The 2-Hour Marathon: Running’s Great Debate

The 2-Hour Marathon: Running’s Great Debate
With the Berlin Marathon coming up this weekend, it is time to ask the popular question: is this magical mark impossible or inevitable?

I sat in my living room watching Universal Sports narrate the 2011 Berlin Marathon, my dad asleep on the couch next to me.  I was disappointed that they were only showing highlights and not the entire 150-minute race itself but I got over it as the announcer began to read off the marquee athletes.  Drawing huge cheers from the 35,000 runners behind him was the star of the race, the Emperor himself, Haile Gebrselassie.  With his hands in the air and a brilliant, toothy smile he waved to his fans, who knew he was out there to break the world record.  After his grateful and statesmanlike introduction, Haile retreated into the elite crowd.  The announcer then introduced his main rival, Patrick Makau of Kenya.  Much younger and more reserved, Makau stood staring at the cameraman looking uncomfortable, as if a Saw movie were playing above the lens.  He was awkward, clearly not used to being a famous, sought-after athlete like his Ethiopian competitor.

As the camera panned between these two great marathoners, the announcers simultaneously annoyed and invigorated me by spoiling one key fact: the world record for the marathon had been broken earlier that day by one of these men, and they were going to reveal the winner … after these messages.

Years later, I’m struck by how similar those announcers sound to those narrating large, big-city races in real time.  They both talk about the inevitability of a new world record, marking each 5K split and heralding it as a sign of a potential world’s best.  It’s impossible to watch any World Marathon Major today and not hear the words “world record” at least seven times before the race has even begun.  Just having more than one runner with a personal best in the 2:05 range in a large race portends blogposts, articles and endless chatter about an assault on Makau’s 2:03:38 standing record.  It’s the talk of the marathon community and there’s a reason for it.

In the last 11 years, the world record has been broken five times, lowering Khalid Khannouchi’s 2:05:38 by a full two minutes.  Every time it has been broken, the time has lowered by no less than 21 seconds.  While that may seem like very little when you’re out there running for two hours, the margin is large enough to have every marathon aficionado speculating about a topic that seems to split the running community.

When will we (or will we ever) see a runner go under two hours for the marathon?

A fellow blogger floated this topic to me as a comment on my recent article about music.  Simply because there’s so much to discuss, I was immediately drawn to and intimidated by the topic.  Oddly though, I didn’t have an established opinion on the matter.  I had read many speculative articles about it, listened to many race announcers’ predictions and can personally rattle off every top elite athlete’s PR and in what race and year it was achieved.  But ask me if I think a 1:59:59 is possible and I have to sit back and reflect on it.  But before I could reach my own conclusions, I decided to figure out what the world thinks of it.  After reading articles from sports scientists, professional commentators and the athletes themselves, I reached a simple, irrefutable conclusion: some say yes, others say no.

But what’s fascinating is what characterizes each camp.  While each group of people is certainly not homogeneous, there is a tangible difference in each argument that says a lot about the different ways people think and how they tackle seemingly insurmountable problems.

“No question … [it] will need 20 to 25 years, but it will definitely happen.”
Haile Gebrselassie

When you hear something like that from Gebrselassie, who has broken almost 30 world records in distance running, you pay attention.  He first broke the marathon world record in 2007 on Berlin’s flat, super fast course in 2:04:26.  He came back the next year to break his own record and become the first person ever under 2:04, all at the age of 35.  Although he seems to naturally exude optimism, a common remark from those who meet him, his prediction that a 2-hour marathon will happen has its merits in addition to many supporters.

The world is going through an explosion in running enthusiasm.  Participation in the sport is higher every year, millions of dollars are being poured into large, sponsored title races and the top athletes are fully professional, living off the sport.  The largest international races, especially those with exceptionally flat courses like Chicago, Rotterdam and Berlin, lure the fastest in the world with staggering cash prizes and even bigger bonuses for breaking the world record.  Chief among these is the Dubai Marathon, which aptly calls itself “the world’s richest race,” offering a potential world record breaker a cool million dollars.

In other words, the environment and enthusiasm are present for extremely fast times.  All the ingredients are there for magic to happen, and it is evident with the top times in the world all under 2:05 for the last six years.  Let’s remember that the world record was 2:05:38 just eleven years ago.  In 1981 the world record was 2:08:33 – there were 60 times run faster than that in 2012 alone.

