We’re Not Getting Any Faster

On October 9th 2022, Gustav Iden ran a marathon in 2:36:15.

That time is not extraordinary. It would have been good enough for about 250th place in the 2022 Chicago Marathon. What’s extraordinary is that he ran that in an Ironman. Before even approaching the starting line, he had swam 2.4 miles and cycled 112 miles. He was able to do all of that plus the marathon in 7:40:24, 11 minutes faster than the previous record at the Ironman World Championship.

Not only did Gustav beat the previous course record, all four of the top men did. There have only been 14 times in Ironman World Championship history below 8 hours. Of those 14, 10 occurred in 2022.

14 of the top 25 fastest times ever at the Ironman World Championship happened in 2022. The oldest is 2011.
Each bar represents a single time, labeled by the year it occured. Gustav's time is on the far left, the current fastest. 14 of the top 25 fastest times ever at the Ironman World Championship happened in 2022. The oldest is 2011.

Compare this to something like the 100 meter dash. Of the top 25 times in history, less than half have happened in the last decade. The current record was set in 2009. Since 2000, the world record for the 5k and the mile have barely budged, while the marathon is down a modest 5%. 1. None of this compares to what has been happening in long course triathlon. The last time the winner of the world championships didn't set a course record was in 2016.

Relative World Record Progression. Dashed lines represent the first recorded record
Relative World Record Progression, as a percentage of the current record. Dashed lines represent the first recorded record

Running is one of the few sports where you can directly compare against the past. People will argue forever about who the best football or basketball player was, but no one argues about who ran the fastest mile. Its one of the few chances to quantitatively measure human progress.

This progress has two main limits. The obvious one is biological. The human body can only go so fast. No one will ever run the 100 meter dash in under five seconds. Although the human body might change with time, we can roughly say that these limits are fixed. A runner 100 years ago faces the same limitations of a runner today in this regard.

The second is “science and technology”: super shoes, better understanding of nutrition, better training technology, etc. These things, of course, do change with time: shoes get better, training techniques get more efficient, and so on. We can’t change our genetics, but we can better understand how our body behaves.

This brings us back to Gustav's run. What makes Gustav’s record-breaking marathon exceptional was the fact that it represents part of a larger breakthrough. Gustav is part of a group of triathletes from Bergen, Norway who have taken over triathlon. Although there has been progress across the board, they seem to have cracked the code.2 Since 2019, him and his training partner, Kristian Blummenfelt, have won:

It would almost be easier to list every major long distance triathlon competition they haven’t won. This is, of course, a huge testament to their coaches/team, lead by Olav Aleksander Bu.

But this is what is exceptional. Gustav Iden’s remarkable performance at the 2022 Ironman World Championship is a shining example of what is happening in triathlon. His impressive time is a testament not just to the hard work and talent of Iden and Blummenfelt, but to the contributions they’ve made to our understanding of how to train for these events. These times should be regard not just as pure feats of athleticism, but as the result of years of experiments and inquiry into how to train.

In a world where human achievement is difficult if not impossible to measure, their victories offer a unique opportunity to quantify our progress and to celebrate those pushing the limits. Our bodies might not be getting any faster, but we sure are.

  1. A lot of this is the responsibility of one man, Eliud Kipchoge, who has run four of the six fastest marathons in history. This is not including his famous sub two hour marathon but does include setting the current world record of 2:01:59 on September 25, 2022.

  2. As to exactly what they have cracked, checkout this interview where they talk about their training methodology.