Posted by: Joe English | September 24, 2007

Commentary: what does a marathon world record really mean?

COMMENT: Although this piece was written in 2007 before the Berlin Marathon, the themes and points about world records still hold true today.

When Haile Gebreselassie laces up his shoes this coming Sunday in the Berlin Marathon, he will be doing so with the ambition of setting a new world record at the distance. As a runner who has set more than 24 world records, he has the chops to do it.

He’s hot right now: he crushed the elite field at the NYC Half Marathon this past August, putting up more than a minute on the next closest finisher in the closing miles. And just prior to that, he set both the 40KM and One Hour world records on the track. Gebreselassie has run the seventh fastest time in the world (2:05:56) at last year’s Berlin Marathon.

The current Marathon world record was set on the Berlin Marathon course, back in 2003, when both Paul Tergat and Sammy Korir bested the then-current record, running 2:04:55 and 2:04:56 respectively. Korir will be there this weekend to race against, or perhaps with, Haile toward a new record.

For a world record in the marathon, Berlin is the place to do it and the right runners are there to set it.

So now that you know the back-ground, should you care? If you don’t, then maybe what you need is some perspective on just how amazingly difficult it is to break the marathon world record. Read on and I hope that you’ll be utterly stupefied if there’s a new record less than a week from now.

Beating everyone
A few years ago, Marathon world record setter Steve Jones said something very interesting. In talking about setting a world record he explained that winning any particular race is about beating whoever happened to show up that day. Setting a world record, on the other hand, means beating everyone that has ever run a marathon, at every marathon, everywhere in the world, since the beginning of marathons. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Marathons have been contested seriously for over 100 years. Hundreds of thousands of people will attempt a marathon in just the United States this year alone. Yet the number of people capable of running at, or even near, world record pace is limited to a mere handful.

If you look marathon times since 1910, you’ll see that the world record has crept down from about 2:55:00 to 2:05:00 over that time period. But you’ll also notice that this downward trend has slowed considerably since the late 1960s. In the last 40 years, the record has only dropped three and a half minutes, from 2:09:36 in 1968 to 2:04:55 today. And in that time, the sport has only grown exponentially in popularity.

What happened forty years ago is that new developments in technology and training techniques began to eek out less and less of a difference in the most elite performances. Although we’ve continued to refine those techniques, there is now only so much of an advantage that can be gained from the right shoes and the right diet. To run at the very cutting edge, there are now only human barriers keeping those times from falling.

In other words, the world’s best runners are operating so close to the edge of their human limits that even despite intense competition, only rarely is a performance going to be able to best every performance that’s come before it.

This is not to say that the records won’t continue to fall. They will. But the difficulty of pushing even faster is so great that these advances can only happen when a number of factors line up perfectly.

What’s needed to break the world record?
When Haile Gebresalaise tears off the starting line in Berlin next weekend, he’ll need a whole host of factors to come together precisely if he is able to shave off even a second from the world record.

The weather will have to be perfect, both the temperature and the wind will have to help out by staying cool and calm.

Every step of the race must be executed with precision, with the runners not taking any extra steps outside of the shortest line through the course and its corners.

Every aid station exchange must be flawless, with the runners retrieving their fuels and drinking them down without bobbling them, without chocking on them, and properly digesting them.

The runners will have to hit their exact pace target from the starting line all the way to the finish. A lapse in concentration for a moment and the record could be lost. Running any of the race too fast could lead to a complete melt-down. Running any of it too slowly could leave precious seconds on the table.

And then there’s the marathon distance. In 26.2 miles, and over a period of more than two hours of running as fast as possible, how many things could potentially go wrong? A lot.

The bottom line is that to run a world record in the marathon requires knife edge precision by the runners and the confluence of a whole bunch of external factors. A bit of luck wouldn’t hurt either.

Whether Haile will break the record or not is impossible to say for sure, but if he does do it, you should be awe struck. I for one will be up late Saturday night to find out.

It would be a magical day for Haile and an amazing day for all runners, as we look through a window to see the limits of the human body.

Related articles:
Races: Gebrselassie crushes fields at NYC Half

Races: Gebreselassie plans for marathon world record unfold

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News



  1. Another way to put it in perspective is doing a 4:46min/mile 26.2 times in a row non stop, no recovery laps, just go go go. Not even a track, a road with hills and weather.

  2. Joe,
    and just think aobut running at 4:45.9/mile pace for 26.2 miles!!!! At that pace (and any very fast pace) your margin of error becomes very slight. It is amazing also how evenly paced these record attempts are. they know that through even pacing their chances of breaking records are at their best!

  3. I think this is a great quote.
    “…winning any particular race is about beating whoever happened to show up that day. Setting a world record, on the other hand, means beating everyone that has ever run a marathon, at every marathon, everywhere in the world, since the beginning of marathons.”
    What else can you say?

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