So when will it happen?  In order to figure out how much time we have to wait, we need to see how far we’ve come. This method of looking back in time and gauging how much the time has improved is a popular tactic for proponents of the forthcoming 2-hour marathoner.

chart-WSJMore than one investigative outlet has charted out the world record progression for the marathon, showing an unmistakable descent, a logarithmic curve trending toward 2:00, or perhaps lower.  Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic believes that “someone out there should have run about a 2:01:50 by now” citing that the current marathon record isn’t fast enough.  University of Glasgow’s Yannis Pitsiladis, a scholar in Kenyan marathon studies, says that the two-hour marathon “will fall sometime between 2020 and 2030,” but that great breakthroughs in science and training could make it happen “as soon as the next five years.”  The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Futterman tracked world records over the last thirty-three years and showed that the marathon record has improved by 4.2%, which hasn’t happened for its shorter brethren the men’s 100m (3.5%) and 110m hurdles (only 1%).

Looking back though, has anyone properly predicted where the world record is now?  A pair of researchers from the University of Montreal developed a model in 1989 to calculate fast marathon times based on human physiology.  That original projection had the world record at 2:05:23 by the year 2000, 1:59:36 by 2028 and 1:57:18 by 2040.  As the New York Times points out, Kannouchi ran the world record run of 2:05:42 in 1999, just seconds off their prediction.  If their stats hold, then we should see times start dipping below 2:03 in the next few years, culminating with the first 1:59 marathon in the middle of the 2020s.

Although everyone in the camp agrees that it will happen, there is no consensus on the timeline.  Emmanuel Mutai, winner of the 2010-2011 World Marathon Majors and a 2:04 marathoner says that “it’s a matter of time before we start running in two hours.”  Jason Henderson at Athletics Weekly tempers his enthusiasm, suggesting that “it will happen sometime in the next 20-50 years.”  The late Sammy Wanjiru, whose sensational victories at such a young age presaged a brilliant career in the sport, wasn’t so sure.  Speaking for himself, he said he could potentially run a 2:02, but that two hours would be impossible, a task left to “maybe the new generation, you could get strong people.”

“Records are there to be broken.”
Paula Radcliffe

Liliya Shobukhova (in green), the 2nd fastest female marathoner of all time is still 3 minutes slower than Paula Radcliffe

Liliya Shobukhova (in green), the 2nd fastest female marathoner of all time is still 3 minutes slower than Paula Radcliffe

World record holder Paula Radcliffe also believes it will happen, although she doesn’t give such an unequivocal endorsement.  “Records are there to be broken … but someone is going to have to run really hard to beat this one.  That’s the kind of mindset it will take.”  The English athlete certainly has the credibility, owning the three fastest times ever for women in a sport largely dominated by East African athletes.  What’s remarkable about Radcliffe’s world record of 2:15:25 from the 2003 London Marathon is that the next fastest time ever by another runner is almost three minutes slower.  That’s an enormous difference.  The last time the men’s world record was bested by a similar margin was in the mid 1960s.  Radcliffe’s record is so dominant that the only other time to come close was Radcliffe’s 2:17:18, followed by Liliya Shobukhova’s 2:18:20.  It begs the question: what are the odds that we have yet to see the male Paula Radcliffe run the world’s most shockingly fast marathon?

With no agreement on when it will happen, experts and aficionados instead focus on who.  It’s no secret that the sport is dominated by athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia with the occasional standout performance from Uganda, Eritrea and Morocco.  Although athletes from these countries churn out logic-defying performances, it’s still a very limited pool.  If we’re serious about the possibility of improving the current record by another 3 minutes and 38 seconds in any sort of “fast” timeframe, then it’s clear that we need to expand the base.  In an interview with Runner’s World, journalist, popular author and former competitive runner Malcolm Gladwell notes that breaking the barrier “would be a function of socioeconomic things and not athletic things.  So if running became a huge deal in India and China, I would say we’re going to break two hours.”  Dick Patrick, former Olympics writer for USA Today, agrees.  “Maybe we’ll see some more prospects emerging from Uganda after Stephen Kiprotich’s victory in the Olympics.  How many unknown talents could there be in Eritrea?”

For the moment, let’s look at three East African athletes who, at some point or another in their careers, have been regarded as potential new world record holders.

