April 16, 2001

Runners eye magical mark

by Michael O'Connor
Boston Herald

Just as the 4-minute mile was a magical, impregnable barrier until English runner Roger Bannister broke through it in 1954, the 2-hour marathon remains a mythic wall, not even approached, never mind breached.

There are those, runners and researchers alike, who believe someone, somewhere will cross a finish line after running 26.2 miles and the clock will read 1:59-something.

"I guess it's kind of hard to say, buit I think we are. Somebody is,'' said Jeff Staab, an exercise physiologist at Mount Ida College in Newton and a consultant to the Boston Athletic Association.

"You can project it out 40 years or it could be 10 years,'' said Staab. "Because you really don't know what the next great advance is going to be - in training, in equipment or other factors.''

Staab, a former competitive runner, said body type (long legs, low hips, endurance-friendly lungs and muscles) is key, but that without the right training, all is for naught.

"Genetically, it's going to happen and it may already have happened, that is, someone may have been born who could potentially run a 2-hour marathon, but they were never involved in the sport and were certainly not trained,'' he said.

The current world mark, set at Chicago in 1999 by Moroccan national (and a U.S. citizen since last May) Khalid Khannouchi, stands at 2 hours, 5 minutes, 42 seconds. That's a 4:47 per mile pace. To run a marathon in 2 hours, a runner would have to put up 4:34 per mile.

Not easy. But no longer considered impossible.

Since 1950, the world record time has dropped about 15 minutes. So who knows just how fast the distance can be covered?

"I told people back in 1981 that we'd see a 2:06 marathon and people looked and laughed, they said, `This guy's out to lunch,' '' said Bill Squires, the longtime local coach and running mentor. "Now look where we are.''

Marathon times have indeed come a long way, but in fits and starts.

From 1950-70, there was a rather precipitious drop, especially through the early '60s. Since then, times have dropped at a much more gradual pace.

"There have been sudden advances in training or new shoe technology, which have allowed elite athletes to recover from training runs more quickly or more efficiently,'' Staab said. "Look at what happened to the pole vault when the fiberglass pole was introduced or when high jumpers evolved their techniques beyond the (Dick) Fosbury Flop. There were great advances in those sports.''

Staab said there are a number of factors, some of which can't even be quantified or analyzed, that have played a role in runners' performances.

"There are dozens of little factors that are part of this `performance puzzle,' '' he said. "Training, diet, nutrition, especially sports nutrition. I mean, someone could come out with a really great running shoe that will make all the difference.

"Someone is going to come up with an equipment device or a training regime or nutritional supplement that will allow people to recover quicker between workouts.''

Still, it all begins and ends with the human body. And there are those who say East Africans - Kenyans, Ethiopians, Tanzanians, primarily - simply have the genetic edge. Jon Entine, author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It,'' said East Africans "generally have longer, slender bodies and large natural lung capacity.''

More important, perhaps, Entine noted that although the region represents only 4 percent of the world's population, its athletes dominate distance running.

"And there's still not a level playing field as far as athletic participation, because we're talking Third World countries,'' he said. "Eventually that domination will really explode.''

Such a boom should bring even quicker marathon times. Such observations dovetail with those of researchers, including Everett Harmon, who works at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, better known as the Natick Army Labs.

"A big factor, of course, is that we're accessing a larger part of the genetic pool of the world,'' said Harmon, an exercise physiologist and bio-mechanist. "The sport has really gotten a lot more nationals involved.''

Harmon's Army Labs colleague Peter Frykman also said national attitudes play a part.

In Kenya, he said "those guys are national heroes and kids want to follow them. Consequently, there's a lot of good runners pushing the envelope.''

Frykman also theorized that as the magic 2-hour mark is approached, "you're not going to have one guy out there by himself. There's going to be a whole bunch of people training really, really hard.''

In one way we're already halfway there, said Staab.

"The world record for the half-marathon is already under one hour (59:17),'' he said. "So those guys are already running at a pace to break (2 hours).''

Staab emphasized he was not being glib or discounting the extreme difficulty in running a marathon that would have to be almost six minutes faster than the present record.

"All somebody has to do is work on the training that is required to continue, to extend, that pace over more miles,'' Staab said. "People have shown they can already run at the (4:30 per mile) required pace for a long time.

"And it may be easier to do that than try to run a lot faster."