Two millennia before the likes of Usain Bolt came onto the scene, humans were pitting their strength and speed against each other. It’s thought that the first Olympic games were held in 776 BC in ancient Greece, and the tradition carried on under the Roman Empire. An Olympic Truce was even established by the Greeks which was expected to be adhered to so people could spectate and compete in safety. The 4 year tradition, and in some ways the truce, is upheld today, just with much stronger and faster people competing. The closest the ancients had to a vehicle race was with chariots, and you could say that humanity has significantly improved when it comes to speed on wheels. Today we are going to look at what speed humans are capable of, in this episode of The Infographics Show, How Fast Can We Go?
We’ll start with our bodies. Maybe the best of the ancient runners was Leonidas of Rhodes who won three stade, sprint races, (including the 200 yards and 400 yards) in each of four consecutive Olympics from 164-152 BCE. The main event was the 200 yards (about 180 meters) which was the equivalent of the modern 100 meters. He was regarded as the Usain Bolt of today, or the Michael Johnson of not so long ago, and was even winning races at the ripe old age of 36. His medal tally was only beaten 2,168 years later by swimmer Michael Phelps. No one knows of course how fast he ran, but guesses range from 24-26 seconds for 180 meters.
The fastest recorded 100 meters time is held by Usain Bolt at 9.58 seconds, which means he was running at an average of 10.43 meters per second or 23.34 mph (37.6 kph). It’s thought that at about 68 meters, he hit his fastest speed, which was 12.34 meters per second or 27.61 mph (44.4 kph). This is about as fast as any human has ever run, and it’s about the speed of a galloping horse. We can compare that to one of the earliest recorded sprint records, that of American sprinter Tom Burke who won the 100 meters at Athens in 1896 in a time of 12 seconds.
While Bolt would be able to outrun a Velociraptor, he would not be able to keep it up for long. The fastest recorded long distance time was set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in 2014. His time for the marathon was 2 hours 2 minutes and 57 seconds. This averaged at 4 minutes 41 seconds a mile. It’s thought a sub-2 hour marathon time is on the way, which means running the entire 26.2 miles (42 kilometers) at 13.1 mph (21 kph). Try that at the gym on the treadmill for even a few hundred meters and you’ll see just how incredible this man is.
The average adult male jogs at about 8.3 mph (13.3 kph), which is a 27 second 100 meters. Women jog at an average of 6.5 mph (10.4 kph) or a 34 second 100 meters. It’s thought that even fit and healthy non-athlete adults that can run very well will only average around 15.9 miles per hour (25.5 kph), which would mean a 100 meter time of around 13-14 seconds. The average healthy human walks at around 3 miles per hour (4.8 kph).
Let’s now have a look at swimming. It’s reported that almost half of the world’s population can’t swim, including 44 percent of Americans according to the U.S. Red Cross. Although the report said some people believed they could swim, but weren’t able to swim well enough to be adjudged safe in the water. The fastest person in the world, ever, is Brazilian César Cielo. Much has been said about the great Michael Phelps taking on a great white shark in a race, but in terms of raw speed he’s slower than Cielo. His time of 46.91 seconds in the 100 meters freestyle is the fastest a human has ever swum, giving him an average speed of about 5.3 mph (8.5 kph). That’s faster than the average jogging speed of the average male. It’s thought Phelps’ average speed when he won gold in the 100 meters freestyle relay was about 4.7 mph (7.5 mph). The two men are about the same speed as the average cod, but both would get trounced in a race with a great white shark that can reach speeds of 25 mph (40kph). The average human that can swim freestyle is a speed of just 2 mph (3.2 kph).
But how fast has a human ever travelled? That would be astronauts on NASA’s Apollo 10 mission when they reached a top speed of 24,791 mph (39,897 kph). Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to colonize Mars, and to get there they need a fair bit of power. The rocket which will be used is nicknamed the BFS, and SpaceX says it will reach cruising speeds of 62,000 mph (99.77 thousand kph).
British Royal Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green holds the world land speed record, set in 1997. He got up to 763 mph (1,227 kph) in his Thrust supersonic car in the Black Rock desert, USA. In 1898 a Frenchman broke the same land speed record in his electric car, reaching a speed of 39.24 mph (63 kph). The fastest two wheels have ever gone is 394 mph (634 kph) with the TOP 1 Ack Attack ridden by Rocky Robinson at the Bonneville Speedway in Utah. These machines are not built for the road, however, but some road cars and bikes can reach impressive speeds. The Bugatti Veyron is listed as the world’s fastest road car, able to reach speeds of 268 mph (431 kph) and the fastest thing on two wheels on the road is the Kawasaki Ninja H2R. It can reach speeds of 249 mph (400 kph). The fastest person on a bicycle was Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, who travelled at a speed of 167 mph (268 kph) in 1995.
As for rail, the winner for the fastest speed is US air force colonel John Stapp, who reached 632 mph (1017 kph) on his rocket sled. Passenger trains don’t get anywhere near that, but some are very fast. The French TVG has an average speed when taking folks around France of about 200 mph (321 kph), but it also holds the record for the fastest speed ever on a national rail system of 357 mph (574 kph). At that speed you could realistically commute from Paris to offices in the UK, Germany, Spain, and other nations surrounding France. Japan’s magnetically levitated MLX01 maglev has hit a speed of 361 mph (580 kph), but that was only in testing. Many countries are presently developing high-speed trains as an alternative to air and road travel. You’d think the perfect country for such a system would be the United States, given its size, population, and long distances its citizens often travel. This is actually a matter of controversy, as an article in Forbes points out in 2017. There are many reasons, and one is that the U.S. as you’ll know from our other shows spends little on transportation compared to its military. Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, once said in an interview that lobbying efforts Spirit of Australiafrom oil, aviation and highway companies were also blocking high-speed rail advancement. Perhaps Elon Musk’s Boring Company and its underground Hyperloop project might happen before high-speed rail.
On water the record was set by Australian Ken Warby in his Spirit of Australia wooden speedboat, which reached 317.596 mph (511 kph) in 1978. It’s not a record many people try to break as they often end up dead. Long-time British record holder Donald Campbell was one of those people, and there were many more. Record holder Warby told Wired in an interview after he retired, “When you look down that lake, you better have all your homework done, because your chances are 50-50 – and you better be in the right 50 percent.” It might be safer to travel by ocean liner. The fastest was the SS United States, that averaged a speed of 29 mph (62 kph). The Titanic was a good 8 mph slower.
Finally, we take to the air. Surprisingly, the record set for a manned aircraft was as far back as 1967. That was when a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft called the North American X-15 hit a speed of 4,520 mph (7,274 kph) with American air force pilot William Knight at the controls. Passenger jets average a speed of 575 mph (925 kph) but may reach up to about 745 mph (1198 kph). The fastest ever passenger plane was the British-French made Concorde, which reached speeds of 1,354 mph (2,180 kph). A plane called the Baby Boom is set to beat that speed in 2023, but it will be a much smaller machine.
That’s the end of the show today. Why not tell us your fastest speed? Are you better than the average Joe? What’s the fastest you’ve ever travelled, on land, in the water, in the air? Let us know in the comments!