A speed comparison reveals surprising results
By Amby Burfoot
Photo by Shutterstock
This weekend 100-metre world-record-holder Usain Bolt will make his first appearance on the London Olympic track, and the atmosphere will be electrifying. He's by far the world's most famous runner. Eight days later the male marathoners will make their 42.2-kilometre tour of London. For that distance, Kenyan Patrick Makau (not competing in London) holds the world record, 2:03:38.
Stop for a moment to try to visualise the two runners at top speed. Here's what I think you'll see. Bolt is hurtling down the track, all 195cm of him, long and muscular and tensing with each elongated stride. You can almost feel the thunder of his powerful quads.
You visualise something quite different for Makau: he's thin and smooth and efficient, a model of economy. If they were cars, Bolt would be a drag racer, and Makau would be some ultra-green experimental bamboo vehicle.
In your mind's eye, there's a huge difference between Bolt and Makau, right? After all, one gets to stop after just 100 metres, and the other continues on and completes that distance another 422 times.
Well, this mental picture of yours, it's a distortion. It's a bit of a hallucination, or perhaps a trompe l'oeil. Sure, Bolt is faster than Makau, no doubt about it. But the difference isn't nearly what you think it is.
Bolt runs at 37.59 kilometres per hour, Makau at 20.47 kilometres per hour. In other words, despite the fact that Makau covers 422 times more distance than Bolt, he manages to run more than half as fast as Bolt. He slows down by only 46 per cent vs. Bolt.
How does Makau achieve this seemingly impossible conservation of human speed over great distance? That's easy: He was born to run long and efficient; we all are (just not as fast as Makau). Bolt's the freak; we humans aren't well-designed, relative to most other animals, for sprinting.
This is, of course, the Olympian view of the now-famous born-to-run hypothesis. The argument gained its present currency from the Dan Lieberman and Dennis Bramble cover story in Nature magazine in late 1994, and in 2009 from the like-named best-selling book by Christopher McDougall that became known more as "the barefoot running book."
The Nature abstract says, in part: “Humans, like apes, are poor sprinters,” yet “humans perform remarkably well at endurance running.” So well, in fact, that Lieberman and Bramble conclude “endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.”
I’m not pointing this out to detract from Bolt’s incredible world records. I just think we ought to marvel a little more at the speed of world class marathoners.
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