Is a Sub-2-Hour Marathon Possible?
Flickr/Randy Le'Moine Photography
From 1988 to 1998—a full decade—Belayneh Dinsamo of Ethiopia held the men’s marathon world record at 2:06:50. In the 14 years since, it has been lowered seven times, to 2:03:38. How soon until the chase begins toward 1:59:59? And when it does, will the man who breaks the barrier be celebrated half a century later, in the manner of Roger Bannister and the sub-4:00 mile? With the fall marathon season under way, TV broadcaster and 1984 Olympian Tim Hutchings of Bannister’s Great Britain and Dick Patrick, former Olympics writer for USA Today, go head to head on the topic.
Dick Patrick: The sub-2:00:00 marathon is coming. After five decades of marathon watching, I think I’ll be around to see it. I hope it’s big news, but it won’t approach the mania of Roger Bannister cracking four minutes. There are now too many distractions for sports fans, who, at least in America, would prefer to watch umpteen replays of a controversial touchdown call in an NFL game than hear about a runner covering 26.2 miles in less than two hours. Especially if, as is more than likely, the runner is non-American.
For those who care, however, the two-hour barrier is special, a holy grail. That’s averaging sub-4:36 per mile. Incredible. If we could get those millions of marathoners with aspirations to break four hours to marvel and care about someone running twice as fast, then the sport would be healthy. But that’s another topic. I remember when Derek Clayton’s world record of 2:08:33 lasted from 1969 to 1981. The question then was whether 2:08 could be broken. There have been 60 sub-2:08 marathons this year alone so far. We’re in an incredible era.
Tim Hutchings: My views are in stark contrast to yours on this, Dick. I’m absolutely of the belief that two hours for the marathon won’t be broken—not by a “clean” runner anyway—because at last the event has reached a mature stage. The planet’s been scoured for talent, and we’re talking a “maturing” to get down to 1:59:59 that really would put the emphasis on “incredible” in this “incredible era” you’ve described.
I see no point in beating about the bush on the issue: What with the ongoing revelations in cycling and those I believe are, sadly, going to come from our own sport in the near future, the chances of incremental improvements in the next 10 to 20 years adding up to more than, say, a minute, are virtually nil. And if they did, big deal; the runner would still be nearly a kilometer from the finish as two hours clicked by. I just struggle to see how such a time might be achieved, because improving from 2:08 to 2:04, for example, is just not like improving from 2:04 to 1:59:59. It’s just not comparing like with like.
Where is the significant slack in the legal training systems currently being employed? We’re talking almost a mile faster than the current record, over seven seconds per mile faster than Makau’s 2:03:38. We’re talking about a huge step forward from the current times being run by the very best guys. The improvement is like someone coming out and running a 3:35 or 3:36 mile on the track, roughly a seven-second improvement on the current world record. Or an 800 meters in 1:37. I believe both Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat—a pair of wise old heads—are both on record as saying they don’t think it’s possible. And statistics aside, that’s good enough for me.
As for the “Bannister effect” of a sub-2:00:00 marathon, nothing can match that magic of 1954.
DP: There are a lot of others in your camp, including Bill Rodgers. So I’m battling a lot of people whose opinions I respect. In this matter, I’m throwing out the logic that you mention of the necessary improvement. To me, the 2:03 threshold has been reached. Yes, that’s still a long way from 2:00 or better. I don’t agree that the talent has been scoured. There’s still a lot of talent in the Rift Valley that may not have been tapped. Maybe we’ll see some more prospects emerging from Uganda after Stephen Kiprotich’s victory in the Olympics. How many unknown talents could there be in Eritrea? What if China undergoes a running boom?
I’m not convinced that training has been maxed out, either. There might be some developments in exercise physiologists’ research that could help the training or nutrition for the marathon. But I think the biggest boost will come from so many athletes running so fast. That sort of competitive incubator makes for an atmosphere that defies reason. You throw logic out the window and prepare to be amazed. You get a youngster with the right genes, get him with an innovative coach, find a field/course/conditions like at Boston in 2011 and who knows what will happen?
TH: Well, the 2:03 barrier is in sight but I wouldn’t say it’s been reached, not even on the point-to-point, downhill, wind-assisted Boston course of April 2011—which, let’s just re-emphasize, is not valid for recognized records. For sure, Makau’s record will get chipped away at, perhaps in Frankfurt later this month. But it will be “chipping,” and I don’t think we’ll see a 30-40 second improvement again, much less a minute or more.
When I said “the planet’s been scoured for talent,” I guess I should have qualified it: Undoubtedly there’s more undiscovered talent out there. And I agree that when one gets a pack of runners pushing a barrier, one of them will eventually break through it, and that’s why the record will be improved occasionally in coming years. But three and a half minutes? Is there a new talent, or “super tribe” out there in the Ugandan or Tanzanian or Eritrean wilderness? Or anywhere in China for that matter? I don’t think so.
I’m trying to work with “knowns” rather than “unknowns” when forming an opinion on this, but while there may be a bit of slack to be taken up in training knowledge and techniques, while a David Rudisha-like youngster is probably out there running a few miles to school and back in Africa or Mexico or China or the Andes, he’ll not have a heart the size of a basketball. Rudisha, who is the big talent around at the moment alongside Usain Bolt, would have to run 1:36 or 1:37 for 800 meters to make the equivalent jump to a sub 2:00:00 marathon and, at the moment, he’s busy figuring out how to run sub-1:40. I remain to be convinced this will happen in my lifetime; after that, I certainly won’t have a vote.