The Myth Of The Sub-2-Hour Marathon

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By Robert Johnson
April 25, 2013, Published May 6, 2013

Editor’s note: This was written shortly after the 2013 Virgin London marathon, where the lead men totally blew up after a 61:34 1st half and staggered home to the slowest winning time since 2007. Originally it was going to be part of our the Weekly Recap but it proved to be too long. Then we held it until there was some down time to publish.

Despite the dumb mainstream press articles of a sub-2-hour marathon, the fact of the matter is humans aren’t close to doing it (without the help of some undetectable drugs).

With perfect conditions and a perfect course and a tiny negative split, humans pretty much right now are capable of running the marathon in about 2:03:30 – the world record is 2:03:38 for a reason.

I view marathon times now much the way we view the 5,000 and 10,000 times from the middle to late 1990s. The world records came down a ton in a short period of time but have barely moved since.

During that middle to late 1990s, the world records in the 5 and 10 were obliterated, but they have come down hardly at all since.

At the start of 1994, the 5,000 world record was 12:58.39. By the end of 1997, it was 12:39.74. Now, more than 15 years later, it’s only improved to 12:37.35.

Similarly, at the start of 1993, the world 10,000 record was 27:08.23. By the end of 1998, it was 26:22.75. 15 years later, it’s only come down to 26:17.53.

World Record Holder Patrick Makau

World Record Holder Patrick Makau

Similarly, in the marathon, in the decade from Khalid Khannouchi‘s 2:05:38 in 2002 to Patrick Makau‘s 2:03:38 in 2011, the marathon improved a lot. But I don’t expect the world record to move much from where it is now.

Basically, the marathon is now fully professional, the top athletes are now getting top coaching and training as professionals and the low-hanging fruit is no longer there in terms of world record progression. The world record is pretty much where it should be.

The world records are kind of where they should be relative to each other. Here’s a stat I spent way too much time coming up with last week. Check out the percentage improvement in the men’s 5,000 (12:58.39 to 12:37.35), 10,000 (27:13.81 to 26:17.53) and marathon world records (2:06:50 to 2:03:38) from the end of 1988 to now:

5,000 – 2.7%
10,000 – 2.1%
Marathon – 2.5%

The Marathon Finally Caught Up To The 5,000 And 10,000
If that doesn’t make you feel the world records are where they should be, then listen to LetsRun.com stat man John Kellogg (JK). As I explained last year on the message board, his conversion chart has the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon world records all basically being very close to each other in terms of equivalent performances. JK says a 2:03:38 marathon equates to 12:38.20 for the 5,000 and 26:20.28 in the 10k. And the WR in the 5,000 is 12:37.35 and it’s 26:17.53 in the 10,000.

For a long time, JK thought people should be running the marathon way faster than they were based on the 5,000 and 10,000 times, and now they finally are. But that doesn’t mean they are going to keep getting faster. The marathon is finally where it should be based on JK’s conversion chart from many years ago.

For those of you that think a 2-hour marathon is on the near horizon, consider this: Do you think humans are about to run 12:17.89 for 5,000 or 25:36.15 for 10,000 anytime soon?

I ask that because that’s what a 2-hour marathon is equivalent to for 5,000 and 10,000 according to John Kellogg’s chart.

We are A LONG WAY FROM THAT. 25:36 is the one most easy to grasp. Last year, for the first time since 2006, a human being ran 12:48 for 5,000. Just to run a single 12:48 is incredibly difficult. It’s only been done by 11 humans in history and you want people to do the equivalent of twice as far at the same pace?

Nice try.

We are A LONG WAY from that.

It probably won’t happen in my lifetime and I’m 39. There’s zero chance it happens before I’m 50. I’d be willing to bet anyone all of my eventual monthly social security checks I’ll get in 25 years that it hasn’t happened by the time I’m 65 as well.

Think about it this way. It’s taken 28 years for the world record to progress from 2:07:12 in 1985 to 2:03:38 – so that’s 3:34 in 28 years. The rate of improvement should be slowing down. No way it goes down 3:38 in the next 28 years.

Update May 6, 2013: I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels this way. Ross Tucker of the Science of Sport wrote a piece last week that I just came across. On the sub-two-hour marathon, he writes:

My opinion is different – I told (a colleague) that unless he can figure out how to cryogenically freeze himself and watch London in maybe 80 years from now, he has no hope of seeing that happen!  Even then, I’m not convinced.

I’ve always been a big fan of Ross and the Science of Sport so to see he feels the same way I do makes me feel even more confident in my belief which is something I was already very confident of.

Ross provides the scientific reasons as to why he thinks a sub-2 marathon is a LONG way off at the following link, which I suggest you check out: Pacing, fatigue and the brain.  Lessons from London.

Seeing his piece reminded me I’d never published mine. Ross, thanks for providing the impetus.

Comments? Email me.

Update: Wejo Speaks: I’ll present my argument much quicker. To run under 2 hours in the marathon, one has to average 14:13 per 5km split. The Virgin London Marathon had arguably the best men’s field in the history of marathoning. The field was decimated by strong early pace.  How many 5km splits did they run faster than 14:13?  NONE. The fastest 5km split was the downhill opening 5k and that was only 14:23. For a 2 hour marathon we essentially need 8+ back to back sub 14:13 5ks, and the top marathoners in the world got decimated by a pace where they didn’t even run 1 of these. We’re a long way from a sub 2 hour marathon on a legit course (with the perfect 26.2 mile decline off a mountain you might be able to get one now), barring some radical breakthrough in training (I don’t count wonder drugs).

PS I don’t think anyone has ever split sub 1:01 for a half marathon in a marathon.”

*Share your thoughts on the the 2 hour marathon here.

More: *2012 London Marathon Men’s Recap: 2013 London Marathon Men’s Race: Marathon Gods 1, Distance Runners 0
*2008 London Marathon Recap: Martin Lel Wins Fastest Marathon Ever, Ryan Hall Impresses

Editor’s note: The article initially had a typo. It read. “I’d be willing to bet anyone all of my eventual monthly social security checks I’ll get in 25 years that it hasn’t happened by the time I’m 67 as well.” We changed 67 to 65.


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