Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 03 Jan 2013 06:24:48 -0500



(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the May 2011 issue.)

Marathon & Beyond reader Martin Teas asked a question that’s on many minds: “Although it is often posed as a sort of what-if game, will there ever be a sub-two-hour marathon? I read Purple Runner years ago, and the topic comes up in the plot in a big way. Do you think it is physiologically possible for a man to run a marathon in less than two hours?”

My answer: This quest, if we can realistically say there is one, isn’t at all comparable to the four-minute-mile chase of the last midcentury. Roger Bannister needed to take down that record by just 1½ seconds. A sub-two marathoner would need to slash almost four MINUTES from Haile Gebrselassie’s current mark (which stood at 2:03:59 when this column went to the publisher).

Running 1:59:59 marathon would mean stringing together 4.2 10K’s in 28:20. That time for one of them qualifies a runner for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

A sub-two would, of course, require running back-to-back sub-one-hour halves. Only 15 men in the world ran that fast for even one of them in 2010.

With the expected slowdown of five percent as the distance doubles, a 1:00 half equates to “only” a 2:06 marathon. This formula of multiplying the half-marathon world record of 58:23 by 2.1 is equal to a 2:02:36 marathon effort, still a long way from sub-two.)

Gebrselassie is the greatest all-round distance runner that humankind has produced so far. He’s still those four minutes away from that 1:59:59.

If you’re a 3:04 or 4:04 marathoner, you might think four minutes isn’t much of a drop. But the closer runners come to perfection, the harder the final minutes and seconds are to drop.

Look historically at how long it has taken to shave four-minute increments from the record. The span of time between the barrier-breakings:

First sub-2:20 to first sub-2:16 = 5 years
First sub-2:16 to first sub-2:12 = 9 years
First sub-2:12 to first sub-2:08 = 18 years
First sub-2:08 to first sub-2:04 = 23 years

See the trend. The faster the time becomes, the longer it takes to knock full minutes off the record.

In my running lifetime I’ve seen the 2:15, 2:10 and 2:05 barriers fall. But I’ll have to get really lucky in the longevity lottery to be here for a sub-2:00.

UPDATE: A sub-2:00 time seemed to become almost a minute closer between the time I wrote this piece and its publication. I say “seemed to” for reasons that next week’s RC 971 explores.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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