Reader Question: Is it possible to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America did?

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I love superhero movies, but in order to enjoy them I have to suspend disbelief and stop being a scientist for a couple of hours, since most of what you see defies the laws of physics and well established physiological principles.

What the Ol’ Cap did was a physiological impossibility outside of the superhero movie universe. The runner would be going about world class 100m sprint speed (26 mph). That pace relies on energy primarily from phosphocreatine – essentially a “rocket fuel” with about 6 seconds “burn time” before it is depleted – plus energy liberated via anaerobic (without oxygen) processes. The longer the event, the more the ratio turns from anaerobic to aerobic energy sources. One simply can’t use aerobic metabolism to run 26 mph for virtually any length of time, let alone 30 minutes. 

There are interesting questions like this in exercise physiology meant to spur investigation and discussion of the limits of human performance. For decades people have tried to come up with the ‘absolute limit’ for a given event, and so far they have been eventually proved wrong. Long ago there was the sub-4 minute mile barrier, but as we got into, say, the 1930s it was becoming obvious to most people that it was humanly possible to run that fast and it was just a matter of time. (Roger Bannister ran under 4 in 1954 – after about a 10 year period of a few people getting close, like 4:01 – 4:02.)

Later there were calculations that no man could go faster than (I’m working from memory here so not an exact figure) ~ 3:50-something, until that was broken. The current world record, set in 1999, is held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at 3:43.13. Of course we can say with certainty that no human will run a mile in 1 minute, or 2 minutes, or … well, we just don’t know for sure other than there is obviously a limit. El Guerrouj also holds the the 1500m WR of 3:26, which equates to about a mile of …. 3:43. So is the limit 3:43? Probably not; even though that record has stood for 17 years, it always seems someone could go 1/10 second faster, or at least 1/100. Is a sub 3:40 possible? I wouldn’t bet against it.

What is the fastest a human could run 13 miles? We don’t know (the world record for the half marathon – 13.11 miles – is 58:23) but it certainly isn’t anywhere close to 30 minutes. A 30 minute half marathon would be run at an average pace of 2:17 per mile, and equates to a 2:05 mile in quality.

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