My 1:59 Gaffe

By September 17, 20171:59 Marathon
1:59 Marathon Updated

The day my sub-two-hour marathon prediction died.

You read it here first — my prediction of someone running a 1:59 marathon has become what is now commonly referred to as “fake news.”

I know, I know, I’ve been writing about the 1:59 marathon for years and even published a book with that title. As it turns out, I was wrong.

At least my prediction was not as fake as Nike’s Breaking2 event, which wouldn’t have even counted since it was not held according to any standards or ethical considerations.

Still, I predicted someone would run a 1:59 marathon soon. I even mused about it happening at Boston, then conducted contradictory research showing that course was slower than other world Marathon Majors.

It’s difficult to admit, but the 1:59 marathon will not be happening in the very near future. And just like anyone who’s gone out on a limb then ended up being wrong, I have my excuses. Using humor to discuss painful issues can be consoling and at least break the ice on the subject. So here goes.

‘Tis the season for fast marathons. In the coming three months we’ll see Berlin, Chicago and New York, three very popular fast ones. Sooner or later runners will break 1:59 on all of these courses but probably not this year or the next. Likewise, for spring events, including on the aforementioned slow Boston course, but only after it happens in London.

The elites are getting faster, it’s true. Marathon records have inched down to 2:02:57. But we’re still some ways to 1:59. Meanwhile, recreational runners’ times are getting slower and slower.

So folks, I’m giving up. My 1:59 prediction of “soon,” made in the book, has now officially come and gone. As I may have been the first to seriously predict this Bannister-esk moment in running, I also get to cancel my own prediction, because . . . well, because I can.

So, we’ll have to let nature take its course, even if someone happens to break the two-hour barrier unnaturally such as in the Nike event.

I wasn’t wrong because the potential for 1:59 doesn’t exist. Nor for lack of scientific evidence. Not even because an elite runner just a few years ago, like, today, was and is quite capable of this amazing feat. In all three cases, science is on my side.

My general prediction in 1998 had a solid clinical, or empirical, basis, showing how submax paces improve with aerobic training, which also improves running economy, estimating how further improvements, along with being barefoot, which also improves economy, could lead to someone breaking two-hours.

By 2011, Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner provided a now classic discussion on 1:59, out-bidding me by two minutes. He used an equation that included VO2max, lactate threshold percentage, and running economy to predict marathon times, estimating 1:57:58 based on this formula.

The University of Colorado’s Wouter Hoogkamer and colleagues published a 2016 paper with a searing scientific dissertation on running economy, which cried out, “1:59, here I am.” In short, it showed the potential is now. Hoogkamer et al. outlined that improving running economy by 2.7 percent could lead to times under two hours through effective drafting strategies, very light shoes and other approaches.

The three of our methods share many features, but the most important is that they are all legal, staying within International Association of Athletics Federations regulations for record purposes assuming on an acceptable course.

These factors that show a runner today is capable of sub-2, especially if the weather cooperates. These are different than predictions based on statistics I didn’t use, which show, based on the progression of marathon times, 1:59 won’t occur until the decade of 2020. But I like the fact that some of today’s elites are capable of 1:59.

This is not the first time I’ve been wrong. Nor am I without excuses, and here they are. Primarily, I didn’t expect so much interference from the running world — particularly an industry set more on entertainment than performance.

Here are some details of my excuses:

  • Money interfered. An easy blame. It’s “The devil made me do it” of excuses. Following the money takes runners down a road slowly traveled. Given the option between wearing shoes full of money whose added weight will slow them down, and running barefoot or in super light shoes not made by the big companies, elite runners let money win.
  • The Olympics interfered. Despite the politics, I could understand marathoners choosing a chance to be on the big world stage and the potential huge endorsements. Oh, wait this is about money, too. During my 1:59 prediction years there have been two Olympics, which, for many elites meant moving away from focusing on 1:59 to making their respective national teams (sometimes running trials), and competing in the traditionally slow Olympic marathons.
  • Time interfered. Not race time, but human time. Too many great marathoners have shortened their careers, succumbing the same physical and biochemical injuries that also reduce running economy — muscle imbalance (often from bad shoes), metabolic impairment (often from junk food), and other preventable stressors. Overtraining includes over-racing (which is also about money).
  • Tradition interfered. I guess tradition has already been discussed: Money talks. Athletes continue to be fit but unhealthy.

Even an illegal attempt by a major player in the Big Shoe Industry nearly interfered but failed (Or did it? Depends on what the actual motive was.). And I know “illegal” is not the right word — I use it for emphasis (I do have an editor but he says he’ll let it fly here.)

Maybe unethical? Cheapening the sport of running is an ethical issue, isn’t it? How about unfair? Too bland. All is fair in sports, if you don’t get caught, but being blatant about it? That’s just shameful. This marketing of 1:59 was so good the world audience accepted it, then ran out to buy Big Shoe’s latest dysfunctional footwear for the occasion.

All the ingredients for 1:59 are still there today, waiting for a runner to use them wisely. But I’m not going to predict this anymore (1:59 was the only time I’ve predicted anything in sports and I’ve learned my lesson). Instead, I’ll just wait. It really won’t be too long now anyway. And it will come soonest to the runner wanting it over all else.

OK, so now I feel better not having to answer all those questions, like, “I thought you said we’d see 1:59 soon?” Well, someday eventually we will. Let the marathons begin.

Bibliography

Maffetone PBLaursen PB. Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy? Sports Med Open. 2015;2:24. Epub 2016 May 26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27340616

Joyner M,  Ruiz JRLucia A. The two-hour marathon: who and when? J Appl Physiol. 2011;110(1):275-7. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00563.2010. http://jap.physiology.org/content/110/1/275.long

Hoogkamer WKram RArellano CJ. How Biomechanical Improvements in Running Economy Could Break the 2-hour Marathon Barrier. Sports Med. 2017 Mar 3. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0708-0.

1:59 and Waiting. www.philmaffetone.com

Maffetone PBMalcata RRivera ILaursen PB. The Boston Marathon versus the World Marathon Majors. PLoS One. 2017 Sep 1;12(9):e0184024. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184024.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28863152

3 Comments

  • Hilary says:

    So the question remains, Why are “recreational runners’ times getting slower and slower?”

    • My guess is because folks like Phil Maffetone and Christopher McDougall (author of “Born to Run”) have drawn a lot of people like me into recreational running. Not particularly interested in PR’s and times, or even specifically running in particular, as much as just getting a bit more in touch with our ancestral roots.

      Also guessing maybe there’s some demographics involved, too.

      Cheers

  • Bojan Ivosevic says:

    This is a very interesting subject. My guess is that about 90% of recreational runners do not train for endurance which is the foundation for competing in halfmarathons, marathons, etc.. Many coaches and online coaches in running schools, recreational running companies and clubs still ignore real endurance workouts for their athletes. Because of that attitude many people just train in a wrong way, putting anaerobic conditioning over endurance development. The result of that is that many recreational runners can prepare a marathon in a short period of time but their form is not constant or predictable and injuries are also a common problem. In the last three to four years a global running boom has occured (marathons and ultramarathons are extremly popular) and the problem of not developing endurance is amplified by that. So, my summary would be: not enough endurance training, product slower race times.

    Cheers,

    PS: Sorry if my English is not good but I am not a native speaker.

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