How low can they go? On September 28, 2008, Ethiopian distance-running great Haile Gebrselassie became the first marathoner to break the 2:04 barrier, authoring an astonishing 2:03:59 in the Berlin Marathon.
Gebrselassie himself was quick to say that although he was quite pleased with the world record (and why wouldn't he be?) he thought it might not last long.
"This is just a record and tomorrow someone can break it," he said after the race. "There are so many good runners and I suppose I will just have to run faster."
There is good reason to think he might be right. One only need look at the record progression from the past decade to see that the world record is improving with increasing regularity. Gebrselassie's record marked the sixth time in the past decade it has been improved. Compare that with the entire decade of the 1970s, when the world record was not improved even once.
Is a Sub-2:00 Marathon Possible?
A better question might be this: will anyone approach or break the two-hour mark? Will that happen within a generation? Sooner? Or is it a crazy notion? Years ago, when the idea of a two-hour marathon was proposed, it was quickly shot down by experts. Preposterous, scientists and other experts said. Such a time would never be seen in our lifetimes. Human physiology would simply not allow it.
That made sense at the time, considering that no one had yet to break one hour for the half marathon. Of course, you can't break two hours for the marathon until you break one hour for the half marathon. That barrier went in 1993, when Kenyan Moses Tanui managed the feat. Since then, the mark has been reduced to 58:33 by current Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru.
The world's elite are getting closer to that seemingly unattainable sub-two-hour marathon, aren't they? Look at it this way: as recently as 1985 no one had broken 2:08 for the marathon. In April of that year Portuguese Olympic champion Carlos Lopes ran 2:07:12 in London (at age 38!).
Now that 2:04 has been broken, the record has been chopped halfway to 2:00, from 2:08. Will it be another 23 years until 1:59 is reached? Or will the next four minutes take longer to erase?
No one can say for sure, of course, but the idea is not as crazy is it once seemed. Gebrselassie's countryman Kenenisa Bekele is the current world record holder for 10 kilometers, and has been selected by many as a prospective marathon record holder—perhaps even the man with the pedigree to approach two hours.
His 26:17 for 10K works out to 4:14 per mile for the 6.2 miles. In order to run a 1:59 marathon he would have to average 4:34 per mile. That's 20 seconds per mile slower for a little more than four times the distance. Does that sound doable?
Tanui himself has gone on record as saying he thinks sub-two is possible, based, he says, upon how he felt after running 59 minutes for a half marathon. It's easy to say that after you stop halfway! You can look at the numbers any way you like, but in the end anything will be nothing more than an educated guess.
There are mitigating factors against a sub-two-hour marathon. One is the weather. Everyone knows you need ideal weather for an absolute best marathon, whether it is a personal best or a world record.
A runner can train perfectly and be thwarted by a windy, hot and/or rainy day. In addition, it's not as if you can try it every weekend. Elite runners are pretty much limited to one or two all-out efforts per year.
It should be noted that for purposes of this discussion we are excluding the advantage that might be gained by performance-enhancing drugs or techniques such as genetic engineering. Obviously, altering the human physiology in some fundamental way could have a dramatic effect on one's ability to run the marathon at a high rate of speed.
For human physiology as we now know it, Edward Coyle, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, thinks elite runners possess the right stuff. He suggests a marathoner with a VO2 of 84 ml/kg (a measurement reached by a few of the world's top runners) who can sustain 80 percent of that maximum output could conceivably break two hours for the marathon.
"I expect we're ready for a breakthrough (lowering of the men's record)," said Coyle. "I wouldn't be surprised that in the next five to 10 years someone will run below two hours. The records are soft." Easy for him to say!
Records are strange animals. Just when it seems a mark can't be improved any further, someone comes along to do it. Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt broke the 100-meter world record with ease at the 2008 Olympic Games, leading many to wonder just how fast he might be able to run if he truly went all out.
(Don't worry about Bolt moving up to the marathon any time soon, in case you might be wondering about that; he has already flatly refused to even move up to 400 meters, since it so long!)
At the same Olympic Games, the half marathon record holder Wanjiru won the gold medal in the marathon with a mind-boggling performance, clocking 2:06:32 on a hot and humid day in a pressure-packed Olympic final. Few thought that kind of result was possible, yet Sammy made it look easy.
Who knows? Perhaps the entire 21st century will pass by before the two-hour marathon is accomplished. On the other hand, perhaps a long-distance version of Usain Bolt is growing up somewhere in the world and will unleash his talent on the marathon and make history by breaking the vaunted two-hour barrier.
Just think about it; when that runner is casually asked what his personal best for the marathon is, he will be able to say, "Oh, it's 1..."
Don Allison, from Weymouth, Massachusetts, is the former publisher of UltraRunning Magazine and a founder of Cool Running. He has completed 55 marathons, with a personal best of 2:35. In addition, Don has completed several ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons and cycled across the U.S.A. in 2006.