Is it even possible for a human to run a marathon in under two hours?

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Audio Transcript:

Reporter: And there is a sense of expectation that the Kenyan is going to do it. Could this be the new man? Wilson, Kipsang. We’re past two hours, three. And he’s going to do it in the end.
Marco Werman: And Kenyan runner Wilson Kipsang did do it in the end. He set a marathon world record yesterday in Berlin completing the 26.2 mile course in two hours, three minutes and 23 seconds. But how long will this record hold? Michael Joyner is a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota who studies the physical limits of the human body. He says Berlin's flat course, the cool weather and a group of pacesetters had a lot to do with the world record and so did the place Kipsang calls home.
Michael Joyner: Most of the great runners today are East Africans. They grew up at high altitude. They’re physically active literally from day one. You hear stories about people running two or three miles to school every day. And this running of course is done at 8,000 or 9,000 feet. So those are a couple things they have going for them. Next they are small. The average size of these guys is 5’6”, 5’7”, 5’8” and they weigh about 120 or 130 pounds. And they also have great running economy or running efficiency so they are able to generate an awful lot of speed for not very much oxygen.
Werman: So are you saying that if you're not from East Africa and you don't have the ideal running conditions on the day of, you’re not going to do well?
Joyner: Well you certainly need the ideal conditions. And I think the East Africa thing may have been overplayed a bit. They have certainly been dominant recently. But there are histories of different cultural or ethnic groups dominating in the past. For example, the Finns held every world record in the 10,000 meter from 1912 to the middle 1940s. The Eastern Europeans were dominant in the later 40s and throughout the 50s. And then in the late 50s and early 60s the Australians and New Zealanders were dominant. So some of it is cultural as well and people need to realize that the per capita income in places like Kenya and Ethiopia is literally hundreds of dollars per year. So going out and having a big payday at one of these marathons is really something for these guys. So they have tremendous motivation as well as this collection of cultural, perhaps physiological, and also environmental conditions that help them run fast.
Werman: What about other factors like the Olympics? Do people perform less well at the Olympics? I guess what I'm driving at here is you know, with races like the Berlin Marathon where there is a purse, prize money at the end, does that make a difference?
Joyner: Sure we saw this in 2012 where many of the favorites in race in the Olympic marathon, once they saw they weren't going to compete for a medal or weren’t in contingent for a medal, stopped somewhere at 15 or 20 mile mark because they could live to fight another day during one of the big fall marathons and perhaps have a big payday. And again that's one of the things that’s driving some of these world records or the improvement in world records in the marathon over the last five, ten years is this emergence of big prize money races. And again if the per capita income in your home country is $500 or $1,000 a year, that's a very, very big payday and it goes a long, long way.
Werman: So we've reached this milestone two hours, three minutes and 23 seconds. There's now a lot of talk about beating the two-hour mark, two hours flat. How likely is a sub two-hour marathon? When does that happen?
Joyner: If you do a number of kind of simple back of the envelope calculations and use some pace converters and other things, the world record for the marathon should be in the 2:02 range. And so what I expect to happen is over the next three or four years either through one big jump or continuous kind of 15, 20 second bites, I think the record will get to about 2:02:30 or maybe 2:02:15 and then the fun will start. The fun will really start because what people need to recognize is ““ and people who’ve run fast understand this ““ is that two or three minutes at some level isn’t very much time. At another level it's a lifetime. A little bit like what Nelson Mandela said about being in prison, “œThe days seemed like years and the years seemed like days.” So sometimes a minute or two in a marathon or a 10K can be the longest minute or two you'll ever experience.
Werman: Michael Joyner, physiologist at the Mayo Clinic. He studies the mechanics of running. Thanks so much.
Joyner: Great to be with you Marco.
Werman: We have a really cool graphic charting the progress in marathon world records over the past decade. And let me just say a lot of runners seem to like Berlin. You can see the graph over at our new online home