Is a 2-hour marathon possible?
The 2-hour marathon is arguably the single most captivating barrier in distance running. The current popularity of marathons ensures this, as does the round figure of two hours. A two-hour marathon would see the constituent 42.195 kilometres covered in a sizzling 2:51 apiece, or 4:35 for 26.2 miles. The current record, of course, is 2:04:55, set three years ago by Paul Tergat.
Tergat has been asked numerous times about the possibility of a 2-hour marathon, and has emphatically denied it every time. Asked prior to the recent New York Marathon, he remarked, “Take it from me; it’s impossible.” Tergat pointed out that the second half of his record-breaking marathon at Berlin was run in 61 minutes. To run two consecutive half marathons each a minute faster than that second half, he feels, is beyond the human body. “I could hardly walk after that,” he said.
It is in the last two sentences, of course, that the appeal of the marathon lies. To discover what the human body can do and to race it to the point where even walking is impossible is the reason why millions around the world pay for the experience every year.
Tergat’s dismissal can be attributed to his title as the fastest marathoner ever. It is natural for him to see a 5-minute improvement on his record as being unfathomable. He is right, but only partially. While a 2-hour time is not within the grasp of any of today’s competitors, or even anyone alive today, it is certainly within the realm of possibility.
Taking 5 minutes off the current record will certainly not be easy. Though the first marathon under 2:10 was run by Australian Derek Clayton in 1969, Tergat is only 70 seconds faster than Ronaldo da Costa’s 2:06:05 from 1988. Moreover, just five men ran a half marathon in less than 60 minutes this year on an unaided course.
Nonethless, the most compelling argument in favour of a 2-hour marathon comes from the man who finished behind Tergat at Berlin. (Sammy Korir ran 2:04:56 that day, himself shattering the world record by 42 seconds. The performance was hardly expected of him. His 2:08 from 2002 was only the 18th fastest of the year and there was nothing to suggest that the 32-year old rabbit had a 2:04 marathon in him. However, perfect conditions coupled with financial incentive spurred Korir to continue on a world record pace.
It seems overly reductionist to suggest that a breakthrough in marathon times will be produced by a mere change in attitude. More plausible is the argument that marathon performance has not been optimized to date. Weather and pacing are obvious factors, demonstrated by Tergat and Korir at Berlin. Running on a cool, windless day side by side for most of the race produced a fantastic time for Tergat, but especially Korir. Recent marathons have either been stunningly accomplished fields concerned only with each other and not the clock, or with lone assaults on the world record, often on hot or windy days.
One other factor, seldom mentioned, is complete dedication to the marathon. Paul Tergat broke the world record in his third marathon, but he was 34 years old at the time. Renato Canova, coach of several world class runners, says that “when you move to the marathon at 32, 33 years old because you are no [longer] able to run fast on the track, it’s possible to run a good marathon, but not your best marathon.” Continuing to speak somewhat audaciously, he said that “I’m sure maybe five, eight people can run a marathon in under 2:04.”
The only catch, as Canova puts it, is that “when you go to the marathon, you go.”