Fitness: What makes a two-hour marathoner tick?

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One of the more popular displays at running expos prior to some big-city marathons is an oversized treadmill set at the speed of the men’s world record marathon pace. It’s nicknamed the Tumbleator, and runners are encouraged to hop on and see if they can keep up. For most, it’s a humbling experience, and one that clearly illustrates the difference between the pace at the front and back of the pack.

How fast are the world’s elite marathoners? The best time on record for the 42 km course is 1:59.40, which translates to an average speed of 21.1 km/h, or around 2:50 minutes per kilometre. Meanwhile, the average finishing time of a mid-pack marathoner is 4:29.53, which means moving at a pace of about 6:25 minutes per kilometre, give or take.

Admittedly, only one man, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, has finished a marathon in under two hours. He did it as part of a Nike-sponsored experiment that put together the ideal set of conditions — track, temperature, wind speed, pacers, footwear and drafting — in an attempt to break the two-hour mark. But it takes more than just the perfect combination of external factors to become a two-hour marathoner. The physiology of Kipchoge and his fellow front-of-the-packers has been largely unknown, until recently: a British researcher welcomed 16 of the best male marathoners into his lab to find out what makes them so fast.

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