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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Haile Gebrselassie - "I can run 2:03, but I believe one day two hours will be broken".

In the last few days, we've analysed the performance and the split times/pacing of the magnificent marathon world record of Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin. In the aftermath of that race, there has been much hype about the prospects for the world record moving forward, and soon. People are suddenly talking about a sub-2:00 clocking, and even Haile himself has been speaking in those lofty terms (though a little more cautiously!).

Some predictions - the crystal ball and the marathon

There is a tendency to whip out the crystal ball after world records are broken. It is as though our view of the horizon was obscured by a barrier, which is then suddenly lifted, and we look out into the distance and wonder where we will head to next? And for Gebrselassie, "next" means 2:03, at least, that's what he is talking about now. In an interview, he said that he believes:
a) That he can run 2:03, and
b) The world record will go under 2 hours one day

Admittedly, he hedged his bets on b), saying that "maybe it will take 20 years or maybe 40."

But the 2:03 comment is interesting. In his own words: "I believe that I can run 2:03. I had said that before but could not do it on Sunday. But I am convinced that I can achieve such a time in Berlin.

Is a 2:03 possible for Haile Gebrselassie?

Few would doubt the great man's ambitions, but it's worth investigating how realistic this claim is? Scientists have in the past gotten themselves into all kinds of embarassing situations when they pull out the crystal ball and predict performance. For example, it was once predicted that the women's world record would be faster than the men's world record by 1998! That obviously never happened, and neither have other supposed 'limits' to human performance. We may well suggest that Geb doesn't have a 2:03 in him and then 6 months from now, he runs 2:02! And so while we don't wish to paint ourselves into that same corner, it's a really interesting discussion so we thought we'd look at it from a pacing strategy point of view. What I would like to emphasize is that I am not saying anything is impossible, just offering the view that it may be premature to think too ambitiously about 2:03 something at this stage.

The first point is whether his "2:03" means 2:03:00, or 2:03:59 (that is, sub 2:04)? A sub 2:04 is certainly a possibility - it requires "only" 27 seconds. A 2:03:00 requires an improvement of 86 seconds - that's an enormous difference. If you think about it, we are all marvelling at the magnificent performance from Sunday, where he took 29 seconds off the old world record. In order to cut a further 96 seconds off the time and get down to 2:03:00, he would have to run another 3 marathons, all as spectacular as this one! That's three more times under 2:05, and that doesn't take into account the Olympic Marathon next year, which must surely be a goal of his. So four marathons accounted for, and it seems that only one or two courses are fast enough to support his ambitions. So that's three years down the line - that equals a career that will have lasted almost 20 years. If it happens, it will be triumph of longevity, more than anything else!

So it's debatable whether this is possible, but the sheer magnitude of cutting 96 seconds off a time makes me wonder if it is feasible. But the sub-2:04 option, if that is what he means, is most definitely an option. Whether it will be Gebrselassie or not is another question...

On the limit - when 1 second is a lifetime

Gebrselassie has made a career of smashing world records, rather than just breaking them. He once took 11 seconds off a 5000m world record, 9 seconds off the 10000m world record (and 7 seconds on another occasion) and now 29 seconds off the marathon world record. Another 27 seconds doesn't seem TOO unreasonable. It's only 0.64 secs/km, right? Wrong. We tend to think of improvements in performance in relatively constant terms, but the truth is that this 1second/km is a massive difference over 42km at this level. For regular runners, a 5km PB can be improved by 30 seconds without TOO MUCH trouble - that's 6 secs/km, but for the elite, particularly the best of the elite, 1sec/km is a massive difference.

You have to wonder, for example, if he has up to 96 seconds "in reserve" in order to crack 2:03, then why not just run a little faster in the final 10km of the race? You look at the table of his 5km split times from Berlin, and how consistent they are, and you then begin to realise that this kind of consistency comes because he is running right on the edge of what is physiologically possible. He was locked into a pace of 2:55 to 2:59/km, the whole way. Where does he get faster by 27 seconds? Perhaps in the middle of the race, he could find 1sec/km and bring those paces down to 2:58, but with great difficulty.

What we don't know - why not just run faster? What limits performance?

What is perhaps most interesting is that we don't really know why this is. If you measure things like heart rate and VO2 and lacate (all the things we used to think were absolutely critical, but now realise are part of a much bigger picture), then you see no difference - we can't detect the difference between 2:56 and 2:58/km. Actually, it's hard enough to tell apart 3:00/km from 3:20/km, never mind a second or two! So what is it that limits him? Well, it's probably related to neurobiology in some way, but the truth is, we don't know (and if someone says it's simple, they're lying!)

Of course, having broken this record, and the fact that he will start the next race with a new goal, a new target, might contribute a good deal to achieving this - the mind is perhaps the most powerful barrier of all. But I just have a feeling that it's asking too much.

