SUB-2:00:00? DO THE MATH

Kubrick’s Obelisk

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.

History’s first sub-2:20 man, Jim Peters

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.


7 thoughts on “SUB-2:00:00? DO THE MATH

  1. Completely well versed treatment of the fav topic of distance athletes!

    I wish Toni had posited his conclusion but “hard” profs seldom do. Instead, they leave it to us to do another hill workout!

  2. Fascinating, Michael. However, the ranks of the 10,000m runners are already being emptied into the marathon bin as we speak. 19-23 year olds who would normally spend their early senior division days on the track are no longer doing so. Well, guys like Mo Farah and Galen Rupp are, because they can afford to. But the Diamond League has abandoned the 10,000 for TV time purposes, and the money available even for sub-27 minute performances is insignificant compared to the dollars to be earned on the roads, especially at the marathon distance.

    Accordingly, with young, track valued talent already taking up the marathon, I believe that the progression chart you showed will flatten out more and more rather than continue to decline at a similar rate as in previous decades when the career arc of athletes remained the same.

    Remember, it was only 2006 when Haile became the first man to go sub-4:30 pace for the half-marathon with his 58:55 in Arizona. There is still a ways to go before the sub-2 Hour marathon becomes a reality.

  3. Mr. Reavis,
    I need to differ slightly with one of your statements. “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.” Hayes’ victory began a process that resulted in the I.A.A.F. standardizing the marathon distance at 26 miles, 385 yards (42.195 km) in 1921, and it took several more years for many marathons to comply – Boston moved the start to Hopkinton in 1924, but did not go to the full 26.2 until 1927 (see:
    It might be said that I am nit-picking, but I think you’ll agree that though many races were run at the 1908 Olympic distance, official recognition of that distance did not occur for quite a few years. As something of a historian of Hayes and his rivals of the era, your misstatement is a minor one, but I am always hesitant to allow an error to stand unchallenged, lest Arthur Conan Doyle return to lifting the collapsed Dorando Pietri from the track – perhaps the most common error about that race.
    Thank you for your excellent writing and commentary through the years. I hope you won’t mind this slight correction to your statement.

  4. Thanks for “elucidating” this interesting topic as usual, Toni! My concluding remarks about a sub 2:00:00 time for the Men’s Marathon, somewhere, by someone in the next ten (10) years, are magically 3 words: “WILL UNDOUBTEDLY HAPPEN!”

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