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Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge hopes to be first to ever run a marathon in under 2 hours

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some of the best marathoners in the world will be in Boston next week for one of the city's most beloved traditions. Many of them are out to set a personal best record or maybe break the course record. But how quickly can a person run 26.2 miles? Esteban Bustillos from member station GBH in Boston has this report.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, here he comes. Let's put your hands together. Let's get as loud as you can get.

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ESTEBAN BUSTILLOS, BYLINE: No one knows for certain how fast a human can run a marathon. But first-time Boston marathoner Eliud Kipchoge has an idea. He ran the fastest competitive marathon ever, a record two hours, one minute and nine seconds in Berlin last year. For Boston, he's not sure what he'll be able to do.

ELIUD KIPCHOGE: My plan is not really to run a course record or anything else. But my plan is I am to see myself winning.

BUSTILLOS: For all of Kipchoge's accomplishments, there's one that stands out as the most extraordinary. In 2019, he ran a marathon in under two hours at a special event in Vienna, Austria.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Eliud Kipchoge storms into the history books in Vienna - 1:59:40 the unofficial time - the first man to run a marathon in under two hours.

BUSTILLOS: The result was not an official record because it was in a controlled setting with special support runners and equipment to pace him. But it did give the first glimpse into humans being able to break running's next big barrier. Mark Carroll is the head coach of the Boston Athletic Association's High Performance Team. He believes a sub-two-hour marathon in a race can happen soon.

MARK CARROLL: The day where we see, you know, a two-hour marathon in a world marathon major is probably not too far away.

BUSTILLOS: Nathan Cardoos is the medical director at the Ryan Center for Sports Medicine at Boston University. He says that elite marathoners simply have a bigger engine than others. That's measured by what's called VO2 max. Cardoos explains it's an equation that measures the amounts of blood pumped through the body, times the amount of oxygen extracted by the tissue.

NATHAN CARDOOS: Most people who - if you're an untrained, healthy male, most are going to have a VO2 max around 35, 40 or so. And these elite marathoners will have VO2 max in the 70s or in the 80s.

BUSTILLOS: Cardoos points to 1991 research that hypothesized the human limit for a marathon time was right around an hour and 58 minutes. Now Cardoos thinks that could be realistically met in the next two decades.

CARDOOS: And it would be strange for me to say that, oh, no, this is the point of time where we've completely advanced to the point that we're not going to decrease that time anymore.

BUSTILLOS: While a sub-two-hour marathon could happen one day in a competitive race, that may not happen in Boston. Its sloping terrain and temperamental weather make the city's race among the hardest of the six world marathon majors to conquer in less than 120 minutes. Here's Cardoos.

CARDOOS: It's not going to be in Boston where it happens the first time.

BUSTILLOS: Still, people like Eliud Kipchoge have shown that human limits can be flexible. After he ran under two hours in 2019, he talked to reporters about his motivation.

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KIPCHOGE: I've been putting in my heart and my mind that I want to run under two hours in marathon to make history and pass a positive thought and a message to the whole world that no human is limited.

BUSTILLOS: And someday soon, the trail Kipchoge's blazed may open the door for others to make the once impossible journey to a sub-two-hour marathon possible.

For NPR News, I'm Esteban Bustillos in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAYBESHEWILL'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Esteban Bustillios

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