Can a marathon be run under two hours?

The current world record for the marathon in 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in the 2014 Berlin Marathon. This raises the question of whether a marathon can be run under two hours. Although the current record seems tantalizingly close to the two hour mark, it translates into a distance of six-tenths of a mile in a race and that seems so formidable that some suspect that that barrier will never be broken.

An effort is now underway to try and break it under the most optimal conditions possible, which is near the Dead Sea in Israel. This is because it is a “quarter-mile below sea level at the Dead Sea, where the barometric pressure is high” and “there is about 5 percent more oxygen to breathe”.

While there has to be a theoretical limit to all athletic records, these artificially set barriers are unlikely to be it. After all, the four-minute mile was once thought to be unattainable and yet it was beaten by Roger Bannister in 1954.

I well remember Bob Beamon’s feat in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics when on his very first jump, he cleared a distance of 8.90 meters, beating the exiting record by an incredible 55cm. In an event where records are broken by tiny increments, this was unbelievable and people put it down to the high altitude and everything coming together in perfect harmony. It seemed unlikely that those conditions would ever be replicated and I for one thought that the record would be safe forever.

I was wrong. People kept inching closer and closer towards it and finally in 1991, nearly 23 years after Beamon’s feat, Mike Powell broke the record with a jump of 8.95 meters, which remains the world record even today, lasting even longer than Beamon’s.

So I think the two-hour barrier for the marathon will be broken and that the theoretical limit is less than two hours. It may be done in increments or some fortuitous set of conditions may come together, as in Beamon’s case, and the record broken unexpectedly.

According to the above article, “Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, predicted in 1991 that it was possible to finish in 1:57:58. But numerous experts predicted that two hours would not be breached until 2028 or 2035 or even 2041.”


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … people put it down to the high altitude …

    Less of that pesky oxygen getting in the way?

    Approx 1/3000 less gravitational pull than at sea level?

    Why aren’t all these prospective 119min marathoners packing for Tibet?

  2. says

    There hasn’t been a cheat invented, yet. Maybe some kind of blood thickener combined with amphetamines and painkillers followed by a big shot of adrenaline. Or what about someone with prosthetic legs that are unusually long?

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Of course it’s doable. Of course it will be done.

    For one thing: I have never seen a definition of Marathon that excludes by definition the possibility of running it on another planet.

    For another, these “cheats” are possible to replicate (most likely merely in part) by having common metabolic problems occur in accomplished marathoners. Kimetto developing a minor adrenal gland problem can replicate a cheat, and yet how could it actually be a cheat? In fact, Kimetto could already have entered the early stages of such a condition.

    I don’t say this because increased adrenaline is the best way to beat the 2hrMarathon, but as an example that any artificial boost is likely to have a natural counterpart.

    The Bannister-objection (assuming his condition had something to do with breaking the 4mMile) is no objection to the fact that the barrier really is broken. It points out that there would be a cost, possibly the ultimate cost, to be paid for breaking the record, but the record would still stand.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Or what about someone with prosthetic legs that are unusually long?

    This was why I opposed the Olympics decision to allow Oscar Pistorius to compete. Their response was that all the energy for his running is coming from his muscles. But the same is true for bicycle riders, why not allow bicycle use in track running events?

  5. moarscienceplz says

    I think the really interesting thing about Roger Bannister breaking the “unbreakable” 4 minute mile is that once he did it, several people have done it. In fact, the record has been reduced by almost 17 seconds since then. It seems that part of the secret of breaking a sports record might be being confident that it can be broken.

  6. says

    2 hours or 4 minutes are arbitrary limits. We are attracted to them simply because they are round values. But what if we have developed a measurement system where the second was defined slightly differently and turned out to be 1.01 seconds of our current standard?

  7. Smokey says

    Humans are obsessed with numbers, especially round numbers.