  • Moses Mosop was a complete unknown to me until his 26.2-mile debut at the 2011 Boston Marathon, where he finished second behind Geoffrey Mutai in 2:03:06.  Due to its net downhill and point-to-point course, the Boston Marathon isn’t eligible for world-record purposes.  But that doesn’t mean he and Mutai didn’t light the running world on fire by notching what was considered an impossible time on a challenging course.  Known as “Big Engine,” the Kenyan athlete later went on to break the world record for 30k on the track, immediately afterward saying that he could run a 2:02 on a flat road marathon.  Three months later at the 2011 Chicago Marathon, he started the race with an aggravated Achilles and ran at what he claimed was only 80% of his potential.  He crossed the finish line in a course record 2:05:37.
  • Ayele Abshero burst onto the scene in January of 2012 by winning the Dubai Marathon in 2:04:23, making him the fourth fastest marathoner ever at the time, the fastest debut marathon of all time (not counting Mosop’s record-ineligible run), and the youngest athlete ever to run under 2:05.  It took Gebrselassie six attempts to run a similar time.  The young Ethiopian is a prime example of the new wave of athletes who spend little time on track and go straight to the marathon to show great promise.  Abshero, however, hasn’t quite matched his debut time with a similarly impressive feat, having dropped out of the 2012 Olympic Marathon and placed third in this year’s London Marathon.
  • Kenenisa Bekele is a living legend on the track, owner of a myriad of Olympic and World Championship titles and the current world-record holder for both the 5K and 10K.  His kind of pedigree is reminiscent of Gebrselassie, who transitioned almost magically from the track to the marathon.  However, a long series of injuries after 2009 kept him from earning any titles.  He has recently come back to form, running his first half marathon last weekend at the Great North Run, finishing first in 1:00:09, one second ahead of Mo Farah.  The world is looking to Bekele and Farah to use that raw track power to tackle the marathon at paces hitherto unknown.

I’m not saying any of these three will go on to run under two hours.  Rather, these are the kinds of athletes that have the potential to challenge Makau’s record, nudging it ever closer to the magical 2:00 barrier.

I want to return to Paula Radcliffe’s comment because it has echoes of an earlier great debate.  By saying “records are there to be broken” she talks about the lure of certain milestone times and the way that dedicated athletes are drawn to them.  American marathoner and silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Meb Keflezighi cuts straight to the chase with a similar thought, saying that this debate “is like Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile.”

The metric mile world record progression

The metric mile world record progression

Before becoming a household name among runners by becoming the first human being to run a mile in under four minutes, Roger Bannister was a full-time junior doctor.  For years prior to his accomplishment, many athletes were tantalizingly close to the four-minute barrier.  From 1942 to 1945, the mark was lowered from 4:06 to just above 4:01, so naturally the world was looking for someone to make it happen.  However, progression stalled after that, with Sweden’s Gunder Hägg’s 4:01.4 remaining the world record for almost nine years until Bannister crossed the four-minute threshold.  For many at the time, the feat was inevitable and only a matter of who would do it.  This debate is once again taking place but in an event with an additional 25.2 miles.

Mentioning Bannister in a debate like this can be inspiring.  It’s the story of a tremendously difficult goal and the ordinary person who conquered it.  Calling it anything from one of the greatest moments in athleticism to a parable for life wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.  In a nutshell, it also encapsulates the arguments not just for running a marathon in under two hours, but for its imminence.  Even the most intransigent skeptics concede that given enough time, it will happen.

The Bannister story also brings up a common argument among the Yes crowd, that of the psychological barrier to success.  Keflezighi notes that “no one had [broken 4 minutes] before him, and now we’re nearly 17 seconds beyond that.”  This suggests that the minute the announcer finally said “three” ahead of his finishing time, the entire athletic world was suddenly awakened and freed from its shackles.  A month later, Bannister’s pacer John Landy ran 3:58, a record that would be broken four more times in the following decade.  Five years after Haile ran 2:03:59, four athletes had run faster marathons.  Dick Patrick agrees.  He says that “the biggest boost will come from so many athletes running so fast.  That sort of competitive incubator makes for an atmosphere that defies reason.  You throw logic out the window and prepare to be amazed.”

In the face of such unbridled enthusiasm, what argument could the nay-sayers possibly have?

