It is almost thirty years since the Englishman, Sebastian Coe, first ran under 1:42 for the 800 metres; only two other men, the Kenyan born Dane, Wilson Kipketer (1997) and the Brazilian, Joaquim Cruz (1984), have equalled the feat.
Coe’s world record of 1:41.73 set in 1981 lasted sixteen years before Kipketer first equalled and then eclipsed it in 1997. His time of 1:41.11, set at an IAAF Grand Prix meeting in Köln still stands twelve years on. The question is why has such fast running been at a premium in all that time?
Coe, Kipketer and Cruz came to their destinies from different backgrounds. Coe was born in London but reared and nurtured to greatness, by his father-coach Peter, in the northern steel city of Sheffield. His Olympic achievements are legendary. Kipketer, who was just ten when Coe set his second world record, was born in the Nandi Hills on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, birthplace of many great Kenyan runners. In 1990, to better his athletics career, he moved to Copenhagen where he met his first personal coach, the Pole Slanomir Novak. Cruz, son of a steel worker, was born near Brasilia, showed promise as a youngster, went to the legendary University of Oregon and won Olympic gold in 1984. That year he ran 1:41.77.
Physiological ultimates in athletic performance have been grist to the mill of much statistical discussion since the dawn of modern athletics. When, in 1886, Walter George ran 2:01.8 for the first half of his 4:12.8 mile there was speculation about the possibility of a 4 minute mile but it was often dismissed as being physically impossible. It took a while but the feat finally arrived 68 years later.
A New Zealand statistician, Hugh Morton, once forecast that 1:42 for 800m would be broken in 1984 and that sub-1:40 would be achieved in 2020. He projected an ultimate performance of 1:33.0!
But can we be so certain that sub-1:40 will ever be achieved? Not only have there been very long gaps between recent world records but the pace of 800 metre running appears to be slowing. Three runners eclipsed 1:43 in the 80’s and eight in the 90’s. Another eight have achieved that feat since 2000 but only two since 2003.
How will a sub-1:40 world record be run? What clues do we have as to the make-up of the man who will achieve it? Is our persistence in considering the 800 metres a purely middle-distance event, inexorably tied to the 1500 metres, thwarting progress?
If it was to be run at even pace it would require two laps of 49.99. But we know of course that such even pace is probably not an option. The vast majority of world records have been set with a faster first lap; only two, by the Americans Jim Ryun in 1966 (880y) and Dave Wottle in 1972 were achieved with a negative split.
Why is this? From Professor A V Hill onwards physiologists have stressed that the fastest times will be set by running at even pace and may well explain why most records have been set in paced record attempts (but not why the prospective record breaker always asks for a faster opening lap). However, in competitive races, as the great American authority Kenneth Doherty pointed out, runners are never obliging enough to allow an even-pace exponent a clear run to the finish! Thus, post-war, only two men’s 800 records have been set in Olympic competition.
Five of the runs below 1:42 (including the last four men’s world records) have seen sub-50 opening laps, the fastest being by Kipketer in his second world record run in Zürich with 48.3. Undoubtedly future world records will require such a pace and 1:39 man will have to consider carefully the speed at which he races the opening lap: too slow - no immortality; too fast - utter disaster. Precise and unerring pace judgement will be a vital characteristic of our barrier breaker.
Now we’re into the realm of what Tim Noakes in his great book Lore of Running calls the “physiology of oxygen transport.” Up until now the consensus has been that 800 metre running is very roughly one-third anaerobic to two-thirds aerobic but as we approach the era of 1:39 man it seems to me that a more equal ratio might apply, as in the 400 metres.
Adopting more of a 400 metre approach to the 800 might well be required if runners are to overcome the 1.12 seconds that separate the present world record from the 1:40 barrier. Depending upon the individual the opening lap will be between 48 and 49 seconds, which will most certainly mean that the runner will need a sub-46.0 secs performance to his name. Kipketer’s best for 400m is 46.85; Coe’s split of 45.5 in a relay leg at the European Cup of 1979 was the fastest of the team but it is a sobering thought that, as I write, only eighteen European one lap specialists have bettered 46 seconds in 2009.
Top international 400/800 metre runners have been thin on the ground down the decades. The greatest male exponent in history is the Cuban, Alberto Juantorena, the double Olympic champion of 1976. In 1997 he set a world 800 metre record of 1:43.44 in Rieti, Italy; his splits were 51.4/52.0 (0.6), almost even pace. In winning gold in Montreal he set his fastest 400 metre time of 44.26 with estimated splits of 21.8/22.46 (0.66).
In 1985 Juantorena admitted to an audience at the Athletics Congress of the USA that he did not know why his Polish coach, Sigmund Zabiezowskay, introduced “the necessary means to also run the 800 metres”. Clearly the fact that injuries the Cuban suffered in 1974 which needed surgery both in that year and early 1975 required changes in training emphasis. What the Pole did was introduce more of a mix of 800 metres and 400 metres training. This saw, for instance, an increase in volume both at runs over 1000 metres and 200 metres with the necessary adjustments to times.
Very few top 400 metre runners have converted successfully to 800 metres, (though Billy Konchellah, World champion 1991 who ran 45.38 and Paul Ereng, Olympic champion 1992 who ran 45.6 are obvious exceptions) and this maybe is the reason why the world record currently appears so unassailable. Peter Coe always stressed that the training that he promulgated was strictly for Seb but the underlying principles are for everyone and will apply even more so in the future.
“The speed of an 800 metre runner,” Peter said, “has to be equivalent to a good 400 metre runner. It does not have to be world class but it must be close to national standards and I would suggest a 400m time of 46-46.5 seconds....It is repeatable fast 400 metre speed that can be called upon and more than once at any stage of the race and it must be sustainable speed.”
1:39 man will have followed the Coe dictum: “If speed is the goal, then never get too far from it.” He will also be mentally tough enough to believe that the feat is possible.
Until we shake off our 1500 metres mentality to the 800, the present world record will probably remain sacrosanct.
“Most runners,” Peter said, “come off high mileage and go to speed work. What I am suggesting is that there is more time spent in steady winter running than is necessary.
“If we accept that the world class 800/1500m man needs repeatable 400m sprinting speed then we must see that this training will provide the necessary strength to achieve it....I believe that it is rather late to start thinking about it when the training speeds up a bit in the spring”.
When I hear one of our 800 metre (or even 400 metre) runners on television trot out the mantra “I haven’t started my speed work yet” in the middle of July, I think of dear old Peter, on high, angry and frustrated and I half expect to see a bolt of lightning strike the centre of the arena.
For the world of two-lap running it’s time to move the event on, probably back to the future.
Progression of World Best performances and official IAAF records/Ed: Richard Hymans/ IAAF
Lore of Running/Tim Nokes MD/Leisure Press
The IAAF Symposium of Middle and Long Distance Events/IAAF -1983