Can a 2-Hour Marathon Be Rowed?

May 12, 2017

This weekend, three athletes, sponsored by Nike, tried to break the 2-hour (running) marathon barrier. Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) came close by covering the 42.2km (26.2 mile) distance in 2:00:25. This begs the question: can a 2-hour marathon be rowed?

The current world record on the indoor rower is 2:21:08.7 by Ben de Wit (Canada). Compared to the current officially-recognized running world record of 2:02:57, this seems a long way off. Concept2 employees Meredith Breiland and Jameson Halnon discuss if a 1:59:59 marathon row is possible. There are a few more days left in our Global Marathon Challenge to try!

Meredith: I’m going to hold onto the physics of this: rowing earns you a “glide” on each stroke that isn’t earned on each step of running. Theoretically, the fastest rowing marathon in the world should be faster than the running marathon world record. There’s a problem, though, in incentive. Rowers aren’t trying for the marathon record, nor paid or acknowledged for the feat. For improved marathon rowing times, I believe the top athletes in the world would need a reason to chase down this world record.

Jameson: First off, kudos to Ben de Wit, holding a 1:40.3 for 1000 meters is a goal of many, let alone an entire marathon. That being said, the exponential improvement needed to get to a blistering 1:25.3 average pace (per 500 meters) for two hours seems unreal. In wattage, that’s going from holding 346.9 watts to 563.9 watts. That’s a 162.55% wattage increase for an immense length of time. The strongest point Meredith does make is when looking at my own performances my running times are far slower than my indoor rowing times. Maybe I was meant to be a rower and not a runner.

Meredith: The rowing athlete closest to achieving a feat such as this just retired. Eric Murray (New Zealand) rowed a half marathon in 1:07:58.1 (2014). Again, I’ll argue that since Eric’s race distance is usually 2k, as much as his half marathon is admirable, he could go faster if this was his focus.

Jameson: As an ex-runner I can proudly say I’ve run under two hours…for a half marathon. My half marathon time PR on an indoor rower is around 1:26:15. This does give weight to Meredith’s argument; rowers should be faster than runners, at least for certain distances. Sprinting, I argue, favors runners. Top collegiate and Olympic level sprinters are ten seconds or faster running 100 meters than rowing bests. On the indoor rower, we haven’t seen 12.8 seconds beaten and this includes behemoths Ross Love and World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw. Even at 5k and 10k distances, rowing times fall short of speedier running records.

Meredith: For those short sprints, there’s a lot of inertia to overcome at the start, given the resistance of water (or the flywheel). I’ve been talking mostly about indoor rowing. There are ways to alter the indoor rower for speed, such as closing off the flywheel. I’ll argue these changes alter the machine significantly enough to be cheating. It’s not just an advantage like fancy shoes; it would be a different measurement. Each flywheel is carefully balanced for accuracy at our factory. Nike looked to innovations that improved athlete efficiency. Is there a secret weapon for rowing to be found in specially-designed shoes, a seat, or grips (the points where the athlete connects to the machine)? All this would have to happen without sacrificing comfort.

Jameson: Nike’s marathon attempt created “perfect” conditions, including diamond-shaped drafting of alternating runners and fuel provided by mopeds. What is the perfect marathon on an indoor rower? I’d want to create some super human involving a beautiful mixture of power, speed and inhumane endurance. If you’ve felt the glory of seeing a number in the 1:20s on the rower, it feels great! But, as far as how the world records on the indoor rower go, we stop seeing numbers in the 1:20s as early as the 6k (a 1:30.2 pace, total time of 18:03.1 by Martin Sinkovic). To row seven times that distance, at a split five seconds faster, seems impossible to me. I also want to emphasize that I don’t want to take anything away from the men and women who have set records in rowing, running or any respective sports or fields.

Meredith: It may be some time until we know if the current world records are already superhuman or need challengers!

Conclusion

A sub 2-hour rowing marathon may be well off, at least until more people train for it. Rowing, unlike running, doesn’t have the funding and sponsorship to pursue these dreams. Nike’s athletes used feedback to create a pacing strategy similar to what is offered on the Concept2 Performance Monitor: each and every step was measured. So there’s one thing we know we have now: Concept2 provides the right tools to measure and compare athletes. Rowers can use the Performance Monitor to pace for world records at any distance.

Similar to Nike’s quest, we enjoy considering new frontiers and breaking barriers in rowing. Innovation is what Concept2 is all about!

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