Beijing MarathonWatching the Olympics, it was clear that distance running has moved up a notch from 1996. It was only 12 years ago that I thought with some hard work and perhaps a miraculous race of a lifetime one day I could make the USA marathon team. But what I watched this past year with the US team trials and then the Olympic marathon was a spectacle most amazing. I was left wondering how I ever thought I had a chance. What was I thinking? I don't know how to convey how good a 2:06 marathon is, especially in those hot conditions.  It is something I think you can only feel, by running with those who have that capability. The only way to understand it is to feel the intensity of the competition, by keeping pace with those amazing talents for a few miles of such a marathon. You can only understand the inner strength of such athletes if you've tried to built up that strength brick by brick — if you knew intimately the effort necessary, and built up within you a magnificently strong structure and then felt it melt by the heat of their calm efforts.

But what I found most amazing was not the asymptotic curve of times as displayed by the 4:00 mile, or the swimming pool. The line gets moved downward as methods, coaching and even equipment improve. But what I found amazing was the great diversity of talent. Any of those top 10 marathoners could have won, given the right venue. But the diversity of talent ensured that even given a terrible venue, one would still shine.

It's impossible to say who would have been best, given today’s knowledge, methods, equipment and training using yesterday's top talent. Everybody responds differently to different methods, especially the extreme training you need to do to be competitive today. For example altitude-simulating chambers  will give one guy a bigger edge than another.

Many have said that yesterday’s talent would never be the best today. And I know in my case, it is probably right; I wouldn’t have gone as far as I did in today’s deep field of youth and talent. But in general I disagree. It's not that they wouldn’t be the best, it's that they would be the best only under a much narrower set up of circumstances. It reminds me of the high school three sport athlete star who gets to college and has to decide which sport to play. Running today is more specialized, for example one marathoner may do better in heat, another in higher altitudes, another on hilly course, another on rougher roads. So it's not just survival of the fittest narrowing the field, but heightened competition responding to the need for more diversity.

Hence the market continually responds differently, not just because the competition is more cut-throat and getting tougher so all must learn new tricks, but because intense competition prepares for strenuous times by developing more diverse talents.

Scott Brooks adds:

If my math is correct, these runners are moving at a rate of ~12.5 mph to cover that distance in 2:06. They are running ~4:48/mile pace for all 26.21875 miles. That is a stunning pace! It makes me ask a question I've always wondered. What is the limit of human endurance? How much more time can we whittle of those numbers? Sure, I guess as time measurements get better we can break it down to the 1/10000th of a second someday to measure the difference between athletes. But when do the changes stop becoming meaningful? In 100 years from now, will marathoners be breaking the two hour barrier with regularity and how much will they break it by? What about 200 years from now?

Russ Sears replies:

The physics of the sport are more important than the time measurement accuracy. For example in measuring a marathon course, I believe it is officially 42,195 meters, then you must add 42 meters, because the course may shrink with temperature. So there maybe some truth to the joke, perhaps they needed to measure the distance of the cube again with so many records being broken. In about 1992, I read an article in Sports Illustrated claiming to analyze the Track and Field events for the physical limits of what is possible. All were well past the then current world record, but I believe that several have since been broken, such as the 10k time.

But for every ten innovations that shave a 1/10th of a second per mile you get one innovation that shaves a full second. Perhaps eventually you reach the point where for every 100 innovations you get 1/100 and one you get 1/10th but you never know if the 1 millionth innovation shaves that full second off again. But what I think you are seeing is that rather than just the talent and training, controlling the conditions of the event starts to mean more than the control of the talent/training. Hence on any given day one can beat the others.

Adam Robinson predicts:

The marathon world record will be under two hours in the year 2023, according to my projections, though it could be broken earlier with superior terrain and weather conditions.

The equation I fit was:

Marathon post WWII times (in minutes) = 159 - .00044 * (world pop.)^0.5

Nigel Davies queries:

Are you sure this will be linear? Training methods and superior equipment may be part of the equation but other factors could include things like human height (with a direct effect on stride length) and population size (increasing or decreasing competition). And it seems there's a cyclical element to human height at least; it declined in the late 19th and increased in the 20th century.

Adam Robinson replies:

There's no way to model training method improvements, and I assume in something like the marathon that technique and training is probably close to asymptotically perfected as we're likely to see, unlike shorter events where a better start or something might shave off a significant fraction of time.

But note that the relationship is not linear, it's based on the square root of the world's population, which is how the bell curve of talent will disperse, so the model's based on the very simple assumption that the fastest time will improve simply because the sample size has gotten larger.

I did this quickly, back-of-the-envelope, when in fact a better model would have been the world record as a function of the accumulated population of the world. But as a rough (90% accurate) prediction, it's not bad.

Clive Burlin says it all depends on incentives:

Idolize and pay huge sums of money to marathon winners and sub two hours will be broken long before 2023.

Why would anyone but a narcissist endure all that pain when you can go out on a field, catch a ball, run a few yards and make 20 million a year?

When marathon runners start making mad Benjamins, more will come out to train and break records.

Stefan Jovanovich rectifies:

There has only been one baseball player paid $20 million/year; and, as Yankee fans know, Mr. Rodriguez is not being paid for his glove work. As for running backs, none is paid $20 million a year or anything close to it. One of the great successes of the NFL — compared to baseball and basketball — is that the spread between the publicly-announced salaries and the net cash received by players is 50% or more; it was one of Gene Upshaw's many burdens that the NFL Player's Unions strikes were not nearly as effective as the baseball and basketball player unions "job actions" have been. (Anyone have any idea why?)

Compared to what they made even ten years ago, track and field athletes have made remarkable gains; there are now several thousand professionals who actually make a living from their pains. In Carl Lewis' heyday the number was fewer than one hundred. There may be more than narcissism motivating those guys in Mexico City who train in the smog every day.

One of the fascinating ironies of the Olympics regarding money and sports was that the Russian women's basketball team won the bronze medal by having the American Becky Hammon as a ringer. When one of the newsies complained that she has playing for the U.S. cold war enemy, she pointed out that the U.S. team did not invite her to play (itself puzzling since she is the best pure shooter in the history of U.S. women's professional basketball). She also pointed out that she makes far more money playing for the Moscow team in the Russian professional basketball league than she makes playing for San Antonio in the WNBA.


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