Had this been some fly by night, newcomer to the scene, with little racing behind him, then, yes, I would suggest that there is margin for large improvement. But Haile Gebrselassie has been around for 16 years - world junior champ in 1991, World Champ by 1993, first world record in 1994, and he's been going ever since. What training could he possibly do that will bring him another 90 seconds over the marathon? I'm not sure...I hope there is something, but I really believe that talk of a 2:03 something is a little premature, even for the great man.

The ulimtate limit to performance - the sub-2 hour marathon?

As for what is possible even further in the future, that's a really fascinating debate. I've been on a number of websites that are running polls to see if you believe a sub-2:00 marathon will one day happen. And many people, the majority, in fact, are saying it will happen sooner rather than later. That is something we'll look at in another post, because it's really very interesting. But we welcome your thoughts! Join us for more on that debate soon.

Also coming soon is a series on men and women runners, and why that women's world record never quite caught up to the men's!



OFan said...

Hi Ross,

I enjoyed your article. I was quite happy that Haile finally broke the record as it seemed that he had it in him (his half marathon time and generally that he is such a consistently great runner supported the idea...). But a windy last part of a previous marathon gave him difficulties. It was disappointing.

Also his endurance was lacking, from what I read in an article. He then set out to do more long runs.

But I don't know why you say he has to run 3 more marathons, etc.

In order to cut a further 96 seconds off the time and get down to 2:03:00, he would have to run another 3 marathons, all as spectacular as this one! That's three more times under 2:05, and that doesn't take into account the Olympic Marathon next year, which must surely be a goal of his. So four marathons accounted for, and it seems that only one or two courses are fast enough to support his ambitions.

What do you mean by this? He doesn't have to participate in that many marathons and each under 2:05 to improve his time?
He can certainly train and run marathons a couple of times a year and not necessarily do well each time but still improve overall?

He also announced his intention to break his own record in Dubai, in January 2008.

I think he hasn't stopped improving.
He did better in the marathon this time, probably because of the added endurance training, on top of the great weather, and there's nothing that says he can't improve considerably still, since it hasn't been that long he has adjusted his training. Or tackled the marathon.

I have a 'hunch' he can do a 2:03 or sub-2:03 in the future. In his case, it doesn't seem outlandish.

And if he says he feels he has it in him, well he might be right (more than we might)?! ;-)

Interesting article!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...


Thanks for your visit and your comment, always good to hear from readers! I was also glad for him, it was the 'missing piece' in a glittering career that didn't need this record, but is even better for it.

To clarify, the reason I say 3 more marathons is because what we saw in Berlin was an incredible performance in which he took 29 seconds off the record. That margin of breaking a world record is huge, and moving forward, to break the record by another 29 seconds would be an EVEN BETTER effort than this one was. What I'm trying to say is that the faster we get, the harder it is to smash a record - more likely, it will come down by smaller margins.

So my thought is that even if saw the SAME INCREDIBLE performance as we did on Sunday, he'd only move the record forward by 29 seconds each time. And that woudl require at least 3 more marathons to go under 2:03.

Of course, it is possible that he comes out and blasts a time of 2:02:55 next time - this would knock the record down by 1:30. But the sheer size of this record is highly, highly unlikely.

You see, if you look at the pacing of these guys, you can tell how close to the edge they are. And while I respect that Gebrselassie feels he has something in reserve, the pacing doesn't suggest it - he was right on the limit. So therefore, the only way to move forward and run faster is to move the limit. That can be done using training, and so I expect him to come and try again. But the thing is, he's run for so many years and done so much training that there cannot be much room for improvement.

The conclusion I then drew from this is that he might be pretty close to a limit - he may well break this world record again. If it means watching a race like sunday, then I hope he does, because it was fantastic. But I believe he doesn't have the capacity to improve by a full 86 seconds, especially given that one of his next marathons will be Beijing. And we know that guys have a limited number of marathons in them, so all in all, I'm not sure sub 2:03 is on the cards.

But, the great thing is, we can all watch and hope and see how it goes!

Thanks for your email, and we hope you keep visiting!


Anonymous said...

It's a shame the offical 42.195km Marathon race distance was set in 1908 Olympic Marathon so the starting line could be at Windsor Castle.

In 490BC, legend has it that Athenian messenger Phidippides ran 24miles (or under 40km) to Athens, carrying news of victory.

I wonder who has the first recorded 2 hour - 40 km run?

ianontherun said...

A good article--and all the more relevant given the very impressive run by Ryan Hall last week at the Oly Trials--while not at Haile's level yet, he is definitely on a projectory to reach or even surpass him in the marathon. Unlike Haile, Ryan does not have the raw speed of a former 5K WR-holder--however, he appears to have awesome mechanics, motivation and a focussed training regime... and he is a decade younger.

