Will The 2 Hour Marathon Barrier Be Broken?

The marathon record has recently been smashed by Haile Gebrselassie. Will he or his protégé Kenenisa Bekele be able to lead the world under the 2-hour barrier?

2: 55' 18" John Hayes, USA, 21 Aug 1904, London

2: 52' 45" Robert Fowler, USA, 01 Jan 1909, New York
2: 46' 52" James Clark, USA, 12 Feb 1909, New York

2: 46' 04" Albert Raines, USA, 1909, New York

2: 42' 31" Fred Barett, GBR, 1909, London
2: 40' 34" Thure Johansson, SWE, 31 Aug 09, Stockholm
2: 38' 16" Harry Green, GBR, 12 May 1913, London
2: 36' 06" Alexis Ahlgren, SWE, 31 May 1913, London
2: 32' 35" Hannes Kolehmainen, FIN, 22 Aug 1920, Antwerp
2: 29' 01" Albert Michelson, USA, 12 Oct 1925, Port Chester
2: 27' 49" Fushashige Suzuki, JPN, 31 Mar 1935, Tokyo
2: 26' 44" Yashuo Ikenaka, JPN, 03 Apr 1935, Tokyo
2: 26' 42" Kitei Son, JPN, 03 Nov 1935, Tokyo
2: 25' 39" Yun Bok Suh, KOR, 19 Apr 1947, Boston
2: 20' 42" Jim Peters, GBR, 14 Jun 1952, Cheswick
2: 18' 40" Jim Peters, GBR, 13 Jun 1953, Cheswick
2: 18' 34" Jim Peters, GBR, 04 Oct 1953, Turku
2: 17' 39" Jim Peters, GBR, 26 Jun 1954, Cheswick
2: 15' 17" Sergey Popov, URS, 24 Aug 1958, Stockholm
2: 15' 16" Abebe Bikila, ETH, 10 Sep 1960, Rome
2: 15' 15" Toru Terasawa, JPN, 17 Feb 1963, Beppu
2: 14' 28" Leonard Edelen, USA, 15 Jun 1963, Cheswick
2: 13' 55" Basil Heatley, GBR, 13 Jun 1964, Cheswick
2: 12' 11" Abebe Bikila, ETH, 21 Oct 1964, Tokyo
2: 12' 00" Morio Shigematsu, JPN, 12 Jun 1965, Cheswick
2: 09' 36" Derek Clayton, AUS, 03 Dec 1967, Fukuoka
2: 08' 34" Derek Clayton, AUS, 30 May 1969, Antwerp
2: 08' 18" Rob de Castella, AUS, 06 Dec 1981, Fukuoka
2: 08' 05" Steve Jones, GBR, 21 Oct 1984, Chicago
2: 07' 12" Carlos Lopes, POR, 20 Apr 1985, Rotterdam
2: 06' 50" Belayneh Dinsamo, ETH, 17 Apr 1988, Rotterdam
2: 06' 05" Ronaldo da Costa, BRA, 20 Sep 1988, Berlin
2: 05' 42" Khalid Khannouchi, MAR, 24 Oct 99, Chicago

2: 05' 38" Khalid Khannouchi, USA, 14 Apr 02, London.

2: 04' 55" Paul Tergat, KEN, 28 Sep 03, Berlin.

2: 04' 26" Haile Gebrselassie, ETH, 30 Sep 07, Berlin

2: 03' 59" Haile Gebrselassie, ETH, 28 Sep 08, Berlin

The above list is a chart of the progression of the world marathon record. Some times are included that were set before the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) kept official records; they are the first few at the top and nevertheless have their place in the list.

What makes the marathon so special? For one thing, the marathon is an iconic race. It is the longest foot race run in the Olympic Games, and it is won by legends of distance running. It is also a true test of endurance, and it has historical precedence in the form of the Battle of Marathon, when Pheidippides is rumored to have died upon deliverance of a message after covering a distance roughly the length of today's modern marathon. That rumor has been debunked, however, as it was a legend initiated after the events of the battle. Historical accounts indicate that Pheiddipides went from Marathon to Sparta for the help of the Spartans and actually covered an unthinkable 450 kilometers or more! This is equal to a distance of about 280 miles. Pheidippides covered this distance in about three days! This is quite a feat, and certainly beats out the length of the modern marathon, but it does not change the fact that the marathon got its name from the clash between the Athenians and the Persians around the village of Marathon.

