Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sub-2-Hour Marathon by 2019?

Here I predicted (with data) a sub-2-hour marathon by 2038, based on the rate at which previous world records have fallen. (Which by the way is amazingly logarithmic.) A very ambitious Greek running coach and scientist (Yannis Pitsiladis) is trying to produce the first sub-2 by 2019. Here is the article in the New York Times. Their figure showing record marathons (and fastest marathons in each year) has more data and is prettier than mine, so I reproduce it here:
Not super easy to see if I fit the whole thing into this blog's format, but: the Y-axis is marathon time, with the lower edge being 2 hours. X-axis is year, in 5 year increments. The colored dots are the world records, the text and arrow at the bottom middle of the graph is Pitsiladis's goal, and the shaded area is the trajectory records are likely to take going forward. The earlier edge hits the 2-hour level around 2033.

If the record is beaten much earlier than this, I suspect it would be some combination of the following two things: undetected doping, or genetics. Genetics further breaks down to good luck (a new mutation; see earlier article about how this may actually confound endurance sports); better recruitment (many credit Germany's dominance of soccer to this, but running as a sport just doesn't command the profits to accomplish the same thing); eugenics; and discovery of pre-existing genes in previously isolated populations. Maybe there's a group in Tibet or highland New Guinea just waiting to whoop the marathon world's ass! What I don't think will cause an early sub-2 is non-doping training innovations. We mostly seem to be chipping at margins of mature training techniques. A little taking advantage of altitude here, a little better nutrition there...will that really get us there so soon?

As an aside, the importance of human capital in the modern world is demonstrated by this caption from a photo in the article: "The biomedical lab at Addis Ababa University contains hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. But because of insufficient funding and a lack of available experts to operate it, much of it is unplugged and covered by tablecloths."

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