With an elite field of great endurance runners lining up for the 2015 Boston Marathon, there’s a chance we will see a sub-two hour time. No doubt 1:59:something will be run in Boston someday, the real question is when.
Will this be the year of a sub-two hour marathon? The chances are low. But what if it happens on Boston’s “unofficial” course?
If the world’s first sub-two hour marathon does occur in Boston, not only will it be considered the greatest race since Roger Bannister’s 3:59 mile 61 years ago, but perhaps the greatest athletic feat ever. It will also heat up a controversial issue. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world sports governing body, would not ratify a 1:59 marathon as an official world record on this most famous of marathon courses. The race will forever have the mark of an infamous asterisk. The winner will be hailed as the greatest athlete in history, unofficially, of course. He will, however, officially become very wealthy, and the achievement will spark even more marathon mania worldwide.
But Boston is no stranger to unofficial world and national records. Moroccan American Khalid Khannouchi holds the current U.S. marathon record (2:05:38 in London, 2002), yet Ryan Hall ran faster in the 2011 Boston race (2:04:58), but an asterisk denotes the time is not officially ratified.
The IAAF has ruled that Boston has some unexplained advantage for runners because it is a point-to-point course, and has a net elevation drop. This supposed advantage has never been shown to be accurate, and actually the course has a significant cumulative vertical gain of 783 feet. The 2011 race, won by Geoffrey Mutai won in 2:03:02, was the fastest marathon run up to that point but is not the official world record because it was said to be wind-aided. Ironically, the wind was not even measured on the course but at the airport some distance away.
The IAAF has stumbled over similar issues in ratifying women’s world records. For example, the organization decided to have two: a “mixed gender” record for when men and women run the same course together, and a “women-only” record. Paula Radcliff currently holds both records.
It’s clear the Boston course has no advantages. One just has to look at the winning times there throughout the years and compare them to times from other major marathons such as Berlin, London and others, which consistently have faster times.
A 1:59 Boston Marathon will no doubt bring more questions to the IAAF.
Does the Boston course provide runners with an unfair advantage? Not many who have run this wonderful event would agree it is a fast course, with most no doubt taking the opposing view. Race director Dave McGillivray, however, who has run many marathons over many years, does have his personal best at Boston. But he lives there and runs parts of the course often — that’s a distinct, unofficial advantage. While some elite runners have declined to return to the Boston course because of its difficulty, look for important scientific data to be collected about this race, which may show there is no geographical advantage and, may indeed demonstrate the opposite. This may challenge the IAAF ruling, at least in the court of public opinion.
This year’s Boston Marathon will feature Kenyan Patrick Makau, the only 2:03 marathoner so far in the event. He leads a handful of potential winners. Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, despite less marathon experience, usually a key to success at this distance, seems ready for a great race. By running even mile splits, which can help create optimal running economy, he has the speed (with a 26:37 10K) and endurance (a 58:23 half-marathon) to surprise everyone. Other lead packers will most likely include Eithiopians Tadese Tola and Yemane Tsegay.
On the women’s side, this year’s race features the fastest field in the history of the Boston Marathon with 10 women holding personal best times under 2:23. However, the Ethiopian duo of Mare Dibaba and Buzunesh Deba are the only two who have recently run sub-2:20, with a number of accomplished runners following, including Aberu Kebede, Mamitu Daska and Ejegayehu Dibaba.
Men are inching closer to 1:59. At the 2014 Berlin Marathon, Dennis Kimetto brought us our first 2:02 (and 57 seconds), which was a huge psychological boost to the notion of sub-two hours. Just like Roger Bannister’s 3:59, the first sub-4 minute mile in 1954, some skeptics will hang in there right up to the record itself. (In fact, a handful of scientists actually claim that human performance has hit a plateau and we may not see many more world records.)
The acceptance of 1:59 is a preliminary requirement for its action, and was evident following Berlin. After the race, both Kimetto, and runner up Emmanuel Mutai, who also ran under the previous world mark, were asked about it. The two fastest marathoners in history were clear and confident: “I am expecting a marathon in two hours,” said Kimetto. Mutai agreed, claiming, “Today showed that the time is coming down and down. To beat two hours is possible.”
Some sports scientists predict marathon times of under two-hours, and even well below that level in the future — even sub 1:50s. This means women will ultimately run 1:59 too. For now, it’s clear to increasing numbers of people that a man will run 1:59 in the near future. No one believes it more strongly than a small handful of elite runners who are also capable of accomplishing it. The countdown to 1:59 continues.