Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto set a world record at the Berlin Marathon today, covering a distance of 42.195 km (26.2 miles) a whopping 26 seconds faster than the previous record-holder.
Above: Kenya's Dennis Kimeto crosses the finish line in world record breaking time at this morning's Berlin Marathon | Photo Credit: Rainer Jenson/AP
His time: 2 hours, 2 minutes, 57 seconds. That translates to an overall pace of under 4:42 per mile (!). Kimetto's performance brings us back (as marathon WR's always do), to the perennial question: Is a sub-two hour marathon finally, really, truly, possibly in runners' sights? Well... let's talk about that.
Kimetto's run today is momentous for a few reasons, not all of which are immediately obvious. After all, he has done more than establish a new world record; he has also become the first person to finish a marathon in under 2 hours, 3 minutes. That he did so by 26 seconds (shaving just shy of a second-per-mile off the previous world-record pace) is also noteworthy; it's the biggest drop in world record marathon time since 2008, when Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie beat his own world-best by 27 seconds. The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the record progression for the last seven years:
It's not just Kimetto's unprecedented time, then, but the sizable difference between it and the previous record, that's interesting. The world's fastest distance runners are now within 3-minutes of a sub-two hour marathon, and while there is reason to believe that the 2-hour milestone will not be reached any time soon, the fact that previous records are being broken not only by as much as they are, by as quickly as they are, suggests that it could happen sooner than some have recently predicted.
For instance: Last year, following runner Wilson Kipsang's then world-record setting performance at the Berlin Marathon, sports scientist Ross Tucker predicted that the 2-hour limit might be broken in around 40 years:
...if the record is broken by 15 seconds each time (I think this is a realistic expectation, particularly as it gets stronger), then one can expect it to happen perhaps once every three years. More likely four or five in the future, but if it were three, then in order to cut another 3:23 off in 15 second intervals, you're looking at around 40 years.
Today, Kimetto shaved off not 15 seconds, but 26; and he did so not after three years, but one. Granted, today was reportedly a beautiful day for running in Berlin. The course itself, as the world record progression clearly shows, is also fast. Was Kimetto's performance today a case of the stars aligning just-so, or a sign that we are closer to a 2-hour marathon than previously believed? Believe it or not, I'm not so sure it matters either way.
I'm inclined to agree with Tucker that talk of a sub-2-hour marathon is probably premature. In the modern era, he writes, a time difference greater than 20 seconds is a big improvement. In other words, he notes, the record "is not going to be 'smashed' by anyone." As he pointed out today on Twitter, even if the world record continues to be broken in Berlin by 20 seconds per year (extremely unlikely), it'll still be nearly a decade before the 2-hour limit is broken:
It would be ever-so-thrilling, of course, if Tucker's estimate turned out to be wrong. Earlier today, Berlin Marathon second-place finisher Emmanuel Mutai (who, it bears mentioning, also bested the previous world record, finishing in 2:03:13), set the two-hour milestone square in the sights of today's elite runners.
"From what I saw today, times are coming down and down," he said. "If not today, then tomorrow... Maybe next time we'll get 2:01."
Read Ross Tucker's comprehensive dissection of sub-2-hour marathon feasibility at The Science of Sport.