A Sub-2 hour marathon?

In September Kenyan Patrick Makau set a new marathon world record of 2:03:38 in Berlin. In April compatriot Geoffrey Mutai had run the fastest marathon ever – 2:03:02 in Boston (though not valid as a world record). Last month in Frankfurt another Kenyan, Wilson Kipsang, ran within 3 seconds of Makau’s record. Runs like these are raising questions about man’s potential in the marathon, and whether the two-hour barrier is now within reach.

Patrick Makau shows off his world record time (IAAF)

What do people think?

  • 2011 Boston Runner-up Moses Mosop (yes, yet another Kenyan) ran a 30k track (75 laps!) world record of 1:26:47 (2:02 pace) in Eugene in June.  He predicted he would run a world record in Chicago, but was feeling only 80% on race day and ran just 2:05. More here.
  • Legends Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe, along with London Marathon director (and former 10000m WR holder) Dave Bedford have all gone on record saying that the two hour marathon is possible within the next 20-25 years. More here.
  • The late 2008 Olympic Marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru said he was capable of running 2:02, but he was killed in an accident before he could show the world what he was truly capable of. More here.
  • Emanuel Mutai, who won this years London Marathon in 2:04:40, believes that sub 2 hours is possible in the next few years, probably by a Kenyan athlete. More here.
  • Geoffrey Mutai (no relation) ran 2:05:06 to win the New York marathon this month – on a difficult course that is reckoned to be 2-3 minutes slow even for elites. Record holder Makau agrees that Mutai is capable of breaking his record.
  • Paula’s 2:15:25 women’s world record, when ‘converted’ to a comparable men’s time is in the 2:00 range – so hypothetically, if Paula was a guy, she could have had a shot at breaking 2 hrs.
  • Scientists have suggested that a genetically enhanced (or perhaps doped?) athlete could run a 90 minute marathon. That’s equivalent to running at current 800m world record pace. More here.

Paula Radcliffe leading the 2007 NYC Marathon (Wikipedia)

Why has the record dropped?

  • Training methods have improved: science has allowed a more precise approach to training. Rather than trial and error, coaches know what will improve performance and recovery and why. However, it’s interesting to note that Kenya and Ethiopia’s world beaters come from decidedly low-tech backgrounds.
  • Gear: Geb himself cited improvements (particularly weight reduction) in clothing and shoes as helping world record progression.
  • Courses: Races, keen to improve their records and thus world standing, will modify their routes to reduce times. Examples include the diversion away from the cobbles around the Tower of London or the carpeting of the old Willis Avenue Bridge in New York.
  • Pacers: The addition of pacers into fast time-trial courses (such as London, Chicago, Berlin or Rotterdam) has led to a drop in times. Each year several races will be rabbited at a speed that will give a possible world record, and a guaranteed fast winning time.
  • Younger Runners: The marathon used to be the last stage on a track athletes career before retiring, often after the age of 30 as they slowed down. Due to the money in big city marathons, it is now common for Athletes to debut in the marathon in their early twenties, when they will recover quickly.

What is physically required to run a sub 2hr marathon?

4:35 pace. Top elites often put 1-2 mile surges in around this pace to drop the pack in a major marathon, but that’s a lot different to sustaining it for the full distance. Physiologically, there are four main factors which determine how quickly someone can run:

  • VO2 max – the athlete’s body’s maximal rate of oxygen absorption
  • Running efficiency – how little energy the athlete expends whilst running
  • Speed-endurance – what percentage of the athletes VO2 max can be maintained
  • Glycogen management – the body’s ability to store and use carbohydrate energy

Geb ran the first sub-2:04 in 2008 (Wikipedia)

What other factors are at play?

  • Money: Geoffrey Mutai earned an estimated $225,000 for his Boston victory (1st prize and course record bonus) not including his appearance fee and any bonuses from his sponsors which are estimated at a similar figure again. He is also guaranteed invitations and high appearance fees at future races. 2008 women’s Olympic champion Constantina Dita-Tomescu has been invited to the London marathon every year since, despite poor performances.
  • Fame: Guys who break big barriers tend to get much more media attention than subsequent faster runners. Roger Bannister (who ran the first 4 minute mile) is much more famous than, say, Hicham el Guerrouj, the current record holder (outside of his native Morocco/the running community, anyway.)
  • Psychology: There could also be a large psychological barrier that prevents runner’s from breaking a record. When in 1954 Bannister broke the 4 minute mile for the first time, it had been seen as near impossible. Immediately after Bannister made it possible, many others followed. we’ve seen the same trend in sub 2:04 marathons in 2011. It’s interesting to note that during this year’s superfast Boston marathon, the front runners didn’t look at their watches. If they had, they might have slowed down, thinking they were over-stretching themselves. In not knowing, they were able to push faster.
  • Fuel: The current world record in the half marathon is 58:23 (4:27 pace), held by Zersanay Tadese of Eritrea. Generally, even an elite runner has a marathon time at least 2.1 times their half-marathon time. So that half marathon world record could in theory equate to around 2:02:30. Interestingly, despite being world record holder and four time world champion in the half marathon, Tadese himself has failed to move up successfully to the marathon. His DNF and 2:12 in his two attempts in London highlight the fueling element that comes into play in the marathon.


The marathon has come a long way in a short space of time, but it still has a long way to go before men are running under 2:00 or 2:02. Young, gutsy runners led by Sammy Wanjiru have made their mark on the marathon, but it is hard to imagine another revolution coming any time soon. I may live to see a 2:02 marathon run, but I doubt I will be around when man breaks 2:00, whenever that may be.

Geoffrey Mutai in NYC:

This slow motion video shows Geoffrey Mutai pulling away from Emmanuel Mutai in the closing stages of the NYC Marathon. This shows his textbook running form – the reason he is the world’s number 1 marathon runner right now.

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One Response to A Sub-2 hour marathon?

  1. gv says:

    this world record is for mutai!!cz they wz thinking non other man run under 2h04′.
    IAAF can comme realised plz..MUTAI IS VERY STRONG THAN OTHERS..think about N Y marathon…

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