That said, Haile definitely has more in the tank. I believe that it is not possible to attribute a gain or loss of a second/km to any one cause in a marathon. There are too many variables at play (wind, terrain, other runners, road tangents, etc, etc). It is really hard to quantify these things, which is why when Ryan Hall runs a hilly, windy 2nd half of a competitive marathon in 1:02:45 and says it feels like a "training run" (and we believe him based on the fact that he was pumping his arms for the last 2km), we don't really know what that equates to under "ideal" conditions.

The fact that Haile is able to adjust his pace to the second per km, in order to beat the record, demonstrates both phenomenal control and fitness. The kind of acceleration he showed over the last 5km would suggest that he has lots more left and if anything was running conservatively to get the record. However, Haile and his coach are meticulous planners and I don't expect to see him "gunning" the first half in sub 1:01 and then hanging on--the stakes for such an approach are very high and few runners have been able to consistently go out fast, hang on (or die) and then do it all over again 4 months later. Rather, Haile will continue to chip away at the one record in 20-30 second bites, for as long as his body holds up. It will take a 58+ half-marathoner on a good day to go out hard and hang on to do serious damage to the existing record... such a strategy, while doomed to fail 9 times out of 10, will eventually produce a 2:02 or better.

In the meantime, look to Haile to run 2:03:59 in his next record attempt.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Ian

Thanks for the detailed and well thought out comments. It's always good to hear from our readers!

To responsd, Ryan Hall was excellent in New York, very impressive indeed. But I think the jury must still be out on his ability until he takes on a world class field in a competitive race and is able to beat them. With all due respect to the USA Olympic Field, it was not Limo, Lel, Gharib and Goumri he was beating.

It's important to realise that the difference between a 2:09 and a 2:06 is about the same as the difference between 2:18 and 2:09. In otherwords, the margins for improvement become so much smaller as you get to the flatter part of the curve.

In Hall's favour is the fact that he has some serious speed over the half marathon, and that he's shown some ability to access that speed in the second half of the marathon - a 63 min second half is no mean feat. But can he do it off the back of a 63min first half? Maybe, time will tell. So I'm excited to see what he is capable of, but it's guys like Lel, Limo and Geb himself who stand in his way. And at this stage, I know who I'd be backing...

As for Geb, perhaps you're right, and he'll take 20 to 30 seconds off it. But the problem with that is that it will then take at least 4 more marathons to get down to 2:03. That is, he could run two more records taking it down to 2:03:29. Then there's the little problem of the Olympic Games, where there is no chance of a record. Then he has one more shot. So that's four marathon, ASSUMING he gets perfect weather for every single one. Is that possible? I don't think so. It would mean Geb running for at least 2 more years at that level, just not going to happen, I don't think. In fact, I'm willing to put in writing that he won't break the world record again...maybe I'll be proved wrong, but that's my feeling...I think the Olympic Games next year will be his swansong, much like it was for el Guerrouj on the track. Will he win Beijing? Not if Martin Lel runs...

The next names, in my opinion, to look out for as world record chances are Martin Lel and Zersenay Tadesse of Eritrea, who I think is born for the marathon. He may be the one to take the race under 2:04.

Thanks again! It's a great debate!

Unknown said...

Hi Ross,

I agree with you on where Ryan is at, but I do think he is the most interesting non-African marathon talent right now. The way he ran his 2:09, the relative ease and the conditions, all point to 2:06 potential today and who knows in 5-6 years? Unfortunately, he won't have the clean air and cool temps that he loves in Beijing.

You are probably also right about Haile too--he likely will not have the chance to break the marathon record again, even though I think he has a sub-2:03 in him. IF he took another crack at it, he would just shave the record by a few seconds in order to live to race another day. Not too many runners have broken the WR more than once... in fact only Khalid Khannouchi has managed to do it more than once in modern times without effectively ending his career. What's another WR for Haile? A marathon gold medal though--that would be special.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Ian

Thanks for the response. Yes, indeed, Hall is interesting because he is the great hope from outside Africa. That said, before Athens the same talk was heard (by me included) and then an Italian and a Brazilian dominated the Marathon (and a mad Irishman who tackled the Brazilian!)

So who knows what Beijing will reveal? I think Haile must be solely focused on that now, the gold there will be a fitting finale to a career that lacks nothing else (and even Olympic Gold is not new, but of course this is the marathon!). But it will prove very difficult. The heat introduces a whole new variable, and funnily enough, the Africans don't really enjoy the heat as much as people suggest they do...this year, leading up to Osaka, I know that the Ethiopians were very worried, because they don't like leaving home and the temperatures in Ethiopia around July/August during their training time were pretty cool - low 20s.

So Beijing poses some problems. I really think that a Kenyan who is based in Japan (there are plenty, I believe) is a big threat, in addition to the usual suspects - Lel, Limo etc (if they choose to run). Will be a great race!

Thanks again!