“The call to faith erodes the more important idea that we are very often wrong, so we must critically question our beliefs.  We must rely on our intelligence and available evidence to determine what to believe because we have nothing better.”
Eric Normand

Many of those who support the idea that a two-hour marathon is in the near future use facts and figures to support their claim.  They look at how the record has fallen in recent decades, they compare it to Roger Bannister’s quest for the 4-minute mile and they cite that newcomers are faster than the greats were in their prime.  But what you hear the most in their arguments is passion.  It is no doubt an indispensable tool in the runner’s arsenal.  Passion is what fuels amazing performances and keeps the athlete training all throughout the year.  But this same passion is what leads journalists, scientists and marathoners to “throw logic out the window” in the words of Dick Patrick, and unabashedly claim the two-hour mark as something we’ll see soon.

world-record-progressionTim Hutchings of Bannister’s Great Britain aptly summarizes the counterpoint to this argument:

“I’m trying to work with ‘knowns’ rather than ‘unknowns’ when forming an opinion on this … while there may be a bit of slack to be taken up in training knowledge and techniques, while a David Rudisha-like youngster is probably out there running a few miles to school in Africa or Mexico or China or the Andes, he’ll not have a heart the size of a basketball.”

In other words, the numbers don’t add up yet, despite the evidence from earlier.  The physiological hurdles an athlete would have to overcome in order to jump from 2:03:38 to 1:59:59 are, at the moment, too big.  Ross Tucker from The Science of Sport compares the marathon world record progression to that of the 10k, which he alleges is a far more reliable indicator of marathon performance than measuring VO2 max or lactate threshold. He notes that the fastest 10k times have stabilized over the last decade with only Kenenisa Bekele breaking Gebrselassie’s 1998 world record.  Though Bekele has broken it twice, the total improvement has only been about five seconds in fifteen years.  Prior to that, it was broken every single year from 1994 to 1998 by about the same amount every time.  Such stabilization suggests that the marathon should also be reaching its plateau, as it too went through great improvements and is now slowly evening out.

Earlier we looked at several charts that show how the marathon is moving toward two hours  To the right is an even longer one with more data points.  However, some say that those tiny incremental gains will eventually yield a 2-hour marathon but very far down the line (as in, by 2099).  A physicist and blogger at Gravity and Levity has created his own chart, showing that the maximum possible time a human can run a marathon according to the data, is 2:02:43.

The sober lack of enthusiasm doesn’t end there.  The task’s true difficulty is made more apparent when we break the time down into its smaller components.

It is clear that in order to run 1:59:59 for the marathon, a runner would have to average under one hour for each half.  As of this writing, there are 89 men who have run a half marathon in 59:59 or faster, but absolutely none of them have run that time as part of a marathon (though to be completely honest, this is the only fact that I can’t verify, but if this had ever happened, I would have read about it).  In fact, there is only one person that has ever run two half-marathons back to back under 1:02 and that man is the current world record holder, with Wilson Kipsang coming close with 1:01:40 and 1:02:02 splits.  As the data suggest, to ask that someone run two sub-60 minute half marathons (on average) in a row is unreasonable.  There might be some hope in someone like Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, whose 58:23 half marathon world record was run averaging 4:27 minutes per mile, eight seconds faster than the 4:35 pace required to run a two-hour marathon.  But given his 2:12 and 2:10 marathon times, he might not be our guy.

Similarly, many of us are familiar with the (flawed, but popular) conversion between your half marathon time and your potential marathon, which involves multiplying your half time by two and adding ten minutes.  We reach something of a wall here because it either suggests that the half marathon world record is too slow (should be 56:49) or that the marathon is too fast (should be 2:06:46).  Either way, we’d be waiting for someone to run a 55-minute half marathon, which is an equally preposterous demand.

Perhaps success lies not in the big picture but with improvements in the smallest components of race performance.  But even when we look at 10k and 5k breakdowns, the skeptics continue to shake their heads.  To better illustrate this, let’s look at a specific time and place.

Gravity and Levity's chart

Gravity and Levity’s chart

Without pointing to anyone specific, Matthew Futterman builds the prototype two-hour marathoner.  He says he “should be fairly small, probably shorter than 5’7” and weighing about 125 pounds … He will also have a freakish ability to move oxygen through his body, but run fast using limited oxygen – an attribute likely helped by being born and growing up at high altitude.”  But the person isn’t enough.  Veteran marathoner Amby Burfoot chimes in with the proper conditions: “sunny, dry, minimal wind … temperature around 40 degrees.  Success at the marathon comes from 50 percent human physiology and training, and 90 percent good weather conditions.”

