Let’s take a pause from studying how we’re all put together on the inside and marvel at the capability of the human body as a whole.
In mid-October, Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in under two hours. More precisely: One hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds.
It’s not hard to do the math. Since a marathon is 26.2 miles—that’s slightly faster than 13 miles per hour. Put another way, Kipchoge ran a mile every 4.6 minutes. For two hours.
When you stop and think that the fastest a human being has ever run one mile is 3 minutes and 43 seconds, that’s a powerful clip!
Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon, scientists have claimed, is on the fringes of what is humanly possible. (The record won’t go in the books because Kipchoge used a series of runners to set the pace he would need. And he followed a car. And he chose the day in Vienna based on the weather forecast. But, still!)
Is there a limit?
Have you seen the Simone Biles video when she won a fifth world all-around title, using two signature moves that no other woman has ever performed, including a double-double backwards flip off the balance beam?
Repeat: no other woman.
Or there’s Sarah Thomas, who swam the English channel four times in a row (that’s 134 miles) in open seas. Her time? Fifty-four hours. That’s 2.4 miles per hour—for more than two days straight.
(Sarah is from Colorado, by the way. We are proud of her. She’s also a cancer survivor.)
As The Guardian asked recently, what are the limits of human ability? And how close are we to reaching those limits?
And we might add—are those perceived limits based on our current expectations? The world was shocked when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes in 1954. It took 45 years to shave another 16 seconds off that mark—and 3:43 has stood firm now for twenty years.
As The Guardian notes, sports scientists generally agree there are theoretical limits.
“Michael Joyner, a marathon runner and physiologist, published a paper in 1991 examining the three defining elements of a distance runner: VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen a body can take on; running economy, the rate at which the body uses energy; and lactate threshold, the amount of effort a body can maintain before it releases lactic acid—the burn.”
Joyner’s analysis predicted that the fastest time anyone would ever be able to run a marathon would be 1:57:58.
And, continuing to quote the Guardian, a paper this year estimated that human endurance for the fittest athletes was ultimately limited by their metabolisms. An amateur sprint relay team ran a marathon last year in 200 meter bursts. It took them 90 minutes.
Ralph Brandon, head of science for England cricket, distinguishes between feats which are constrained by human anatomy, and those which require human determination or skill.
Multi-day, ultra-endurance events, such as Thomas’s cross-Channel swim, require “grit, psychology and bloody-mindedness to go that little bit further,” said Brandon. “Those people will continue to do unique things because you’re not really taking the body to its anatomical limit, it’s more a question of how much you’re prepared to deplete and fatigue yourself.”
To our way of thinking, this issue is very short-sighted. Literally. It’s as if we are analyzing what the human body is capable of doing on in terms of the 20th and 21st centuries—when we need to look at what the human body is capable of doing in the context of evolution.
It’s been 4.1 million years since our knee joints expanded—and starting show signs of bipedalism. It’s been 2.5 millions years since there were double-curved spines, suggesting that we were getting used to walking upright.
We aren’t trying to discredit Ralph Brandon—or others. We don’t know if, one day, Simone Biles’ feats will look like a simple somersault or if Eliud Kipchoge’s current record (even if unofficial) will look like a Sunday afternoon jog.
But we know for sure that the human body’s capabilities are subject to the tremendous forces of evolution.
And every single time an athlete pushes the limits today, it will have an impact—even if it’s infinitesimal—on what human beings can do tomorrow.