When will somebody run a marathon in less than two hours?

Apr 15, 2011
Outside Magazine

No runner has broken the two-hour mark, but the old record of Gebrselassie has been smashed. In September 2011, Kenya's Patrick Makau ran a 2:03:38 on the streets of Berlin. The next best time was set by Kenya's Wilson Kupsang at Frankfurt in 2011.

Ethiopia's Haile "Geb" Gebrselassie ran the fastest marathon ever (2:03:59) in September 2008 on the sunny streets of Berlin. (Eight of the ten fastest marathons have been run in Berlin or Rotterdam, home to flat, low-altitude courses.) Since then, nobody's come close to beating that time—the next best is a 2:04:27 run by Kenya's Duncan Kipkemboi Kibet at Rotterdam in 2009—and most experts think it will be a while. Running a marathon four minutes faster would require putting down 26 con-se­cutive four-and-a-half-minute miles—a feat that "will not be achieved in my lifetime by an athlete who is clean and not genetically modified," says Timothy Noakes, a sports-science professor at the University of Cape Town and the author of Lore of Running.

Elite runners tend to perfect their 10,000-meter time before advancing to marathons, and a fast 6.2 miles on a track often translates to a fast 26.2. (It's no coincidence that Geb held the world record in the 10,000 until 2005.) Once an athlete can run that distance 30 to 45 seconds faster than Geb's time, he might have a shot at a sub-two-hour marathon. But Noakes thinks it's "biologically impossible for the foreseeable future."

It took Kenenisa Bekele, another Ethiopian, seven years to take five seconds off Geb's 26:22:75 record in the 10,000. If this trend continues, 29 to 50 years will pass before the necessary track times are achieved and another few before a sub-two marathon time is recorded. Still, there's hope. "I truly believe it will happen," says running coach and former Olympian Jeff Galloway. "The human spirit is programmed to keep pushing." At 65, however, Galloway, like Noakes, doesn't believe he'll be around to witness it.

*In April 2011, Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, 29, ran the Boston Marathon in 2:03:02. His time receives an asterisk due to the point-to-point nature of the run.

Filed To: Running