Ex­perts be­lieve the two-hour marathon could be re­al­ity sooner rather than later

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN GRANGER

AS thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants and spec­ta­tors cel­e­brate Africa’s first IAAF Gold La­bel Stan­dard Marathon at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon this week­end, all eyes will be on the clock at the fin­ish. Will Asefa Negewo’s race record of 2 hrs 08 min 41 min, set last year, be beaten?

As­sum­ing the gale force gust­ing winds die to a whis­per on Sun­day, will any ath­lete be ca­pa­ble of run­ning faster than 2 hr 8 min for the 42 195km dis­tance? Just how fast can an ath­lete run in Cape Town? How fast any­where in the world?

As elite ath­letes edge in­cre­men­tally to­wards the 120 minute mark, the in­evitable ques­tion has arisen: “is it hu­manly pos­si­ble for an ath­lete to run the marathon faster than 2 hours? Is it pos­si­ble that an ath­lete might suc­ceed within the next three years? Might it be achieved in Cape Town?

At the re­cent launch of the Sub2 Hour Marathon Project in Africa at the UCT Sports Sci­ence In­sti­tute, two South African sports sci­en­tists, Pro­fes­sors Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis and An­drew Bosch, stated that they be­lieved that a le­git­i­mate “clean” sub-2 hour marathon is pos­si­ble in the near fu­ture and have in­vested con­sid­er­able re­sources to en­sure that it hap­pens.

Last week the first of this two-part ar­ti­cle on the Sub 2 Hour Marathon Project looked back at the 109 year his­tory of the fastest men over the “stan­dard marathon” dis­tance of 42 195km. Here we ex­plore what it will take to run marathons fast – po­ten­tially faster than two hours.

The pro­gres­sion of the marathon world record in re­cent years sug­gests that it will be un­likely that the two hour mark will be bet­tered be­fore 2030. “But we be­lieve that by pro­vid­ing the right in­puts, in­clud­ing ideal phys­i­cal and men­tal prepa­ra­tion, and get­ting the best ath- BRAINS TRUST: Sports sci­en­tists at the launch of the Sub2 hr Marathon Project at the UCT Sports Sci­ence In­sti­tute. From left, Prof Tim Noakes (Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor and In­sti­tute founder), Prof Mal­colm Pow­ell (UCT Head of Hu­man Bi­ol­ogy), Prof Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis (Project Co-leader, Univ of Brighton, UK), Prof An­drew Bosch (Project Co-leader, UCT), Prof Vicki Lam­bert (UCT Head of Ex­er­cise Sci­ence) and Dr David Mar­alack (Con­venor of UCT’s Sports Man­age­ment course) letes to run in per­fect con­di­tions, the sub-two hour mark can be bet­tered in the next three years,” com­mented project co-leader, Pit­si­ladis.

Given that Eritrean ath­lete, Zerse­nay Tadese, ran the Lis­bon Half Marathon in 58 min 23 sec in 2010 – cur­rently still the world record – it could be ar­gued that there is lit­tle doubt that it is phys­i­cally pos­si­ble to achieve a sub-two hour marathon time. Based on the half marathon best, the suc­cess­ful ath­lete, who would un­doubt­edly en­joy fame and for­tune for life, would en­joy a 3 min 24 sec “cush­ion” for po­ten­tial drop off of per­for­mance over the full marathon.

The key to suc­cess there­fore, must lie in the men­tal, rather than phys­i­cal con­di­tion­ing of the ath­lete. Emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of sports sci­ence at UCT, Tim Noakes, de­scribes the brain as the “cen­tral gov­er­nor”, de­ter­min­ing ab­so­lute per­for­mance.

“The brain is reg­u­lated to pre­vent catas­tro­phe,” ex­plains Noakes. “The func­tion of the brain is to mod­ify be­hav­iour in an­tic­i­pa­tion of catas­tro­phe. It is in­ter­ested in sur­vival, not max­i­mal ath­letic per­for­mance. If an ath­lete is not dead at the fin­ish line, he has not given max­i­mal per­for­mance!

“Since the brain reg­u­lates ex­er­cise per­for­mance, the ath­lete who wins a close race ‘chooses’ that out­come. This con­scious or sub­con­scious choice re­duces the il­lu­sory symp­toms of pain and fa­tigue pro­duced by the brain.

“So the key is to con­vince the ath­lete that he is ca­pa­ble of the per­for­mance. Roger Ban­nis­ter be­lieved his coach, Franz Stampfl, that he was ca­pa­ble of run­ning the mile in 3 min 56 sec. Jim Ryun, the youngest ever sub-4 minute miler, be­lieved his coach that he was ‘be­yond ex­tra­or­di­nary’.”

Pit­si­ladis’ project part­ner, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of ex­er­cise sci­ence and sports medicine at UCT, An­drew Bosch, be­lieves that the project will suc­ceed if all the fac­tors af­fect­ing op­ti­mal per­for­mance can be har­nessed by the ath­lete or ath­letes and their sup­port teams.

These fac­tors, which com­prise the means to achieve op­ti­mal marathon per­for­mance, in­clude a sci­en­tific ap­proach to train­ing, the broader ap­pli­ca­tion of sci­ence and medicine (to en­sure op­ti­mal mon­i­tor­ing and feed­back dur­ing train­ing, equip­ment, no­tably shoes, and nu­tri­tion) and ideal re­cov­ery strate­gies, in­clud­ing cold wa­ter im­mer­sion, mas­sage and com­pres­sion.

Also key, ac­cord­ing to Bosch, are ex­ter­nal­i­ties, in­clud­ing ideal course and weather con­di­tions, mone­tary in­cen­tives and op­ti­mal prize struc­tures and ex­ter­nal mo­ti­va­tion, in­clud­ing sig­nif­i­cant crowd sup­port.

“If the sub two hour marathon is to be achieved,” con­cluded Noakes, “it will have to be run by an ath­lete who em­braces the phi­los­o­phy of the 1960 Olympic 1 500m cham­pion, Herb El­liot, namely that ‘to run a world record, you have to have the ab­so­lute ar­ro­gance to think you can run faster than any­one who’s ever lived, and the ab­so­lute hu­mil­ity to ac­tu­ally to it.’

“The ath­lete who most closely em­bod­ies this phi­los­o­phy in my opin­ion is Wade van Niek­erk, so it will have to be an ath­lete of his cal­i­bre,” said Prof Noakes.

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