With Geoffrey Mutai’s world best of 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds in the 2011 Boston Marathon and Patrick Makau’s world record of 2:03:38 in the 2011 Berlin Marathon, men’s distance running suddenly seems a place of limitless possibilities. Or, at least, a place where a sub-2 hour marathon is entirely possible.
Consider it the next marathon frontier.
Now, consider what it will take to get there — an average pace of 4:34 per mile. While the thought is staggering, coaches, race directors, agents, and elite male marathoners see two hours as a breakable barrier. Some see it happening soon — five, maybe 10 years. Some see it taking another 20 years.
‘’It will basically take a lot of guys going for it, pushing each other and taking risks,’’ said Ryan Hall, who ran the fastest marathon time by an American (2:04:58) at last year’s Boston race. ‘’I also think it will take a number of small steps. I think first someone needs to crack 2:03, then 2:02, then 2:01. It might take some time, but it will happen.’’
Added former American marathon record-holder Bill Rodgers: ‘’Maybe it happens in 10 years. It’s not like the four-minute mile where they were knocking on the door. I don’t see us knocking on the door. I see us still with a long way to go. That’s a large amount of time when you’re running that fast already ... On the other side of the ledger, you can take a look at the fact that there are so many fast half marathoners in the world and marathoners and 10K runners, so they keep pushing each other and the record keeps falling’’
Elite runners are making steady, not exactly speedy, progress toward the two-hour mark. It took 13 years to drop three minutes, from the 2:06:05 run by Brazilian Ronaldo da Costa in the 1998 Berlin Marathon to the 2:03:02 by Mutai. Men first entered the 2:03 range when Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie ran 2:03:59 at the 2008 Berlin Marathon. Then, the fastest marathon time in history didn’t budge until Mutai.
But cut the distance in half and there might be reason to hope for a sub-two hour marathon in the near future. This year, 14 men have finished half-marathon races in less than an hour. All time, the one-hour mark has been broken on more than 100 occasions. And the talent pool of young, fast distance runners committed to the marathon only continues to grow. Still, it will take the right mix of competitors on a fast course with perfect weather conditions to reach the sub-two-hour frontier.
Hall won’t predict when or where it will happen, but he considers the marathons in Berlin, London, Rotterdam, and Boston ‘’all potentials.’’ Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray believes runners are ready to break the two-hour barrier, but he doesn’t think ‘’a bunch of guys are going to get in a pack and push it and by happenstance they’ll run 1:59:59.’’ He wonders if it might take a race director staging a race with men capable of running a sub two-hour marathon and paying them to make an attempt at it.
‘’It’s got to be the perfect course, with the perfect competition, with the perfect weather with the mindset of athletes saying, ‘We’re going after this,’’’ said McGillivray. ‘’I don’t think we need 15 years. I think it just has to be the right circumstance. Maybe it needs to be set up. Maybe it’s not going to happen on its own.’’