Why the two-hour marathon is possible

A sub-two-hour marathon might seem unbelievable, but have no doubt – it will happen one day

Patrick Makau (Mark Shearman)

When Paula Radcliffe ran 2:15:25 for the marathon in 2003, I was sitting in the London Marathon media centre next to Mel Watman – the former editor of Athletics Weekly and one of the most respected statisticians and journalists in the sport. Watman shook his head in amazement and told me that half a century earlier, when Jim Peters became the first man to run under 2:20 for the marathon, it was absolutely inconceivable that a woman would ever finish a marathon in one piece let alone in a time quicker than the best men of the day.

Of course it happened, just like most things eventually happen in athletics. Barriers are there to be broken and the human body is capable of “impossible” things. It is part of the beauty of our sport.

Given this, I am surprised that so many respected athletics experts and former athletes such as Tim Hutchings refuse to believe that the sub-two-hour marathon will be conquered – this century at least. Some of these doubters grew up during the period when Peters became the first man to break the 2:20 barrier, when the women’s record was outside 3:30 and when many people genuinely believed it was physically impossible to breach the four-minute barrier for one mile.

In more recent times we have seen Usain Bolt sprint to so-called “impossible” performances in the 100m and 200m. The men’s marathon world record has also tumbled down. But the pessimists remain unconvinced.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not think it will happen soon and none of the current great Kenyan marathoners such as Wilson Kipsang, Patrick Makau or Geoffrey Mutai have a chance. But I do think it will happen sometime in the future. Never, as they say, is a mighty long time.

Yes, the pace needed is frightening (2:50/km). But if you showed the current world record pace to athletes from the 1970s and 1980s, I am sure they would have also laughed in amazement.

I believe, though, that there remains lots of room for improvement. Right now, the best athletes are plucked from the hills of East Africa. They are usually given some guidance by a European coach and then thrown into road races where they sink or swim.

Their path so far to the current world record of 2:03:38, plus the 2:04-06 performances that have become common place, has been mildly chaotic to say the least.

Take the Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah, for example. He could very well be a future world record-holder for the marathon, but his career has unraveled in a relatively random fashion – from childhood in Somalia, to his teenage years kicking around a football in England, from one coach to another, to eventually hooking up with Alberto Salazar in the United States.

I have no doubt Farah’s diet, sleep, footwear, training etc are currently monitored with huge diligence and detail by Salazar and his team. But until the past few years – and certainly during his junior years - I’d guess that Farah’s attention to diet was pretty casual, he possibly wore whatever shoes he fancied and probably entered the same grassroots races as his pals.

How much faster would Farah have run if his career had been master-minded from birth with the same kind of Salazar-esque detail that we see today? Taking things one step further, imagine if the children of two world-beating Kenyans like Moses Mosop and Florence Kiplagat, or Tirunesh Dibaba and Sileshi Sihine, were nurtured from birth with only one goal in mind – to run as fast as possible over 26.2 miles. They would have an ideal diet and environment from day one, not to mention the kind of “hunger” for success that is so important.

No stone would be left unturned. Then, imagine a futuristic race organiser laying out a pancake-flat route with the kind of super-fast, synthetic surface that we currently find on athletics tracks.

Of course, this is guesswork and no one can ever predict exactly how the improvements will come about for the two-hour barrier to fall. In much the same way, when the first tadpole crawled out of the water in prehistoric times, there is no way it could have known its croak would one day evolve into all the languages of the world. But it did evolve, just as male marathoners will evolve.

Even then, it might take several generations of improvements as we creep gradually toward the two-hour barrier. The feat, when it is done, might also come from outside Kenya (perhaps future marathons will be dominated by South Americans, Indians or Chinese in the same way that Finns and Brits used to dominate proceedings). But one thing is sure – one day it will happen.

During my short time on this earth, after all, I have seen similar improvements already. As a teenager in the mid-1980s I saw Steve Jones set the world record of 2:08:05. Since then the record has come down by 4:43 and so it “only” needs a further 3:38 to achieve the so-called impossible.

» Jason Henderson edits Athletics Weekly and tweets at @Jason_AW

11 Responses to “Why the two-hour marathon is possible”

  1. Tim Hutchings says:

    I can't resist responding as I'm name-checked in this article by Jason. Nothing in this article leads me to change my mind; no evidence is offered other than an opinion that it "will" happen. I guess my position is no different – it's my opinion that two hours for the marathon won't be broken – but while no-one may remember our predictions in a few years' time, it makes for a fascinating debate right now!

