Haile Gebrselassie – “I can run 2:03, but I believe one day two hours will be broken”.

03 Oct 2007 Posted by
In the last few days, we’ve analysed the performance and the split times/pacing of the magnificent marathon world record of Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin. In the aftermath of that race, there has been much hype about the prospects for the world record moving forward, and soon. People are suddenly talking about a sub-2:00 clocking, and even Haile himself has been speaking in those lofty terms (though a little more cautiously!).

Some predictions – the crystal ball and the marathon

There is a tendency to whip out the crystal ball after world records are broken. It is as though our view of the horizon was obscured by a barrier, which is then suddenly lifted, and we look out into the distance and wonder where we will head to next? And for Gebrselassie, “next” means 2:03, at least, that’s what he is talking about now. In an interview, he said that he believes:

  1. That he can run 2:03, and
  2. The world record will go under 2 hours one day

Admittedly, he hedged his bets on 2), saying that “maybe it will take 20 years or maybe 40.”

But the 2:03 comment is interesting. In his own words:

I believe that I can run 2:03. I had said that before but could not do it on Sunday. But I am convinced that I can achieve such a time in Berlin.

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Is a 2:03 possible for Haile Gebrselassie?

Few would doubt the great man’s ambitions, but it’s worth investigating how realistic this claim is? Scientists have in the past gotten themselves into all kinds of embarassing situations when they pull out the crystal ball and predict performance. For example, it was once predicted that the women’s world record would be faster than the men’s world record by 1998! That obviously never happened, and neither have other supposed ‘limits’ to human performance. We may well suggest that Geb doesn’t have a 2:03 in him and then 6 months from now, he runs 2:02! And so while we don’t wish to paint ourselves into that same corner, it’s a really interesting discussion so we thought we’d look at it from a pacing strategy point of view. What I would like to emphasize is that I am not saying anything is impossible, just offering the view that it may be premature to think too ambitiously about 2:03 something at this stage.

The first point is whether his “2:03″ means 2:03:00, or 2:03:59 (that is, sub 2:04)? A sub 2:04 is certainly a possibility – it requires “only” 27 seconds. A 2:03:00 requires an improvement of 86 seconds – that’s an enormous difference. If you think about it, we are all marvelling at the magnificent performance from Sunday, where he took 29 seconds off the old world record. In order to cut a further 96 seconds off the time and get down to 2:03:00, he would have to run another 3 marathons, all as spectacular as this one! That’s three more times under 2:05, and that doesn’t take into account the Olympic Marathon next year, which must surely be a goal of his. So four marathons accounted for, and it seems that only one or two courses are fast enough to support his ambitions. So that’s three years down the line – that equals a career that will have lasted almost 20 years. If it happens, it will be triumph of longevity, more than anything else!

So it’s debatable whether this is possible, but the sheer magnitude of cutting 96 seconds off a time makes me wonder if it is feasible. But the sub-2:04 option, if that is what he means, is most definitely an option. Whether it will be Gebrselassie or not is another question…

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On the limit – when 1 second is a lifetime

Gebrselassie has made a career of smashing world records, rather than just breaking them. He once took 11 seconds off a 5000m world record, 9 seconds off the 10000m world record (and 7 seconds on another occasion) and now 29 seconds off the marathon world record. Another 27 seconds doesn’t seem TOO unreasonable. It’s only 0.64 secs/km, right? Wrong. We tend to think of improvements in performance in relatively constant terms, but the truth is that this 1 second/km is a massive difference over 42km at this level. For regular runners, a 5km PB can be improved by 30 seconds without TOO MUCH trouble – that’s 6 secs/km, but for the elite, particularly the best of the elite, 1sec/km is a massive difference.

You have to wonder, for example, if he has up to 96 seconds “in reserve” in order to crack 2:03, then why not just run a little faster in the final 10km of the race? You look at the table of his 5km split times from Berlin, and how consistent they are, and you then begin to realise that this kind of consistency comes because he is running right on the edge of what is physiologically possible. He was locked into a pace of 2:55 to 2:59/km, the whole way. Where does he get faster by 27 seconds? Perhaps in the middle of the race, he could find 1sec/km and bring those paces down to 2:58, but with great difficulty.

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What we don’t know

Why not just run faster? What limits performance?

What is perhaps most interesting is that we don’t really know why this is. If you measure things like heart rate and VO2 and lactate (all the things we used to think were absolutely critical, but now realise are part of a much bigger picture), then you see no difference – we can’t detect the difference between 2:56 and 2:58/km. Actually, it’s hard enough to tell apart 3:00/km from 3:20/km, never mind a second or two! So what is it that limits him? Well, it’s probably related to neurobiology in some way, but the truth is, we don’t know (and if someone says it’s simple, they’re lying!)

Of course, having broken this record, and the fact that he will start the next race with a new goal, a new target, might contribute a good deal to achieving this – the mind is perhaps the most powerful barrier of all. But I just have a feeling that it’s asking too much.

Had this been some fly by night, newcomer to the scene, with little racing behind him, then, yes, I would suggest that there is margin for large improvement. But Haile Gebrselassie has been around for 16 years – world junior champ in 1991, World Champ by 1993, first world record in 1994, and he’s been going ever since. What training could he possibly do that will bring him another 90 seconds over the marathon? I’m not sure…I hope there is something, but I really believe that talk of a 2:03 something is a little premature, even for the great man.

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The ultimate limit to performance

The sub-2 hour marathon?

As for what is possible even further in the future, that’s a really fascinating debate. I’ve been on a number of websites that are running polls to see if you believe a sub-2:00 marathon will one day happen. And many people, the majority, in fact, are saying it will happen sooner rather than later. That is something we’ll look at in another post, because it’s really very interesting. But we welcome your thoughts! Join us for more on that debate soon.

Also coming soon is a series on men and women runners, and why that women’s world record never quite caught up to the men’s!

Ross

This post is part of the thread: Marathon Analysis – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.