When will a man run a sub-2 hour marathon?

I examined the progressive world record times, and, extrapolating a line of best fit for all times starting from Robert de Castella’s 1981 mark of 2:08.18 (which ended a 13 year drought), I estimate that someone will break 2 minutes around the year 2035. If I use only the records from 1998 (again after a ten year drought), the slope is a bit steeper and I get an estimate of c. 2029. This assumes of course that the factors involved in world record times scale linearly, which they may not.

From the Science of Sport:1:59:59

The only question is whether it will be Jay Garrick or Barry Allen

I know next to nothing about this subject, and can hardly add anything to the excellent article linked to by runner pat, except to say that I think it very unlikely that this will be a linear progression.

Think of the 100m as a simpler example. It seems to me that there is an upper speed limit beyond it which it is not physically possible for the human body to move unassisted. For example, it seems literally impossible for a human, from a standing start, to cover 100m in less than, say, 5 seconds. Given that this is case, there will be some time between 5 seconds and the current world record which it is not possible to go below - say 9 seconds for the sake of argument. Now, given that this lower limit exists, it would seem to follow that it will require a greater and greater effort to get close to this limit, and hence progress towards it will not be linear. Exactly the same argument will therefore apply for all running events, unless there is a flaw in this analysis that I am not aware of.

The only weakness in this argument appears to be in whether or not the first assumption is true, but taking it to its extreme (say 1 second, or 0.1 seconds), it is difficult to argue against, IMO.

One thing about marathons is that they’re outside events, held at specific times, and that they vary in difficulty. So the really flat ones might not have perfect marathon weather for several years in a row. The temperature matters, the wind matters, etc. - it isn’t just the field of runners.

Dead Cat, you may be right, but the 100 and a marathon are two different species. Anyway, the marathon is different because all you need is a runner who can keep up that sub 2 hour pace for the entire race, which means that yes he needs freakish levels of endurance (and optimal training methods too), but I don’t think the final human limit is 2 hours. I’m not sure absolute physical limits apply to the marathon in the same way they do to the 100, which is almost all about pristine mechanics & technique and ideal applications of power. IANA runner tho (disclaimer).

Bolt should have had around a 9.65 if he didn’t showboat across the finish line in the Olympics, FWIW.

One of the major factor in the marathon is glycogen depletion AKA “hitting the wall”(running) or “bonking”(cycling). As you increase running speed and oxygen requirements, you increase the percentage of energy you get from burning glycogen.

One effect of marathon training is the body adjusts to the demands by becoming more efficient and burn more fat at a given effort thus sparing glycogen and allowing that fuel supply to last longer.

This is why some runners can go the full distance without crashing(though they will if they start too fast) where other marathoners still face hitting the wall at about 20 miles. part of this is just the bell curve of natural ability and efficiency.

The potential 2 hour marathoner will need both a very high VO2 max and high efficiency.

World class runners are already running so fast that increasing speed by a very small amount is a large percentage of their current pace.

Current marathon record-2:03:59 2:56.3/km-4:41 mile
Goal marathon record 1:59:59 2:50.8/km-4:34.8
2.2% faster

That’s for a 4 minute drop, the last two marathon records only dropped by 30 seconds each.

As Dead Cat pointed out, as we near physical limits, the rate of improvement slows.

Agreed - my argument was not intended to show that the lower limit on the marathon is 2 hours, just the fact that a lower limit exists, and therefore progress towards that lower limit will not be linear, which was one of the assumptions in your OP. I realise that you stated up-front that this assumption may not be correct - I was simply providing some additional reasoning on that.

I also agree that the 100m and marathon are not directly comparable in terms of technique (and, of course, physique). However, I feel that they are sufficiently similar for the purposes of my argument - the 100m was just introduced as it is easier to “see” that there must be a lower limit.

Agreeing to disagree then. I’ll note the women’s time in the 100 has lasted 21 years now (the late great Flo-Jo), but the men’s curve for the last 20 years has been pretty steep, after being very flat for the previous 20.

You don’t think that there’s a lower limit for marathon times?

Oh, I’m sure there is, but I think it is significantly lower than 2 hours-1:50 maybe, WAG?

I don’t believe that’s possible. A 1:50:00 marathon is run at a 4:12 mile pace-faster than the current 10,000M record for a distance more than 4 times as far.

The marathon record was 2:58 in 1896
Current record 2:03:59
The 10000 record was 30:59 in 1911
Current record is 26:17

The first marathon run at sub 5 minute mile pace(matching the pace for the 10000 record) was in 1967 when Derek Clayton took the marathon from 2:12:00(5:01.8 pace) to 2:09:37(4:56.6 pace). That’s 56 years.

The improvement in the marathon record is mainly due to improvements in training, shoes and nutrition(water and carbohydrates during the race).

In the near term, I’d agree that improvements are going to be very slow, as we’ve definitely reached the point on the curve where incremental improvements are very small.

However, what I think most of you are overlooking is that the definition of “human” running the marathon isn’t well-defined. It won’t be too many more decades before you can add “genetic design” to “training, shoes, etc.” At that point, who knows how much faster we might be able to run.

Oh I wasn’t overlooking the genetic engineering thing at all. But few here would want to open that very hairy can of worms, and the track-and-field powers-that-be would undoubtedly frown very strongly on such, so I didn’t mention it.