There are some practical reasons for running a distance like the marathon, as well. The marathon introduces a concept not known to most recreational runners or even many highly-competitive runners. This idea, known as "the wall," means that there is a point when the body runs out of carbohydrates to burn during heavy physical activity, and is forced to switch over to burning fat, which is the other major source of energy stores in the human body. Unfortunately, lipids do not burn near as readily as glycogen, which effectively means that muscular effort becomes exponentially more difficult almost immediately after the body flips that switch.

Although this does not happen to every runner every time, it often happens for "first timers" or otherwise inexperienced marathon runners that start off too fast. It can also randomly happen for those that have prepared and trained well for the marathon. Usually, "hitting the wall" happens somewhere between 15 and 22 miles. Although I have not run a marathon as yet, I have done two training runs above 20 miles. The first provides a powerful example of just how bad the wall can be. I did this run about 6 years ago after a season of cross country in high school. I was determined to see if I could run 20 miles, and I wanted to see if I could do it in 8:30 per mile or better. I started off late in the afternoon, around 4 or so. I hit the first ten miles well at an average pace of 8:15. I kept pushing and managed to keep better than 8:30 per mile pace until about 18 miles. Suddenly, I felt like my legs had just quadrupled in size and changed from muscle to lead. I had hit the wall, and my pace showed it. I ran about an 8:30 mile for my 18th, but then a 9:50 and a 10:10 for my 19th and 20th! The pain as I stumped through the last two miles was incredible.

Elite runners are attracted to races of marathon distance precisely because of the unpredictable nature of how the body will react to distances above 20 miles. For example, Paula Radcliffe claimed international fame when she set the current female record of 2:15:25 for the marathon back in 2003. She also received a lot of press for bringing the ratio of the female time to the male marathon record closer than any other event except the 100m dash. Yet in 2004, when she was projected to storm the Olympics, she collapsed by the side of the road in Athens in tears. Sometimes, the body does not cooperate with the marathon no matter how much training is done.

When Derek Clayton of Australia broke under 2:10 in the marathon back in 1967, the world began to wonder if it would be possible for a time barrier the equal of Roger Bannister's 4-minute mile to be smashed: the sub 2-hour marathon. Then, when Moses Tanui of Kenya smashed the 1-hour half-marathon record with a 59:47, people began to get excited about the prospect. In recent history, two extremely capable runners have shown that they may have the capability to push the envelope and breach this barrier. The first is Haile Gebrselassie, visible here: https://knoji.com/haile-gebrselassie-international-distance-athlete-and-ethiopian-statesman/ Haile had a star-studded career and broke over 25 world records (including his own a number of times).His name currently appears in the number 1 and 2 spots on the above list; he currently holds the world record of 2:03:59 from his performance in Berlin in 2008.

At 37, Haile's career is nowhere near over; he turned in a 2:06 victory marathon time in Dubai this year in spite of a back injury. He will be shooting to drop the record as low as he can and win another Olympics or two if he can. However, Haile recently retired from track competition in favor of road racing. His protégé in the 10,000 meters (one of Haile's best events) is 28 year-old Kenenisa Bekele who has dominated the 10,000 meters since 2003. Many believe that he is currently the best distance runner in the world. Bekele eclipsed all of Haile's records; in the 10,000 meters, Haile ran 26:22 while Bekele ran 26:17. Bekele is still a large figure in track and field, and he has a shocking finishing kick that bested even Haile's several times when Haile was still competing in track events.

Haile Gebrselassie is an incredible distance runner, and may be able to push the marathon record under 2:02 before he retires. Haile has perhaps 4-8 more years of prime running before he will begin to slow down. He has shown himself to be remarkably adept at the event, however. The question mark is whether Kenenisa Bekele can duplicate Haile's success in transferring his remarkable cross country and track talent to the road racing of the marathon. If he can, Kenenisa might just be able to pick up that coveted sub 2-hour marathon accomplishment. And, Kenenisa has nothing but time; he has at least 15 strong peak running years available to him to attempt such a feat. Haile ran his marathon in under 4:44 per mile. If either man wants to break 2 hours, they will have to run a blistering sub-4:35 mile pace for 26 miles. The eyes of the world will be on these two Ethiopian champions as they continue to make history. Kenenisa is pictured in the title picture and at bottom, while Haile appears just below the marathon record progression chart.











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