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?