Why strive for a sub 2 marathon?

Articles / September 1st 2016

The Sub 2 Team answer Michael Crawley's question: The Two Hour Marathon: Who is it for?

Why strive for a sub 2 marathon?

On the 23rd August 2016, Michael Crawley, an Edinburgh University PhD student in International Development, published an article questioning the two-hour marathon (read the article here). The sub2 team would like to present their side to this story.

Firstly, in answer to the question of WHY even TRY to get the marathon down to 2hrs, the answer is, in our eyes, very simple: To pursue excellence, to see if we can make it happen by applying science and medicine in an organised consistent way, to push the boundaries of human performance. Why did man go to the moon? Why do we continue with space exploration; why do F1 teams try to make their cars go ever faster? More specifically, why did men try to run under 4 minutes for the mile? At the time, running under 4 minutes was considered a huge sports barrier. Indeed, some have said that breaking 2hrs in the marathon is the current next great sporting barrier.

If we take it at face-value that attempting to get the world record for the marathon to 2hrs is a “waste of money", if you think about it, isn’t F1 ALSO a total waste of money (as the article implies the sub2hr project is)? Some 10 teams spending on average in excess of $200m each so that people can watch 20 cars race each other? And let's face it, it's only about 4 that are actually really competitive.

What about the Red Bull Stratos project? The budget for that was apparently around $50m according to some sources, and getting closer to one of the points made in the article, some suggested that that money could have been better spent on other endeavours, such as schooling for those that need it, projects to uplift the poor, etc. But the fact is that money would not have been made available by the funders that provided it for anything OTHER than the Stratos project. So without Stratos, there would not have been $50m to spend on these other things. Those that sponsored Stratos were interested in just that, putting their money into that specific project.

Similarly, to argue that the money it will take to fund the Sub2 project will be better spent on running clubs, shoes, or upliftment projects is not valid, as those who will fund the project will be doing so because it is that specific “item" that they want to spend their money on. Nevertheless, there are some important aspects of the legacy planned for the Sub2hr project that are not addressed in the article, which will be explained below.  But first, a number of other points made cannot go unchallenged and need to be explained and expanded on.

 First of these is that the marathon is not some “arbitrary” distance. The marathon has been the distance it is (42.195m or 26.2 miles) for more than 100 years. 

The marathon event arises from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger at the time of the battle of Marathon fought in 490BC. The legend states that Pheidippides was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated.  Although there is no record of the route he might have taken, historians have suggested that the most likely route matches almost exactly the modern Marathon-Athens highway, which follows the lie of the land southwards from Marathon Bay to Athens. This route, as it existed when the Olympics were revived in 1896, was approximately 40 kilometres (25 miles) long, and this was the approximate distance originally used for a race to commemorate the event when the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896.

In the 2004 Olympics in Greece, the marathon race was run on this traditional route (albeit over the now standard 42.195 km distance) from Marathon to Athens, ending at Panathinaikos Stadium, the same venue as for the 1896 Olympics. It was in 1921 that the modern 42.195 km standard distance for the marathon was set by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) from the length used at the 1908 Olympics in London. Thus the marathon distance has been standard for more than 100 years.

Another point made in the article is about money for the runners involved. There WILL be money involved, but the article is inaccurate as to how the project and the runners involved will be managed, from spartan lifestyles, through to how the race itself will be run in terms of strategy, first across the finish line, etc. While top athletes in any discipline lead focussed, committed, and dedicated lifestyles, they still have time to include other things that make life fun and enjoyable. The vast majority of the athletes who achieved podium positions in Rio would be able to testify to that. With respect to prize money, anyone who follows cycling will be aware that cycling is a team sport, where the team works together to achieve the fastest finishing time, such as in the team time trial. A strategy similar to this will be employed as we attempt to improve the world record towards 2 hrs, whereby a group of runners will “work together” to achieve the fastest possible finishing time, with rewards shared.

Reference must be made to the possibility of “doping” in the sub2hr record attempts. “Anti-doping” has been a key feature of the project. Indeed, one of the messages we (the Sub2hr Project Team) wish to send out is that incredible athletic feats can be achieved without resorting to doping and use of illegal substances and that greatness can be achieved by using science and medicine rather than drugs. It must be emphasised that we are not taking risks with “other peoples bodies” as is stated; everything we do will be within the boundaries of accepted athletic and scientific knowledge and practice. The difference is that we will be applying everything in a systematic and unique way. 

Finally, to return to the second paragraph, reference must be made to the project legacies. A significant amount of the funding we are receiving is already going to support the local community, such as full funding for 4 students at Pemja Primary School (Kobujoi, Kenya), to transfer to a high school (Kemeloi Boys High School, Nandi County, Kenya) (http://kemeloiboyshighschool.ac.ke) to continue their schooling. The legacy of the project will be locally trained doctors, physios, sport scientists, nutritionists etc. Until now, “foreigners" have travelled to Africa and at times exploited the runners, without developing any legacy. Indeed, many managers have exploited the local talent without developing and nurturing talent yield for years to come  – a production line. One can draw a parallel between focusing on harvesting a crop rather than planting seeds. The latter is a focus of the Sub2 project, which includes an Athlete Academy. In short, the project is one with major social responsibility included. 

You can read Michael Crawley's article here