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Breaking two-hour barrier at NYC Marathon is a long shot

A crowd of runners stands near the barricaded

A crowd of runners stands near the barricaded Central Park finish line for the now-canceled New York Marathon. (Nov. 3, 2012) Credit: AP

Semantics: To run a marathon in 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds -- the pending world record posted by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in late September -- is not a marathon. It's a sprint.

To cover that much ground -- 26 miles, 385 yards -- in that amount of time requires an ungodly pace, under 4:45 per mile. Yet in the past three years, a minute and two seconds has been shaved off the record.

So with Sunday's annual running of the humans through New York's five boroughs, it is not surprising that some are asking if the first sub-two-hour marathon is far away. The general answer, for those most knowledgeable in the running community, is that taking off the next two minutes and 58 seconds will be a marathon. Not a sprint.

"I think it will be a lot longer than 10 years," said George Hirsch, a co-founder of the New York City Marathon and chairman of the sponsoring New York Road Runners. "I really do. I'd say 25 years."

Furthermore, no one expects such a fast time to materialize in the New York race. Too many difficult hills and tight turns. "Ages ago," Hirsch said, when marathoning impresario Fred Lebow directed Gotham's marathon, "Fred told me one day, 'I'm going to put up a million-dollar bonus for anyone who breaks the two-hour marathon.'

"I said, 'Fred, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard. No one is ever going to break two hours in New York. It's just not possible.'

"He said, 'You know that and I know that. But let's see what happens with the story.' Sure enough, the next day there was his offer of a million-dollar prize. Not everyone knew the sport; a million dollars is what they knew. And Fred got some ink out of that."

With that settled, then, what about a two-hour marathon in Berlin, where the last six world records were run, beginning in 2003 with Haile Gebrselassie's 2:04:55. (Gebrselassie, by the way, told reporters shortly after that he didn't expect a sub-two-hour time for another 25 years -- which would be 2028.) "I won't live to see it," said Hirsch, 80.

David Monti, the New York Marathon consultant, said the quarter-century wait still is about right. "There has been tremendous improvement in coaching technique, and knowledge about the marathon event, which is still relatively young, at a high level," he said. "There's obviously financial incentive now. But to run an absolutely spectacular time, to shave off two minutes, you would not only need another level of athlete and training but the absolutely perfect laboratory conditions, in which everything went exactly right."

The urge to push all sorts of limits was reinforced by Friday's news that Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, women's winner in both Chicago and Boston the past two years, failed a doping test. But even if some runners are fudging the rules, a two-hour run would require ideal weather -- 40 to 50 degrees, low humidity, cloud cover -- precise pacemaking, a flat course with gentle turns.

Also, said Kenya's Wilson Kipsang, who held the record at 2:03:23 before Kimetto broke it but doesn't train with Kimetto, "it's very risky to train with somebody who's very strong and at your level, because you will be trying to push, to push. The risk of overtraining is very high."

The detail involved in an actual record attempt "is almost like the thing they used to do with the Salt Flats," Monti said, "when they'd go for the land speed record. But that's not so much an athletic competition; it's a testing of limits.

"You would need one or two runners designated to be record- attempters and everyone else catering to them. Take the Olympic marathon, which has incredible depth. What happens at the start? Do they run as fast as possible? Just the opposite. They look at each other; it's a poker game. A record attempt is not a poker game. You must go from the beginning. No hesitation." Berlin officials, Monti noted, "put all their resources toward that idea."

To the uninitiated, it likely is a surprise that the Boston Marathon does not meet the standards for accepting a world record, because the start and finish can't be more than 13 miles apart (Boston is run point-to-point) and the net loss in elevation can't be greater than 42 meters -- one for each kilometer run (Boston goes downhill by 146 meters).

New York's fastest time is 2:05:06. New York race director Mary Wittenberg insisted that she has "no speed envy" of Berlin. Or Rotterdam or Chicago, all considered faster courses. But as the two-hour mark gets closer, "we already are scheming" about a different New York course, she said. For a marathon sprint.

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