Every year or so, the talk of the 2-Hour Marathon rises like some Kubrickian obelisk heralding the coming of a new age. Most recently, NYRR featured a Head to Head between English commentator Tim Hutchings and ex-USA Today scribe Dick Patrick – and, boy, don’t we miss his presence at the national rag? In Dick’s heyday in the 1980s through the 2000’s, each of the American marathon majors in Boston, Chicago and New York City would receive a full-page sport’s section preview with course map, athlete bios, and pace charts in the Friday edition before the race. This past October 5th USA Today printed not one word about the marathon in Chicago. It’s another striking confirmation how a once vibrant sport has been sundered by flatulent fun-run and charity fund-raising spectacles.
In any case, the 2-Hour Marathon. Dick thought it would happen in his lifetime. Tim thought not. I like numbers. Let them tell the tale.
Since Johnny Hayes ran 2:55:18 at the 1908 London Olympic Games to win the gold medal, the marathon distance has been officially recognized at 26 miles, 385 yards, or 42.195 kilometers. In the 104 years since, Mr. Hayes’ mark has been “officially” improved upon 37 separate times. Performances like Alberto Salazar’s 2:08:13 from NYC 1981 and Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 from Boston 2011 have come up either short on re-measurement, or deemed ineligible for record purposes due to point-to-point course layout.
So let’s stick with the officially recognized 37 world record improvement down to today’s 2:03:38 set in Berlin 2011 by Kenya’s Patrick Makau.
The largest single drop in the record came in February 1909 when James Clark of the U.S. ran 5:53 faster in New York City than Robert Fowler of the U.S. had in Yonkers one month before. Since then, the next largest lop off the old mark – what we might call in “modern times” – was when Jim Peters of Great Britain ran 2:20:42 at the famous Polytechnic Marathon in June 1952, thereby chopping 4:57 off the mark set by Korea’s Suh Yun-bok in Boston in April 1947 (2:25:39). Until Mutai’s stunning run in 2011, Suh’s was the lone world best men’s record ever run in Boston. Seems course layout didn’t matter so much to record keepers back then.
Reducing a 2:25:39 to 2:20:42 represents a 3.4% improvement. However, the last 11 world records have all been much less than 60-seconds under the previous mark going back to Derek Clayton’s disputed 2:08:34 (short-course run just once for a highway dedication in Antwerp 1969). Clayton’s 2:08 was 63-seconds better than his own previous record 2:09:37 from Fukuoka, Japan 1967 (BTW, history’s first sub-2:10).
In fact, the last several records have shaved the previous best by just 21, 27, 19, 43, 4, and 23 seconds, going back to Khalid Khannouchi’s 2:05:42 in Chicago 1999. Meaning in the last 13 years, even as more and better athletes, improved training, diet and increased compensation have all been introduced to the game, the mark has come down by just 1.6%.
To get down under two-hours would require another 2.95% reduction off today’s record, or 3:39 in time. If we add 2.95% to today’s 2:03:38 record, we get a time of 2:07:17, or just 5-seconds slower than Carlos Lopes’ world record from Rotterdam 1985, 27 years ago.
What we witnessed in Berlin this past September 30th was arguably the best marathoner in the world, Geoffrey Mutai, missing the current mark by 34-seconds due, in part, to faulty pacing and an overly aggressive stretch between 30 – 35Km.
Given the utter unpredictability of weather, the limited number of courses with record potential, and the fine line between peak fitness and injury, what are the odds that a record now being assaulted by younger, stronger, more resilient athletes will be bettered within the next 30 years by nearly 3% when it has taken more than a generation for the record to come down by a similar amount, and with that last three records scraping a mere .002, .003, and .002 from the previous records?
Don’t you just love math? Tell the presidential candidates and Congress to do some.