When Roger Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier on May 6, 1954, at Iffley Road, he achieved something that had previously been thought impossible. In fact, medical experts at the time believed that such a feat would literally cause the heart to explode.
Bannister was a trailblazer; so too are the current crop of African marathon runners setting the roads alight with their lightning fast marathon times. The men’s world record continues to fall, as technology, training, and talent combine to shave seconds off a time many would have thought impossible 20 years ago.
The current IAAF world record for men is 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya on September 28, 2014, at the Berlin Marathon. This year’s race on the course best known for its flat profile, even surface and temperate climate, was a real humdinger with the top three marathon runners in the world - Kenenisa Bekele, Eliud Kipchoge and Wilson Kipsang – all battling at a race where the most marathon world records for both men and women have been set. Kipchoge came out on top in wet conditions, missing out on the world record by 35 seconds.
This year has already seen the fastest marathon time ever recorded. Eliud Kipchoge missed out on becoming the first athlete to run under two hours for the marathon by 26 seconds. He was taking part in Nike’s Breaking2 project – but the time will not be recognized as a world record, meaning Dennis Kimetto's mark still stands.
You could perceive Nike’s big-budget attempt to break the two-hour barrier as a cynical marketing exercise. But the shoe giant did highlight what factors are brought into play when trying to achieve the seemingly unachievable. Like Bannister before him, Kipchoge had pacemakers, who ran in front of him in a phalanx to shield him from what wind there was.
Monza race track, just north of Milan, is more used to hosting Formula 1 races but was finally chosen because of its gentle corners, climatic conditions and the fact it's both flat and 600ft above sea level.
Nike's legion of scientists, performance coaches, nutritionists and medical staff left nothing to chance. Mobile ultrasound units were used to measure glycogen levels in the runners' legs; core temperature pills (an ingestible thermometer that transmits data) were taken by the runners; and the latest advances in recovery methods were used in the lead-up to provide every possible chance of success.
And then there was the shoe. Nike said its own tests on a special new shoe - passed as legal by the International Association of Athletic's Federation's (IAAF) technical committee - make runners up to four percent more efficient.
Kipchoge came agonizingly close. He showed just what is possible. Surely it is only a question of time before the mark falls, on a perfect day, with a perfect pace, perfect preparation, and the perfect runner. Adidas is apparently planning its own sub two-hour marathon attempt but wants to do so in a race setting (presumably meaning the mark will actually stand as a world record).
The world record didn’t fall in Berlin this year, with Kipchoge stating it was his hardest marathon ever. As runners we can’t control the weather; for over 40,000 other runners in the race, the drizzle provided welcome relief. The world record may still stand, but one thing is for sure: just as Bannister finally achieved his goal, so too will the two-hour marathon barrier be broken. It’s just a question of when.