Friday, April 24, 2009

The End of History?

Track and Field is a more direct exploration of the limits of human performance than just about anything. Running events are downright clinical in their focus: go from behind the starting line to across the finish as quickly as possible. Given modern training, lightweight spikes, and the relatively huge percentage of Homo sapiens born during the current era of record-keeping, every current world record is overwhelmingly likely to be the fastest such performance in the history of the species. This is heady, romantic stuff, and is at the very heart of the sport's raison d'etre; the setting of World Records is uniquely essential to Track & Field. But what would happen if those human limits are fully explored, and we can go no further? The author of Gravity and Levity crunched some numbers in search of such a limit in the mile run. And by gosh he found one.

The argument in brief: since even the best training eventually provides diminishing returns and since, despite an ever-growing pool of genetically ideal runners, world records in the mile are not improving any faster than they used to1, it must be getting progressively less possible to set a new mark. And sure enough, plotting world records in the mile from 1913 to 2000 against person-years (analogous to man-hours, to account for population growth) neatly fits an exponential function with a limit of 3:39.6. And so, while, "[t]he mile world record has improved by more than 30 seconds in the last hundred years... we should never expect it to fall more than 3.5 more seconds, not in the next hundred or in the next thousand. That would mean that when Hicham El Guerrouj ran 3:43.16 in July 1999, he was running to within 1.5% of maximum human capacity."
1: In fact, El Guerrouj's is now the longest-standing mile record in IAAF history.

I have some issues with this conclusion, though. For starters, it's unrealistically precise, given the data2. Of course, if this fit line holds up for another century, I'll happily concede the issue. But given the variety of physiological and psychological traits that make up an elite runner, I think it's entirely plausible some cocktail of morphological outliers3 will come along someday and blow everyone's shit away. Imagine a 5'2" skinny guy with huge lungs, off-the-charts V02 max, Armstrongesque lactic thresholds, muscles that twitch at just the right speed, and crazy efficient achilles tendons runs himself past the brink of health and sanity á la Jure Robič. 3:30 is entirely plausible.
2: "Underestimating the Fog" is an essay by Bill James that's only tangentially related, but still worth reading.
3: Cocktails of other things can also influence peak athletic performance, especially when WADA doesn't test for those things.

But despite the problems, there's a lot to the core idea. Whether or not a time will come when running a 3:39.6 will be like bowling a 300, setting each new world record will be an increasingly preposterous task. It is, after all, "probably safe to assume that no one will ever run as fast as Usain Bolt for an entire mile... which puts an upper limit of about 2:36 on the fastest mile time."4 It's entirely possible that someday, a lot of people will never see a new record set in their lifetimes. Will that really be "the end of the exciting days of distance running," as G&L puts it? I don't think so. The serious fans will never lose sight of the austere beauty in distance running that no other sport can quite claim. There's teamwork and aerodynamics in cycling. There's technique in nordic skiing. In a foot race, the world narrows to your ragged lungs, your burning legs, the receding skin of your arms, and the small strip of track directly in front of you. Each race demands its own negotiation between pain, fatigue, and will. There will still be revelatory personal bests, breathtaking chases, and the preparatory plot lines preceding every major race. And the casual fan is only watching because it's the Summer Olympics again, and those aren't going anywhere. Every four years the winner of the men's 100m dash is declared the Fastest Human Alive and that title is only slightly less sexy than Fastest Human Ever. And some of the glamor rubs off on other events. There will never be an end to the exciting days of distance running because the excitement of running, behind the data, isn't about times. It's about heroes. World records are just the simplest way to crown them.
4: Okay, this is going to be really pedantic, so feel free to bail now. Just multiplying Bolt's 100m time by 16 is sloppy, because that time includes a stationary start. What would be more accurate would be to multiply his 100m time by one, and then add 15 times his flying split from the 200m, which gives a time of 2:29.79. Of course, that split was into a headwind, and the specific time is irrelevant to the argument. Still, guys, methodology matters.


  1. Hi Samson,

    I'm glad you found the analysis interesting. You're right that I was probably a little bit overzealous in presenting "3:39.6" as if it were a fundmental constant of nature. Talking as if I had tenth-of-a-second accuracy is probably particularly silly.

    The point of the post, though, was to see where a "human speed limit" might be. And I think it shows fairly conclusively that it exists, and that we're not terribly far from it. Agree?

    And of course, you're also right that I shouldn't have been so fatalistic-sounding about the future of track and field. I, at least, will keep watching.

  2. Say we hit an upper limit. It seems likely to me that we at some point will, and likely are close, to squeezing maximum value out of training and nutrition, leaving only body. Say this morphologically perfect (in this case for the mile) person comes along and sets a mark no one ever touches. Immediately after we hit it, we won't know. Figure there's a twilight after the record is set that people still go on expecting someone to one up it and nothing changes, but at some point some sort of fatalism will set in. After that, the contest becomes not to be the best, but to be the best around.

    Samson, you point to narrative and plot as the core that will remain, and I agree, but the mechanics of times approaching an asymptote rather than pushing a horizon are still interesting. There will be some sort of performance band near the record, and there will be a guy who has done the best. Like you say, Samson, being Fastest Man Alive is still to be pretty hot shit.

    Given the small limits, you'll have to assume that will be rather close to the record, and you can't discount the possibility of someone just that bit faster will come along. Given how precisely we record these days, the next step can be minute. If someone throws up a 3:30:00, how much more does it take for someone 5 years later to go 3:29:99? At some point a hard limit will be hit, but we'll never know for sure. I can't imagine we'll be able to model it and our limits closely enough to be able to say where the limit is, or if the next fastest guy will be here next year, or next decade. I guess I'm saying that even when we get there, I'm not convinced we'll be sure that we're there for some time after.


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