For the sake of argument, if we were to find a situation that matches these requirements, we would be discussing Tsegaye Kebede, one of my favorite marathoners, and the 2013 London Marathon.  At 5’2” and 110 pounds, Kebede exceeds Futterman’s physical demands and since 2007, rarely places below 3rd place in any marathon, which I believe satisfies the “freakish” cardiovascular requirement.  The 2013 London Marathon was held in perfect conditions, the mercury barely cresting 13°C (55°F) for the day.  Alongside him was quite possibly the most competitive field of elite marathoners ever assembled, featuring the likes of Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Mutai, Emmanuel Mutai, Feyisa Lilesa, Abel Kirui and Martin Lel.  With so many gifted runners on the course and the official pacers told to run the first half in 1:01:30, it looked like London was aggressively flirting with new records.

But that didn’t happen.

The elite athletes at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, where Kebede finished with a 2:04:38 PR, also in ideal conditions

The elite athletes at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, where Kebede finished with a 2:04:38 PR, also in ideal conditions

Ross Tucker examines this race carefully, using it as evidence against the imminence of the two-hour marathon.  The first half was run as planned, in 1:01:34, the equivalent of just over four 14:35 5Ks, right on pace for a new world record.  Immediately afterward, the pacers increased their speed below 14:30 for 5K and what followed was universal meltdown.  It wasn’t just one or two athletes who couldn’t keep up the insane pace – it was everyone, resulting in a second half that Tucker calls “attritional” with the eventual winner being crowned “the athlete who died least.”

That winner was Kebede who went on to finish in 2:06:04, an excellent time by any standard, but far from the 2:03 that organizers were expecting and light years away from 2:00.  Aiming for a world record in pristine conditions, the world’s top runners had to run 14:35 5Ks, which is much slower than the 14:13 5Ks needed to run a two-hour marathon.  But that pace proved too much and Makau’s time stood.

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”
– Roger Bannister

It’s a spirited debate that reveals two sides of the human psyche: the passionate dreamer and the pragmatic scientist.  One wants to break down walls, reach for the stars and forget what the doubters say, with the other choosing to take careful stock and look forward with restraint.  These aren’t mutually exclusive mentalities.  How many times have we decided to just gun it during a race, finishing with a time that surpassed our wildest expectations?  And how many times have we sat with pace calculators, mapping out our potential times based on history and current level of fitness?

If you ask me what I think, I’d tell you that I lean toward the two-hour crowd.  I do think someone will run a marathon under that time and that I will be around to watch it happen.  However, I’m confident that I won’t see that day anytime soon.  It won’t be a superstar performance that comes out of nowhere (and the knee-jerk accusations of doping would definitely sully the accomplishment).  Instead, it will be a Bannister-like run, the catalytic and successful effort following a long line of close calls.  Over the years, new discoveries will be made about lactic threshold, which when coupled with breakthroughs in performance nutrition, training structure and shoe technology, will make it so the two-hour mark will no longer be an impossibly distant beacon.  The magical run that one day has to happen will no doubt immortalize the runner and the rich history of struggles, aches and pains that he carries with him.  At that point, all speculation will end, and distance running will usher in a new era where no challenge is beyond the reach of its strongest athletes.

But while the top tier of the sport attempts to chip away at Makau’s breathtaking record, I will focus on my own modest goals that I regard with a similar duality.  Will I ever qualify for Boston?  Do I have it in me to train for a sub-3 hour marathon?  Can I maintain this level of enthusiasm for another ten years?  As I tackle these questions, I will channel both dispositions – dreamer and scientist – to keep moving forward.

9/29/2013 Update: The official world record was broken today by Wilson Kipsang at the 2013 Berlin Marathon by another fifteen seconds, lowering the mark to 2:03:23.  The speculation continues as the mark approaches 2:00.

9/29/2014 Update: Wilson Kipsang’s world record only lived to be a year old.  Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon is the new world record holder with his spectacular run of 2:02:57, the first man ever to run under 2:03.  Another psychological barrier surpassed!

Do you think we’ll see a 2-hour marathon soon?  Are there goals that simultaneously scare and inspire you?  Do you lean toward dreamer or scientist?  Was this article longer than it should have been?  Did I lose you as a reader?

