Marathon running against the numbers

On Sunday 17th April Emmanuel Mutai broke the London Marathon course record by coming home in a time of 2:04:40. This was less than a minute short of Haile Gebrselassie’s current world record of 2:03:59, but 4min 41secs short of a much talked about barrier in the world of marathon running – the magic sub 2 hour marathon. A hot topic in the running world; runners, commentators, and even some statisticians, are asking if/when will this barrier be breached?

To put into perspective how much of a feat a sub 2 hour marathon would be should it occur:

  • A sub 2 hour marathon requires an average running speed of 13.1mph over the course of two hours
  • Vs. the current world record this would mean finding an extra 0.39mph of speed for the duration of a marathon
  • 13.1mph is over half the top speed of a standard golf buggy
  • At this speed, an athlete would be covering a mile every 4min 35secs – a good amateur runner will average a pace of 7min a mile
  • In the time gap (2.25min) between these paces, at sub 2 hour marathon pace, 843 meters would be covered

Having put this all into context, it becomes clear why there are those who doubt if a marathon can ever be run in under 2 hours. However, ‘never’ is a dangerous word in sports. There was a time when many felt a sub 10secs 100 meters would never be run and when a 4min mile was nothing but a fantasy.

The sensible school of thought dictates that eventually a sub 2 hour marathon will be achieved – but don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. In the last 41 years the marathon world record has only fallen by 5min 29secs – on average decreasing at a rate of 25secs per record breaking run, with record attempts since 1970 occurring on average every 3 years 1 month. At that rate, the sub 2 hour mark will not be breached until 2058!

There is also the small matter of someone physically running a sub 2 hour marathon. We can re-contextualise Haile Gebrselassie’s thoughts in terms of game theory. For the outcome of the game (the marathon) to be desirable (completion in under 2 hours) all of the players in the game (factors involved in running) need to be perfect.

  • Most importantly, the runner will need to be an elite athlete in top shape
  • The course must be fast and flat – most likely Berlin – home of the last 4 marathon world records
  • The weather conditions must be perfect – no wind or extreme temperatures
  • Solid pace makers will have to be deployed to take the record breaker round at the right speed

Hopefully, all of the above will occur sooner rather than later, defying the law of averages. London 2012? Unlikely according to the statistics and the experts, but here is to hoping!