    Ten Commandments, despite none of the several instances of them are exactly ten in the bible. I remember reading somewhere that fear-mongers claimed that lungs would explode/implode/collapse/whatever when trains exceeded 100mph, despite passengers sitting in carriages. The record time for the 100-meter dash was long believed to magically stop at 10 seconds.

    Yes, a marathon can in theory be run under two hours, and some day it probably will be. But since the two hours is treated as a magically round number instead of the completely arbitrary limit it actually is, humans treat it as a kind of divine limit.

    Superstition and numerology, the bane of human rationality. We are truly doomed. The world as we know it will end. In exactly 100 years.

  8. komarov says

    I’d think the answer to that question should be, ‘yes, obviously.’ What can be achieved in sports has been inching upwards for milennia and science and technology have played a big role in that. So sooner or later someone with the right (and improved) training, healthcare, athletic support equipment and -- let’s face it -- an effective doping regime will beat the (any) record. And the cycle will keep going while people set new limits that ‘cannot be broken’ until they are. Sure, this has to stop at some point but it probably will continue far longer than anyone can imagine right now.

    Re: Crip Dyke (#3)

    That reminded me of a book by Arthur C. Clarke.* It included a marathon on the moon -- the organisers’ intention was to encourage competitors to design better spacesuits. A minor spoiler: the (narrow) ‘winner’ turned out to be a robot hidden inside a suit; a publicity stunt by its designerss to show off their hardware. The robot was disqualified, but perhaps one day robots will earn the right to compete in moon marathons alongside humans. I, for one, hope they do, not least because of all this would imply.

    *Hammer of God: Not one of his best books but still a good read and hard, nay, rock-solid SF.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @moarscienceplz #5: It also helps that the running surface is now different. In stead of crushed coal or brick, they run on some artificial rubbery stuff.

    Which leads to a question: what limitations are there for the marathon track? Normal streets probably aren’t best for long distance running. Also, can you manipulate the height profile? How about a loop that has a short steep climb, and a long slow downhill stretch where you can roll on easily.

  10. says

    I doubt that running a sub-two hour marathon is possible.

    The world record in the mile is 3:43.13, which works out to 13.87 seconds per hundred metres. Putting aside recent 100 metre records for the moment and using 9.90 as a standard, that means the record in the mile is 40% slower than top level 100 metre runners. (Running a four minute mile requires averaging under 15 seconds per hundred metres.)

    A marathon is 42.195 kilometres. To run it in under two hours requires averaging 2:50.63 per kilometre, or 17.06 seconds per hundred metres (72% slower than the 100m). While that may seem a lot, it requires running consistent times, kilometre after kilometre.

    Then again, Kimetto’s times show that he was consistent. He ran the second half of his best faster than the first half.

    Another thing I question is why marathon times are now called “world records”. For decades, they were only labelled “world’s best” because few (if any) marathons are on courses with no elevation changes.

  11. says

    Pierce R. Butler (#1) --

    … people put it down to the high altitude …

    Less of that pesky oxygen getting in the way? […] Why aren’t all these prospective 119min marathoners packing for Tibet?

    I think you’re getting it backwards or confusing things. Beamon’s record in Mexico city is akin to Coors field and home runs. Less air makes travel through it easier, so breathing is irrelevant.

    Training and living at high elevations for generations and running at lower ones is akin to blood doping. Tibetans, many Peruvians and Ethiopians don’t suffer hypoxia when active at higher elevations.

    When you’re used to thinner air, running in denser air increases oxygen in the blood. Peru has never been a world power in running, but several Quechua people are running marathons under 2:15h. With time, funding and coaching, they might surpass the Kenyans.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    left0ver1under @ # 11: Less air makes travel through it easier, so breathing is irrelevant.

    Well, slightly less relevant, maybe.

    I don’t follow sports of any kind at all, but I do remember reading in ’68 several complaints by coaches & athletes that Mexico City’s elevation was going to cause a lot of problems for lowlanders. Apparently lots of them went there months in advance to acclimate; dunno how it (was perceived to) work out afterwards.

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