Published: June 1, 2017 By

marathon illustration

CU Boulder scientists show the way to a sub-2-hour finish 

The average finish time in U.S. marathons is well over 4 hours. No one’s done it in less than 2.

But recent CU Boulder research affirms that a sub-2-hour finish is possible and calculates how much certain strategies can help.

“A sub-2-hour marathon could happen right now,” said postdoctoral researcher Wouter Hoogkamer, who led the project and last year finished his first marathon in 2 hours, 44 minutes.

The official world record, held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, is 2 hours, 2 minutes, 57 seconds. (A faster finish in a Nike experiment in May had not been certified as of press time.)

The CU study calculates how an elite runner — someone already covering 26.2 miles in just over 2 hours — could shave about 3 minutes.

All the scenarios involve some mixture of a friendly racecourse with a slight downhill stretch, a tailwind or fellow racers blocking headwind — and the right footwear.

Sneakers weighing 130 grams, about 100 grams less than those typically worn by the likes of Kimetto, would shave a minute, according to Hoogkamer, 35, who worked with professor Rodger Kram of CU’s Locomotion Lab.

As it happened, Adidas promptly came out with such a shoe, the Adizero Sub2, two days before the CU paper appeared in the journal Sports Medicine — “a very funny coincidence,” Hoogkamer said.

Nike, which sponsors research in the Locomotion Lab, recently introduced its own ultralight, super bouncy marathon sneaker, the Zoom Vaporfly Elite 4%.

But featherweight bouncy shoes alone won’t do the trick. The CU study reported that the runner would also need to draft off other runners or get a boost from a tailwind of about 13 miles per hour — on a racecourse with a long, slightly downhill stretch.

Hoogkamer, a former track athlete from the Netherlands, ran the Boston Marathon on April 17. Nike didn’t have the Zoom Vaporfly Elite in his size yet, so he wore his regular running shoes. Even so, he improved his best time by about three minutes, clocking 2:41:03.

“I started out a little too fast on the downhills,” he said. 

Illustration by Brian Stauffer