In the last quarter-century, humans have become significantly better marathon runners, and in 2011, when Patrick Makau set the current world record of 2:03.38 in Berlin, the Kenyan superstar’s time marked a 2.5 percent improvement on what the benchmark had been in 1988 (2:06:50).
Makau’s performance was enough to get fans and commentators buzzing about the possibility of the sub-two-hour marathon, the sport’s holy grail. While some believe it’s an achievable goal, number-crunching experts are less optimistic.
“Despite the dumb mainstream press articles [about] a sub-2-hour marathon, the fact of the matter is humans aren’t close to doing it (without the help of some undetectable drugs),” writes Robert Johnson in a piece for Letsrun.com.
Johnson makes his case by comparing the marathon to the 5000- and 10,000-meter track events. In both of those races, he says, world records were “obliterated” throughout the 1990s, but in the last 15 years, they’ve more or less plateaued.
Since 1988, the men’s world records in the 5000 (12:37.35) and 10,000 meters (26:17.53) have come down by 2.7 and 2.1 percent, respectively—about the same as the improvement in the marathon.
Letsrun.com statistician John Kellogg’s conversion charts give further credence to Johnson’s hypothesis. According to Kellogg, a sub-two-hour marathon is equivalent to running the 5000 meters in 12:17.89 and the 10,000 meters in 25:36.15—times that seem highly unlikely, if not impossible, given today’s records.
Only 11 humans have run the 5000 meters in under 12:48, Johnson reports, and in order to hit 25:36.15 in the 10,000 meters, they’d need to maintain that crazy pace for double the distance.
Using data from the 2013 Virgin London Marathon, where elite competitors rocketed out to a speedy 61:34 first half and then faltered down the stretch, Science of Sport writer Ross Tucker reaches the same conclusion.
It’s “inconceivable,” Tucker writes, that a man might run eight consecutive 5000-meter stretches at a 14:30 pace, and yet, to break two hours in the marathon, that’s precisely what he’d need to do.
“A 2-hour marathon is nowhere near imminent,” Tucker writes, adding that those who really want to see it happen ought to cryogenically freeze themselves and come back to watch a race in 80 years.
“Even then,” he writes, “I’m not convinced.”
This story first appeared on the New York Road Runners website.