“177” – The Sub-2 hour marathon and East Africa’s super-runners

14 Oct 2014 Posted by
Last week Friday, at a weekly internal UCT function, I gave a presentation on the sub-2 hour marathon and the East African running phenomenon.  Over the course of the last year, I’ve been working hard at this topic with my friend and colleague Dr Jordan Santos, who has now left for Spain, but we are continuing to analyse our data from testing elite Kenyans, and this presentation introduced some of those results.


Presentation overview – summary

It was also a great opportunity to share the ‘fun’ topic of Kenyan running, which is one of the most fascinating topics in all of sports science.  In fact, it would not be exaggeration to say that my presence in this field of sports science owes itself to East African running, because as an impressionable 11-year old I watched the men’s 10,000m final in Barcelona, 1992, and saw Khalid Skah win perhaps the most controversial medal of those Games, when he beat Richard Chelimo of Kenya over the final lap.

I was hooked.  My ambition then, I must confess, was to be an elite long distance runner!  That didn’t work out, for many reasons – some physiological, some psychological – but it was the start of a journey that led me to sports science.  So I have an affinity and a fascination with Kenyan running, and this presentation was my attempt to condense just some of that into a story that weaves the narrative with the science.  The beauty of this topic is that you can answer it no matter what direction you come from – physiology, economics, history, social, coaching, or competing – there’s something for everyone, and I tried to cover all these in this presentation.


The Two-Hour milestone. Imminent or impossible?

I end by discussing the 2-hour barrier, the next big milestone of our time.  Is it possible?  Of course.  But is it “imminent”, as many have suggested after Kimetto broke 2:03 in Berlin?  That’s less certain, and I suspect it will take a little longer than many seem to believe.  I explain the reasons for that in the presentation, and end with the predictions made using horse and greyhound data that a human “limit” exists at around 2:00:37.  If that calculation has a 0.5% error, then sub-2 hours is possible, and physiologically, the characteristics required to break 2 hours are not implausible (it’s not like working out a cyclist’s physiology riding at 6.5W/kg for 40 min).

So the question remains open, and I didn’t arrive at a conclusion in the presentation, so I’ll commit to one now – two hours will not be broken in the next 30 years.  Perhaps by 2040, it will come into view, and then who knows?  But right now, it’s too far away and too many other things need to change.  If I had to call it, I’d say 2050 onwards, if at all.  That’s a guess, though, don’t hold me to it!

Anyway, I hope the slides and presentation makes sense without me talking you through it – I’m sure some will, perhaps some will not.  I hope to give this talk again one day, and then have it filmed, when I’ll follow it up by posting a video.  Also, perhaps in time, I will write a very long post that literally takes you step by step through this presentation, and then I’ll post it again.  Right now, time and other commitments prevent me from doing that.

For now, though, I think it will be easy enough to follow most of it, just without the little anecdotes and stories and links between ideas that I’d be talking about.  I like to keep the writing to a minimum when I can.  Oh, and if you’d like to hear those, I’m always open to invitations, be they from conferences or any other functions.  Just let me know, and I’ll gladly share my perspectives and stories of Kenyan running and the sub-2 hour marathon!

Here’s the presentation, titled “177”.  Enjoy! (PS: Give it some time to download completely)


177: The sub 2 hour marathon and the physiology of East Africa’s super runners

Oh, and lastly, here are some links to the work that Jordan and I have published on this topic in the last few months.  More is on the way!

  1. Genetic basis for elite running performance – a review article explaining how genes matter and why, to date, the genetic studies have proved futile
  2. Greater performance impairment in hypoxia in black than in white runners – this study found that white runners are physiologically more sensitive to hypoxia than black runners, but their performance is less compromised
  3. Analysis of the Kenyan running phenomenon – we studied the specific ethnic groups that have won the majority of Kenya’s medals, finding that the Kalenjin tribe, and Nandi sub-tribe, provide the bulk, with some interesting implications and mind-boggling stats of Kenya’s dominance
  4. Study on running economy and gait characteristics in elite Eritrean runners – we investigated elite Eritrean runners who have among the lowest running economy ever measured, and looked to identify possible sources for this exceptional physiology

Still to come – we have a few other papers in press – one is a response to recent research dissociating running economy from performance, which we think is flawed.  That response is currently in press, and I’ll tweet a link as soon as it is out.

Then, hopefully soon, the first data from our elite Kenyan study will be in press – this is the study that looked at brain oxygenation in elite Kenyans.  Some of that data is in the presentation above.  Again, I’ll keep you posted on the progress of this research.

Hope the presentation makes sense.  And I hope to give it at conferences in the future!


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.