A mile in one second: Musings on human capability

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At their best, sports are about redefining what’s possible.

At the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, Usain Bolt launched himself out of the starting blocks and into history books when he ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds. In 1976, Julius Erving introduced the world to the free-throw line dunk, gliding 15 feet from the charity stripe to the basket and throwing down a thunderous slam.

And just last year, Joey Chestnut — the Wayne Gretzky of weiner-eating — made the ghosts of our Founding Fathers shed prideful tears when he devoured 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes on the Fourth of July.

Once in a blue moon, an athlete transcends what was once considered impossible, shedding preconceptions of our physical capabilities as a species and establishing a new benchmark for what we, as human beings, can accomplish.

As training regimens, nutrition plans and methods for recovery evolve, so too does the athleticism of the human race — or, at least, the athleticism of the few individuals who have the time and resources necessary to devote to pursuing greatness.

But realistically speaking, we must have a limit as a species, right? Or will we just continue to improve, shattering records year in and year out?

Let’s examine the history and future of the mile run in order to reach a conclusion.

In 1855, Charles Westhall put his (incredibly British) name in the record books by running a mile in four minutes and 28 seconds. Today, that’s a time routinely eclipsed by talented high schoolers.

As the mile world record steadily approached the four-minute mark, an absurd mythology came to surround that barrier. Many believed that the human body under its own power was literally incapable of traversing a mile in under four minutes, that the lungs and heart would not be able to handle such strain. Attempting to run such a fast mile, they thought, would result in death.

Then, on May 6, 1954, the late Roger Bannister did what had been considered impossible, running a mile in 3:59.4. It was a truly momentous achievement, and above all else, it represented the decimation of a psychological blockade; Bannister’s accomplishment proved to the world that Death was not standing at the finish line, waiting to strike down those who went sub-four.

Just 46 days after Bannister ran 3:59.4, Australian runner John Landy went 3:58.0. Since then, sub-four minute miles have become increasingly routine. Norwegian wunderkind Jakob Ingebrigtsen ran not one, but two at the age of 16. Heck, even the beer mile world record has inched all the way down to 4:33.

But there must be an absolute limit to how fast humans can run, how high we can jump, how much weight we can lift, right? Barriers that the human race will never overcome?

To answer this question, let’s go to the extreme: If there really is no limit to human performance, then theoretically, the mile-run world record will continue to drop, slowly but surely, century after century, until eventually, it is less than one second.

Take a second to either think about that, or try running a one-second mile yourself.

It’s preposterous, right? How would that even look? In your mind’s eye, do you see a Herculean figure with Jesus’ hamstrings throwing himself forward at 36 times the speed of a fastball from a professional pitcher? Because that’s a pretty good idea of what it would take to run a mile in a single second.

OK, so that’s out the window, and we’ve established that our species must have a hard cutoff for athletic performance. In fact, given that Hicham El Guerrouj’s mile world record of 3:43.13 has stood since 1999, we’re probably fairly close to that point.

Initially, it seems a bit bleak to admit that at some point, not only the mile world record but all world records will become unbreakable once humans achieve their full athletic potential. “Records are made to be broken” will be an expression that rings hollow when decades-old records dance mischievously just out of the reach of athletes doing their darndest to make history.

But consider this: If humans truly were unlimited athletically, the achievements of yesterday, today and tomorrow would be utterly devalued by later feats. In 2020, Kenyan endurance runner Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to ever run a marathon in under two hours. During a post-race interview, he doubled down on his signature slogan: “No human is limited.”

If that were true, though, then Kipchoge’s effort wouldn’t have been nearly as monumental. In an alternate reality where one-second miles are within the realm of possibility, Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon is just as laughable as the fact that a 4:28 mile was once the gold standard for distance running.

What made Kipchoge’s achievement so impressive is the fact that he approached the absolute peak of human athletic performance, that there is a fixed boundary for how quickly a person can travel 26.2 miles, and he certainly came damn close to it.

The courage in a great athletic feat comes from there being a limit and the fact that professional athletes devote their lives to not only finding that limit but also demonstrating that it exists beyond where we once thought it was.

Kipchoge accomplished that when he ran a marathon in under two hours and Bannister, too, when he ran a mile in under four minutes. Erving redefined “possible” when he leapt from the free-throw line, and Usain Bolt did it when he covered the length of a football field and then some in a hair more than nine and a half seconds. And yes, even Chestnut forced us to reconsider the limits of our species when he ate all of those hot dogs.

Perfection may be unattainable, but the pursuit of perfection will never fail to inspire.

Ethan Moutes covers women’s water polo and is a deputy sports editor and a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].