Can a marathon be run under two hours?


For the first time, someone has run a marathon under 2 hours and three minutes. Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto achieved this feat over the weekend in Berlin, setting a new world record with a winning time of 2:02:57.

Kimetto’s feat has spurred interest in the question of whether the race can be run under two hours. It is always risky to bet against humans reaching some mark because history shows us that things that were thought to be impossible get done. A century ago, it took almost three hours to run a marathon and today’s times would have been considered preposterous. And yet, there has to be some limit set by biology. The problem is that it is hard to predict what that limit might be.

The science of endurance running is highly complex, but physiologically, there are three main factors which determine how quickly someone can run:

  • their maximal rate of oxygen consumption, known as VO2 max
  • their running efficiency – how quickly they can cover the ground
  • their endurance capability – what percentage of their VO2 max they can sustain.

Opinion among sports scientists varies on exactly where the limit of human endeavour lies.

What will it take to break the two-hour mark?

First, it will need an elite athlete in tip-top condition, probably one from east Africa.

Second, it will need to be on a fast, flat course such as Berlin, London or Rotterdam. Berlin is known as one of the quickest and has produced four world records in the last 10 years.

Third, perfect weather conditions. No wind and temperatures of around 10-15C.

Fourth, decent pace-makers to lead the race and take the elite round at the right speed.

Finally, money.

As the marathon gets closer to the magic mark, race directors will dangle huge financial carrots to incentivise runners to break it. The first person to dip under two hours will run into the record books a very rich person.

People are predicting that it will take another 20 years at least to get under two hours.

Comments

  1. Vicki says

    I’d be surprised if the physiological limit was between 2:00:00 and 2:01:00, because the round numbers are arbitrary.

    There’s just less interest in discussions of “can a marathon be run in under two hours, one minute, and 47 seconds?” even though that’s as good a question as “can it be run in under two hours?”

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    What makes a race a marathon- the distance run or that it is between two points a certain distance apart on public roads? If it’s the distance run, then it’s likely that it would be possible to run a two-hour marathon on a running track now if a big enough reward was available.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    RE #4: It’s the distance, based on that from the Battle of Marathon to Athens. But don’t count on a track time being faster. It would be more monotonous, and thus harder on the muscles and joints taking the beating. A little variety helps to cope with the repetitive fatigue.

  4. Who Cares says

    @Reginald Selkirk(#6):
    The modern marathon has the distance of the first one run in London (1908) with the distance determined by the request of the royal family (start at Windsor end at the olympic stadium). Before 1921 the distance was whatever the organizers wanted. From 1921 on the distance standardized on the 1908 London marathon.

  5. says

    I doubt the two hour mark could be broken without blood doping. This will sound like an accusation against Kimetto and others, but blood doping is rampant in other endurance events like cycling, so it might be in marathon running as well. I have doubts that any world record set after the 1960s has been done clean.

    Reginald Selkirk (#6) –

    But don’t count on a track time being faster. It would be more monotonous,

    A 400m track may be too short and have too many turns, but not a loop of three or more kilometres. A long, looped course could have long turns that don’t stress the runners. I would be easier to create a perfectly flat course over shorter distances, and buildings would offer protection against wind and direct sunlight (barring the “heat island” effect).

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