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

23 Responses to The 2-Hour Marathon: Running’s Great Debate

  1. MALCOLM GLADWELL was a former competitive runner? brb checking athlinks….

    50y/o Malcolm Gladwell, NY, NY, ran the 5th Ave mile over the weekend in 5:03.


    • I recently read The Perfect Mile, so I was thinking of Bannister as well. One thing that was so special about that moment is that it occurred just as amateurism in running was being overtaken by professional sports climate we know today. In the age of Nike’s oxygen house, altitude camps, and the team of experts that tends to the nutrition, health, and training of every athlete in striking range of the record, it’s simply unfathomable that a some medical resident somewhere might break any running record. I was thinking about this with sadness when I read about the RnR decision to stop funding elites at their races. Lauren Fleshman, who I follow on twitter, was angry about how hard it is for athletes to make a living running — but I think we forget that athletes making a living from their sport is a very recent development. I know that this professionalism of the sport is the price we pay to see performances like a 2:03 marathon, but record-breaking seems devalued as a result. I mean, I’ll be as excited as the next person to see someone break the 2:00 barrier. But it does seem inevitable, I think, that if we throw millions or billions at the industry, it will eventually be broken. But where’s the fun in that?

      • Dan says:

        You do bring up a good point. While marathons like London, Chicago and Berlin are exciting, the fact that they’re so stuffed with pacers makes it seem a little … stale at times. You get the feeling that it’s no longer about competition (like the electrifying 2010 duel between Wanjiru and Kebede) but about times. Can we be the next fastest race? Let’s throw in a bunch of pacers so ensure that.

        I think Berlin is the most complicit in this because for the longest time, it was Haile’s race, and few other athletes would bother showing up. He dueled with Makau in 2011, Mutai took it in 2012 and this year it was Kipsang (even though it was originally supposed to be a duel with Makau). It just seems like they put one or two super fast people there in hopes that they’ll get another world record and not a sensational race between multiple runners.

        Some magic is definitely lost, I agree. Thanks for reading and for chiming in 🙂

  2. tootallfritz says:

    Great post and lots of research behind the writing (as always).

    I just love the sport of running! The elites just keep getting faster and faster and that’s super exciting, even for a mid to back of the packer like myself. Not sure how they do it but they do AND they make it look beautiful and easy. I definitely think that a 2 hour marathon is in the future but who knows how long it will take for it to happen. Boston 2011 really made me think that anything is possible when people want it badly enough (Go Desi!!) and when the stars align. Running a perfect race is about more than training but also requires a dose of luck to get the right conditions, to have your body do what you expect and for everything to come together PERFECTLY. There are no guarantees.

    I always wonder how long it will take the elite women to catch up to Paula Radcliffe. Her record, compared to everyone else’s performances, seems almost “unbelievable”. Good for her for being a head above the crowd but I look forward to the rest of the world catching up to her amazing accomplishments.

    Thanks for this amazing post. It’s just in time to inspire those of us running fall marathons to be the best that WE can be on the given day.


    • Dan says:

      Did you watch Davila finish Berlin in 2:29 last weekend? It’s not her fastest time (2:22) but it shows that perhaps she’s overcome that nagging injury that put her out of the 2012 Olympic Marathon. And as for Radcliffe, yeah, she is literally miles ahead of her competitors with that record of hers — and to think that the IAAF was going to nullify it because it wasn’t a womens-only event. Unbelievable.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment 🙂

  3. Jennifer says:

    Really Awesome post!

    I am very intrigued by this as well. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens over the next ten years with this.

  4. Mike says:

    “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” and I can only imagine the time and research you put into this effort. This is a fantastic State of the Union on the potential for a two-hour marathon, which you’re clearly passionate about. There’s no shortage of science, pseudo-science and mindless online gibberish on the topic, much of it dry and unappealing, yet you’ve artfully distilled it all down into a well-written and entertaining treatise. I’m flattered that I was able to provide the spark for such a raging inferno.

    I can’t comment in the “yay” or “nay” without first saying that I happened upon the same subject from a different perspective, and hope to post my own thoughts by end of week. That said, the answer for me is definitely “yay”… though I agree with Paula Radcliffe and would stress that the operative word in her quote is “mindset”. A sub-two marathon is going to require more than the serendipitous combination of a bigger heart and more efficient lungs. It’s going to require better science (now in the pipeline) to unlock our potential to run 4:34/mile for 26.2 miles.

