The Lure of the 2-Hour Marathon

Posted by Filed Under: Elite Running

elite runningIs 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.”

About Adeel

Adeel is a 21-year old student living in Canada. He has been running for eight years and has personal bests of 17:44 for 5k, 36:38 for 10k, 1:26 for a half marathon and 3:10 for a marathon.

  1. Is a two hour marathon possible? « Run to Win » on January 10th at 7:45 pm

    […] Adeel poses yet another interesting question over at the Complete Running Network when he asks, “Is a 2-hour marathon possible?” It is a great question, and I believe that the answer is yes. Somebody will sooner or later run a 2 hour marathon. The question, however, is how legit of an effort will that be. Paul Tergat, the current record holder at 2:04:55, does not believe it is possible. However, he is in his 30s and ran an amazing race. Who is to say that some stud in his mid to late 20s will not find some way of breaking the barrier? Roger Bannister had never seen a mile run in under 4 minutes before. […]

  2. Mark Iocchelli on January 10th at 8:07 pm

    Once upon a time people thought your heart would explode out of your chest if you managed to exert yourself to a four minute mile.

    Flash forward to 1999 and the record for that distance is 3:43:13 and El Guerrouj hardly looked winded (ok, maybe a bit).

    I’d say it’s possible – even probable based on the fact that most records are eventually broken.

    I bet in my lifetime the 2:00 mark will be broken a few times.

  3. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on January 11th at 7:35 am


    It will be like the mile. Once it is done once, it will probably happen a few times in quick succession.

  4. How fast could Super-Tergat run at St. George? at Of Marathons and Maps on January 11th at 9:13 am

    […] Personally, I’ve always been optimistic that the men’s marathon record would be improved by several minutes still. It would seem that given enough training improvements, enough time, and enough prize incentive, that eventually someone would come along and break the 2:00:00 marathon barrier. Adeel speculates similarly on the Complete Running Network. For the record, 2-hour pace comes out to about 4:34/mile, but hey, didn’t people once say that the 4-minute mile was beyond human limits? And if a million moneys could type Hamlet over enough time, surely someone will break 2:00:00 at some point. […]

  5. Adeel on January 11th at 9:26 am

    I bet in my lifetime the 2:00 mark will be broken a few times.

    You’re probably right. One thing I should’ve mentioned is that Tergat’s record attempt was really rare. Most attempts at records over about a mile are tough since they’re solo. Kenenisa Bekele ran 26:17 running by himself for the last 4-5 km.

    There probably isn’t as much interest in a 2:03 marathon as there is in assembling very high-quality fields such as the one announced every year for London.

    I’m inclined to agree; I’d much rather see Tergat, Gebrselassie, Baldini, Khannouchi, Limo, Gharib et al trying to win a marathon. World records are nice, but it’s really all about the races.

  6. Adeel on January 11th at 9:30 am

    Er, one thing I should’ve mentioned is that world record attempts themselves are rare. No one’s out there trying to run 2:03, though I think that watching Korir run 2:04 should make a lot of guys think that they can do better.

    Evans Rutto ran 2:05:50 in his first marathon. Felix Limo ran 2:06:14 in a wind tunnel. The financial incentives are there, but it’s easier to just try and win a major marathon.

  7. Mark Iocchelli on January 11th at 9:47 am

    Blaine and Adeel,

    I agree.