“The world now is just 25 seconds away from under two hours," Eliud Kipchoge said in May 2017 after an unsuccessful tilt at becoming the first person to run a marathon in a time below two hours. That was a made-for-history race, sponsored by Nike at the iconic motor-racing track in Monza, Italy. It was tailored to deliver a record, with a handpicked course, pacemakers and conditions. The final time of 2 hours, 25 seconds did not produce that record, but it left a trail of what has been. And might still be.

Sometime between 12 and 20 October, in Vienna, Kipchoge will pick up that trail. His Monza effort did not count as an official record, as it was not in a competition recognised by the world body governing athletics. For the same reason, neither will the Vienna effort. But if his Vienna ends up below 2 hours or is tantalisingly close, it will push the boundaries of possibilities in a storied athletic endeavor: The 42.195 km run called the marathon.

Few in the long history of marathons can match what the 34-year-old Kenyan has accomplished. Kipchoge has won major marathons. He has an Olympic gold. He has questioned the limits of athletic possibilities. In 2018, when he ran the Berlin marathon in 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds, he erased more than a minute off the official world record—a magnitude that was last accomplished in 1967.

Science says it is becoming progressively difficult to find time and distance in athletic endeavors. On the men’s side, around 54 minutes have been shaved off from the first record set by Johnny Hayes in 1908. While the drivers of the 20th century were runners from Europe, the United States and Japan, the past two decades have seen an overwhelming dominance by Ethiopian and Kenyan runners.

The period beginning 1998 has been a special time at the top end of men’s marathon. The world record has been smashed 10 times, as compared to six times between 1978 and 1998. There’s been a reduction of 4.1% in time since 1998, as compared to 1.8% in the two decades before that.

Advancements in the best time on the women’s side have been less consistent. The women’s record stands at 2 hours, 17 minutes and 1 second, set by Mary Jepkosgei Keitany of Kenya in April 2017. But across the same two time periods, compared to the men’s side, the women’s side has seen the world record being broken fewer times and an advancement of a smaller magnitude.

Just how fast can these men and women further go, especially given this looming 2-hour frame of reference? Using world record data since 1950, a recent research study by Simon Angus, an Australian economist, has predicted a 10% chance of a male athlete running a sub 2-hour marathon—in competition, and not an event like Monza or Vienna—in 2032. He’s also predicted a 5% chance of the same happening in 2024. His model had given a 25% chance to the 2018 time set by Kipchoge in Berlin.

Yet, by all counts, that Berlin run was a scorcher, as can be seen in comparison when compared with the 1998 world record of 2 hours, 6 minutes, 5 seconds set by Ronaldo da Costa of Brazil, again in Berlin. Each 5 km split of Kipchoge was faster than that of da Costa, especially in the first half of the race. In fact, Kipchoge ran the first half faster than the second half.

Berlin lends itself to fast times. It has been the venue for the last seven men’s world records. Berlin also features prominently on the list of top 20 times, a feature Angus attributes a flat course, cool temperature and the absence of wind.

Kipchoge’s attempt in October is looking to recreate all this. A historic public park in Central Vienna, the Prater, has been handpicked. Vienna is in the same time zone as Kipchoge’s training base in Kenya. It is at low altitude, which will give Kipchoge and his elite pose of pacemakers more oxygen. In the chosen time frame, Vienna is expected to offer ideal weather conditions for such a run: 10 degrees temperature, low humidity, no rain, no wind. It will have crowds, which Monza didn’t. And it will have a patch of road that is flat and straight.

Applying his model into the distant future, Angus has estimated a time of 1 hour, 58 minutes and 5 seconds as the limit for men. For women, he’s estimated 2 hours, 5 minutes and 31 seconds. Kipchoge’s attempt in October could be a significant step towards that.

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