    Keep in mind too that although the weather in London this year may have been optimal, the course does have its share of twists and turns. I envision a sub-two happening – if and when it does – on a less winding course that plays out more like a simple quadrilateral.

    I’d agree with Tim Hutchings that given our current knowns, the odds as they stand are slim. But it’s the unknowns that most compel me to say yes, a two-hour marathon will happen in the next 50 years… and like you, I hope it’s not immediately tainted and diluted by accusations of PED usage. Though what exactly will constitute a PED in the future is a subject for another blog post.

    Dreamer or scientist? I like to think I lean on science to support my dreams, because without one I can’t imagine having any of the other. Right now my running goal is (surprise!) Boston, and it’s a goal that’s challenging enough to both scare and inspire me at the same time – I know I have it in me, but then again, what if it doesn’t happen? And as for your post being longer than it should have been… never! I was actually sorry to see it end so soon.

    Great post, Dan.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Mike. It was really fun putting this together, especially since it gave me a chance to unload a lot of information I already knew ahead of time with an actual context. It happens often that runners will speak about their sport too often in front of their non-runner friends … so this was like venting in a way.

      I wonder if some crazy running millionaire has thought of devising a course whose first 10 miles are a gradual downhill (whose overall elevation change doesn’t exceed the IAAF limit), and then making the last 16.2 a circuit that ends where the first 10 miles ended. That way the start and end aren’t separated by more than half of the total distance of the race. It’d be artificially fast but it would satisfy IAAF standards and allow for the top athletes to challenge 2:03 and 2:02 more quickly.

      But that won’t happen, so we have to stick with Berlin. Alas.

      Perhaps there is a future article waiting about PEDs and the power of the mind, but it won’t happen soon, given that racing season is upon us. And speaking of which, we should pick a brewery to visit Sunday afternoon.

  5. Tremendous post! Thanks for putting it together.

    I’m the owner of Gravity and Levity, so I understand that I play the role of the pessimist in this post. 🙂

    A brief comment concerning my very negative-sounding “2:02:43” prediction: The post making that prediction was written before Patrick Makau’s record. Including his performance in the data lowers the projection to 2:02:31.

    The larger point, though, is that right now the data is really not trending toward something sub-2 hours (at least in my opinion). That doesn’t mean that the world record won’t ever get below 2 hours; it just means that we’re not on track for it at the moment. It might very well be that some new revolution in training or diet or untapped population of runners (like India or China) can make a qualitative change in the data, and things will look very different.

    The progression of the marathon record is already marked by sporadic mini “revolutions”, where the time falls quickly over the course of a few years. It seems to me that we’ll need a few more big ones before sub-2 really feels eminent. And I’m not confident that it will happen within my lifetime. But perhaps (and hopefully) I will be proved wrong.

    On a personal note, I’m a bit of a runner myself (, and I wish you the very best of luck on your running quest!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading my post, which as you can tell, drew upon your research and insight. It does seem that the most optimistic of speculators are divided between those who think the 2:00 mark will be reached in small increments and those who believe in giant leaps. I think it’s a strange mix of the two, where each “leap” consists of a series of small chips, and then long periods of dormancy. That might be a cop-out argument, but I’m just spitballing here.

      But now that the record has once again been broken, what do your newest, most updated predictions say?

  6. Pounding Pavements says:

    Great post! Very interesting reading. It may be a way off but I hope I live to see the day we go under 2 hours!

  7. Laszlo says:

    Hi Dan, as others already commented, this is a great post with all the details for pros and cons that you put together here for everyone to digest.

    First of all I think beating 2 hours will happen. I also think that it might come more as a currently unforeseen breakthrough as you also suggested.

    As I was working my way through the various graphs and all the supporting data, I immediately remembered for a Runners World article I was reading two days ago about “Mental muscle” (link to the article:
    Maybe this is the currently unexplored areas which will bring great improvements.

    I think that such new training methods will still need a currently unknown Usain Bolt of long distance running comes along who will seemingly easily tackle this enormous challenge and will cross the Finish line in less than two hours with a big smile on his face.

    This might also answer your “dreamer or scientist” question. I tend to swing back and forth between the two. When I see great progress I become a dreamer. I even see myself qualifying for Boston (still to run my first ever Marathon: less than three weeks…) When days are tough, I tend to be more scientific and look for trends in my short running history to demonstrate myself that I am getting better and with a more focused effort I can get to Boston. Obviously there is still a long way for me until I will finish a Marathon in 3 hours and that is what sometimes scares me and more times motivates me. And that is where I recognize over and over again that long distance running is as much of a mental as a physical challenge. That is why I find that “Mental muscle” article very interesting.