    In essence, my position is this – I believe no human being, adhering to the rules of the sport as they currently stand in regard to marathon route design and particularly in regard to drugs, will break 2 hours for the marathon. To compare the difficulty of improving by the required 3m 39s to get down to 1:59:59, with the previous improvement over that many seconds, is disingenuous. Every second of improvement from here on, is going to be much tougher to make than say those seconds between 2:10:00 and 2:05:00. At the speeds we're talking about, it is over 3/4 of a mile faster than the current record. It's like asking David Rudisha to run 1:37 for 800m – when he's currently trying to figure out how to get near 1:40; it's like expecting the current men's mile record to go down to 3:37 when no-one gets anywhere near the current record of 3:43.

    Without getting in to too much legally sensitive territory, one also has to look at how some of the current records in Athletics were set. The worlds of elite cycling has been torn apart by the Lance Armstrong revelations – but actually, the world has known for years that top cyclists were cheating. There is not the same smoking gun in distance running, apart from the fact that dozens of top distance runners – and yes, some of them Africans (current and former Moroccans in particular) – have been busted for taking EPO and using other illegal "aids" that have been mentioned regularly in the recent cycling revelations. So let's not beat about the bush; I don't think two hours will be broken without the use of substances and methods that are currently banned. I haven't even mentioned the pending revelations from east Africa that threaten to call much of what we've already seen in to doubt.

    Come back to this issue when someone is say, within half a mile of two hours, or maybe within a minute of it. Then I might start to believe it's possible. Until then – and I won't be holding my breath – it remains in the realms of fantasy for me.

    Tim H

  2. Alex800 says:

    It is also worth noting that the 5000m and 10,000m world records have not been touched for and seven and six years respectively, be it for whatever reason. For a sub 2 hour marathon to be viable, we'd have to see nearly a minute's improvement on the current 10,000 record.

  3. Ron Cooper says:

    I beleve the 2 houre Marathon will be broken in the next 25 years, although I will not be around to see it, at 71 in 25 years time I will 96 (so it is possable)

    I belive that the right condition some one in a purple patch and a fair wind it is possable. perhaps with a strait out and back coarse with out any bends and only one turn at half way I am sure it will be done.

    Ron Cooper.

  4. Wex says:

    You have all the potential in the world to not only break a sub 2 hour half marathon but to run faster. :)

    —————————————- http://www.sub2hourhalfmarathon.com/manifesto/sub

  5. Luke says:

    Tim,
    Has population growth been considered? We may add another 3 billion people to the planet in the next 30 years. How might population growth influence the world record progression plot. As the population gets bigger the outliers are going to be further out from the median.

    Luke

  6. Jason says:

    Again, the logic behind this article astounds me.

    Simplistically Its like saying that if evolution takes its course that eventually a man will be able to run the 100 meters in say 2 or 3 seconds. If you subscribe to the above theory on basic 'evolution' you would have to believe the 100m example is possible. Really?. Bottom line is, there simply HAS to be a limit. There has to be a point where it is simply beyond the capabilities of our human body. On that topic, sure training, diet, footwear has evolved a lot in the last 50 years – has the human body? I doubt that. I agree with Tim Hutchings, when I think about sub 2 I think of the only way it conceivably happens is 60.30 then say 59.2XXX. Given the complete meltdown that happened in London after a 61.30 opener, again I agree – it just seems like pure fantasy.

  7. Ralen Gupp says:

    Apparently the author doesn't understand what an asymptote is. That's ok. Math is hard for some people!

  8. Dewayne Miner says:

    Apparently I'm a late comer to this discussion, but thought I might join in. I would totally agree with Tim H. There is no doubt in my mind that the current world records for the 1500, mile, 3000, 5000, and 10,000 were done using at the very least EPO, which is why we haven't seen anyone come close to those records since the mid 1990s as performance enhancing drug testing has gotten tons better. Therefore I have to question if the current world record in the half marathon and marathon were done using EPO and other performance enhancing drugs. The evolution thing is totally bogus in my belief system as a God fearing man who believes that "In the beginning God created." Do I believe that God could cause a baby to be born that would be capable of a sub two hour marathon? Absolutely, but as Tim said "I won't be holding my breath." The avenue of logic just tells me no.

    Dewayne Miner

  9. Joaquin says:

    I believe any thing is possible .

  10. Bob says:

    I believe the 2 hour marathon will fall sooner than most expect. Purely cause Kipsang still looked in decent shape at the finish line, I think he has a better in him, maybe not a sub 2 but he can break his own record.

    It all comes down to whether or not anyone is willing to go out from the start to break the record instead of settling for a win.

  11. Jeff Connor says:

    Doesn't it depend on where the marathon is being held and how hilly and/or windy? If we are thinking of potential records I always think of Lopez at Rotterdam in 1985 which seems the ideal place.

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