And other random thoughts…

By Raymond Onyango.

At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Usain Bolt attained a mind-bending top running speed of over 43 kilometers per hour en route to breaking the 100-meter world record. His astonishing time of 9.58 seconds accorded him the sole bragging rights to the title ‘The worlds fastest man’. Furthermore judging by his scorching form at the London Olympics, that title does not seem set to change hands any time soon. But how would Usain Bolt stack up against the other ‘worlds fastest man’ Kenya’s Patrick Makau? In 2011, in the very same city of Berlin, the then 26-year-old Makau beat, Ethiopia’s Haile Gabreselassie’s earlier record by a huge margin of 21 seconds to set a new marathon record of 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds. His performance excited running pundits, and gave new impetus to the hope that we may yet see a sub-two hour marathon run, within our lifetime.

If the two were to run head to head in a marathon race, Usain Bolt should theoretically have the upper hand. Assuming that he maintains his world record pace all the way, the speedy Jamaican would be done with the course in  about an hour or so, by which time Makau should be just over the half way mark. That’s the theory; in reality Usain Bolt simply doesn’t stand a chance and, judging from past athletes that have tried switched sports, he would be lucky to even make it to the finish line. In November 2006, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, was forced to eat a hefty dose of humble pie, after crossing the finishing line of the New York Marathon in a positively pedestrian time of 2 hours 59 minutes. Armstrong who is now embroiled in an ongoing court battle over doping allegations was then revered as a gritty, hard-edged competitor and cancer survivor. A man whose insane level of fitness was legendary even among fellow cyclists on the tour; keep in mind that were talking here, of men for whom a 2420 kilometer bike ride, is all in a days work! In a post race interview with the Associated Press, he described the marathon, a ‘mere’ 42.2 kilometers, as the hardest physical thing he had ever done in his life.

What is evident from the examples above is the fact that even at the highest levels of professional sport, genetics and body type and choice of sport play a huge role in determining success. Usain Bolt’s unique genetic blue print makes him unbeatable over the 100 meter distance, but I can bet you he wouldn’t be anywhere near the podium at a marathon. Lance Armstrong has the physiology to be a great cyclist, but the very same traits that make him great at cycling – stocky legs, chunky calves and considerable bodily heft, work profoundly against him as a marathon runner; an event where leaner, lighter men have a clear advantage.

Slow Twitch Vs Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers

In his article ‘Usain Bolt Outruns Human Nature’ Barry Petchisky observes that human beings appear to be specifically designed for distance and endurance running. Given enough time, he notes, there is nothing we cannot outrun. This is in large part because human beings have a remarkable ability to cool down. Our body’s sparse hair and numerous sweat glands allow us to lose excess body heat very effectively, so effectively in fact that we can even out race a horse over a long distance.

Our muscles, on the inside look something like a bag of spaghetti – several individual strands of individual muscle fibers all encased in a tough outer layer of connective tissue that makes up the actual muscle. The muscle fibers are further divided into two kinds, slow twitch muscle fibers that are generally fatigue resistant at low intensities and fast twitch muscle fibers that generate large amounts of speed and power at high intensities but generally fatigue quickly.

Most of us have about a 50/50 distribution of fast and slow twitch fibers, in our muscles but the worlds best marathon runners generally have very high percentages of slow twitch muscle fibers as well as a unique ability to mobilize the energy stored in fat tissue and convert it into fuel for prolonged periods of exercise. The riveting London 2012 Olympic men’s marathon final was a classic example of how marathon runners rely not so much on muscular strength as they do sheer muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness. Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich plotted his move wisely, feigning fatigue and lulling the Kenyans into a false security. When he made his move unexpectedly at the 37-kilometer mark, the Kenyans Kirui and Kipsang simply didn’t have the legs to match him and they could do nothing but watch the Olympic gold run away from them.

Sprinting on the other hand is a whole different animal that is powered primarily by the ‘fast twitch’ muscle fibers. Fast twitch fibers are responsible for quick reflexes and explosive type movements. All of the world’s best sprinters have a disproportionately huge percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers and this evident from their  lean and powerfully muscular physiques. Unlike slow twitch fibers, which derive their energy from the breakdown of fat tissue, fast twitch fibers are powered by the breakdown of an enzyme stored within the muscle known as Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. ATP provides huge amounts of energy through anaerobic metabolic processes, but runs out quickly, which means its only good for the short-term -10 to 45 seconds or so.

These key physiological differences between sprinters and long distance runners are the reason why no single athlete has ever excelled at both the sprints as well as the middle or long distance events. So to answer our initial question  – Can Usain Bolt win a marathon? Probably not, but then again it is almost certain that Patrick Makau will never win an Olympic sprint final either!

Have an awesome week, will you!