    In the meantime I will still try to set our treadmill to the fastest speed setting every once in a while trying to simulate anything close to the pace the elite runners “fly at” and see how much longer I can even keep going at that speed. At first, I was not able to run at 12MPH. Now that at least I can switch to that speed without the fear of the treadmill spitting me out is already a sign of improvement. As long as I can see continuous improvements in my own running it will serve as a constant reminder for me that other fellow runners can and will be better as well with every step with every training run.

    And one of us will break the two hours still in my lifetime. We have some time as I plan to live for 300 years… 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading and for the enthusiastic comment, Laszlo. Your thoughts are appreciated as usual. I picked up Runner’s World a few days ago and read the article you quoted — it was really interesting how brain fatigue can translate into physical exhaustion. I wonder if the top elite athletes work some sort of mental regimen into their training plan and then race completely fresh, without a care in the world (except, you know, running 4:44 pace for 26.2 miles).

      Which marathon are you running? You must be going through your taper right now, so I hope everything goes well. Eat well, cut down on the running and enjoy that magical first marathon — you only get one!

  8. Wow! What a great analysis! I have read other article about this subject but none quite as thorough (or as well written). Kudos! I like to think that it is indeed going to happen in my lifetime but I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of what it would actually take, physically. Having struggled with my own lofty goals, I know the sort of perfect storm (and/or scientific ingenuity) it would take. In the future, as science progresses in the way of rebuilding/recovering the body faster and more efficiently, I see a world where we aren’t as limited by our physicality. The way I see it, this will open up for a host of new firsts, in every sport, eventually.

    • Dan says:

      What’s remarkable about running is that 99% of the world can do it. So when you sit down to contemplate what it takes to run what any major race would call a “slow” marathon of 2:15, it makes your legs buckle just thinking about it. Unlike, say, squatting or flying an airplane, we have no idea what goes into that. If someone tells me they can bench press 300 pounds, sure, that impresses me, but I can’t really wrap my head around the effort.

      But almost everyone knows their mile time.

      I ran a 5k last weekend in 19:50 and was dying at the end (haven’t done much speedwork this summer). And that was just a 6:24 pace. For 3.1 miles. It’s insane.

      Anyway, that was a big digression. Thanks for the comment Jeff — your insight is always appreciated. Best of luck with these last eleven days. Look for me on runner’s left on the 13th with a big Costa Rican flag.

      • Sweet! Will do. What mile marker-ish will you be waiting with that flag? I’ll be dressed in fluorescent yellow, hopefully sticking with the 1st 3:10 pace group. See ya after hopefully for beers and pizza!

  9. Pingback: Running’s final frontier: Mind games and the Neur-orld Order | Blisters, Cramps & Heaves

  10. Jen says:

    I do think we will break 2 hours at some point in the next 10-20 years. Like you and others have stated, I think it will take a combination of natural talent and the perfect conditions (course, weather, field) to get there. From my own personal experience, the longer the race, the more factors get tossed into the mix — mental and physical breakdowns, heat/rain/wind wearing me down, etc. It’s that black box of unknowns that on race day can make or break you… but it’s also what makes the marathon such an interesting challenge, am I right?

    • Dan says:

      Given how many conditions and X-factors exist in running long distances, it definitely becomes a numbers game. If 40 athletes can run 2:05 or under, then 10 of them will be at peak condition by a certain race date. Of those 10, 5 will probably pick a different race out of intimidation, and of the remaining 5, only 3 of them will taper successfully without any injuries. And that’s just assuming the weather is perfect. I like the optimism though — 10 to 20 years is very little time. Let’s hope you’re right.

      Best of luck with these last 3.5 weeks — MCM awaits!

  11. Great post, thank you for pulling it all together. A very interesting read. It seems with a new world record set in Berlin, we’ve edged a little closer yet to that legendary sub 2 hour marathon! It’s bound to happen eventually.

    • Dan says:

      Very true — you could praise the prescience of my post, even! Especially since the internet has once again exploded with articles about the two-hour marathon. I’d like to say I got mine in before the rush 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  12. Pingback: State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon) | Dan's Marathon

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