaining 15 seconds are extraordinary.