Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge set a new world record for men of 2:01:39 on September 16, 2018, at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. It is the closest a human has come to breaking the much sought after sub-2-hour marathon. Much like Roger Bannister’s ‘miracle mile’, most sports scientists believe that it is within human capacity to break this mark at some point.
It hasn’t always been this way, check out what happened in the marathon at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis:
The first place finisher did most of the race in a car. He had intended to drop out, and got a car back to the stadium to get his change of clothes, and just kind of started jogging when he heard the fanfare.
The second place finisher was carried across the finish line, legs technically twitching, by his trainers. They had been refusing him water, and giving him a mixture of Brandy and Rat Poison for the entire race. Doping wasn't illegal yet (and this was a terrible attempt at it), so he got the gold when the First guy was revealed.
Third finisher was unremarkable, somehow.
Fourth finisher was a Cuban Mailman, who had raised the funds to attend the olympics by running non-stop around his entire country. He landed in New Orleans, and promptly lost all of the travelling money on a riverboat casino. He ran the race in dress shoes and long trousers (cut off at the knee by a fellow competitor with a knife). He probably would have come in first (well, second, behind the car) had it not been for the hour nap he took on the side of the track after eating rotten apples he found on the side of the race.
9th and 12th finishers were from South Africa, and ran barefoot. South Africa didn't actually send a delegation - these were students who just happened to be in town and thought it sounded fun. 9th was chased a mile off course by angry dogs. Note: These are the first Africans to compete in any modern Olympic event.
Half the participants had never raced competitively before. Some died.
St. Louis only had one water stop on the entire run. This, coupled with the dusty road, and exacerbated by the cars kicking up dust, lead to the above fatalities. And yet, somehow, Rat Poison guy survived to get the Gold.
The Russian delegation arrived a week late, because they were still using the Julian calendar. In 1904.
In just over 100 years we have gone from drinking rat poison during a run to now pushing the limits of the human body. What happened? The obvious answers are correct - the birth and development of sports science, the invention of proper clothing and the increase in the number of people participating in the sport.
The more underrated answer is the development of the human spirit. It’s true that we’ve been able to survive much tougher conditions throughout our history. However, we’ve needed to rely on mythical stories or hearsay evidence to motivate us to push through our limits. After Bannister broke the 4 min mile, only one other person managed to do it (John Landy) within a year. However, within 25 years hundreds of people had broken the 4 min mile and even today a strong high school runner can do it.
Knowing that it was possible made a big difference. It’s much easier to chase down dreams when people you can relate to having accomplished them.
As our world becomes increasingly specialized, we’ll see these kinds of records continue to be broken. Most youth athletes spend a vast majority of their extracurricular activities on just one sport. There is a danger, however, in embarking on such a journey. What are you missing out on by sacrificing it all for one sport/opportunity/dream?
It’s important to expose yourself to a wide variety of experiences before making the leap to specialize. Once you decide, definitely put all your eggs in one basket. Find someone who you can emulate - even if they’re physically inaccessible. And then get after it! Records are obstacles to be broken!