The marathon: ‘the greatest race of them all’

Champion: But just 2% of marathon runners finish in under three hours. © PA

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge just missed the world record in yesterday’s London marathon. Could someone soon run 26.2 miles in under two hours — and why do we get excited about this distance?

Runners dressed as Batman and Robin. A team of firefighters tied together in a fire engine outfit, trying to set a world record. An astronaut who harnessed himself to a treadmill, 400km above the earth’s surface.

They were some of the 39,698 runners who took part in the London marathon yesterday. But the speediest was Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, who ran the second fastest marathon in history, missing the world record by just eight seconds.

‘It was good to get a personal best,’ he said. Former Olympic runner Steve Cram, though, said he had produced ‘the best run ever’.

Kipchoge’s time – 2:03:05 – was a reminder of the improvement in men’s elite marathon running since a world record of 2:55:18 was set in 1908. Now the book Two Hours by Ed Caesar suggests a runner from Kenya’s Kalenjin tribe might soon break the most significant milestone in distance running.

Caesar says the Kalenjin’s dominance of the discipline may be because their evolutionary heritage helps them process oxygen. Poverty and violence in their daily lives also encourage a fierce drive to succeed.

Scientific advances and new running-shoe technology could also help to break the two-hour barrier. Some have suggested a ‘moonshot marathon’, in good conditions and with trained pacemakers, to mimick the moment Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954.

Endurance running is a peculiarly human pursuit – runners can go further than any other animal in warm conditions. Scientists say our stone age ancestors evolved to chase meat in hot weather, meaning we have benefited from strong joints and tendons and – most importantly – the ability to keep cool.

And marathons, which have a 2,500-year history, are growing in popularity. More than 1,200 were held in the USA alone in 2014, with over 550,000 people completing them. Yesterday, the millionth runner crossed the line of the London marathon, which has taken place annually since 1981.

Why are we so fascinated by a race which takes place over the eccentric distance of 26 miles and 385 yards?

Born to run

Marathons are thrilling, say some. We appreciate competitors’ physical endurance and ability to overcome a mental puzzle which requires planning, training and a uniquely personal approach. And they are a good leveller — unlike, for example, climbing Everest, anyone can have a try at competing with the best.

The attraction is not the race itself, respond others, but the status it confers. In an age of relative comfort, the marathon fulfils our need to face and overcome obstacles — and as the philosopher Hegel wrote, humans will even risk their lives for prestige and recognition. We love marathons because we want to become ‘marathoners’.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever run a marathon?
  2. Are marathon runners motivated by the challenge of the race, the status completing it confers, or something else?


  1. Make a poster showing 10 tips you would give to any marathon runner. Compare your work with a partner when you are done.
  2. Research the factors which would help a runner to run a marathon in under two hours (use the links under Become An Expert to help you). Then draw a person who would be likely to achieve it and design a course which would make it easy. Explain your work to your class.

Some People Say...

“If other people did not exist, humans would never bother doing anything difficult.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I find running boring. Can’t I just ignore it?
You don’t have to take part in a marathon, but lots of people do — and their reasons for doing so give an interesting insight into what motivates people. This is not just a reflection on marathons either — it could help to explain why people take part in other endurance events or push themselves to the limits in any discipline. And even if you think you are never going to take on such a tough challenge, you will come across people (such as work colleagues and friends) who will think differently to you.
But who cares whether the world record goes below two hours?
You don’t have to care, but elite runners are working hard to try to break it. You may think that is a good thing — or perhaps not — but it will certainly reflect on our species as a whole.

Word Watch

World record
For the fastest time in a four-person costume. Sixty-nine participants yesterday were trying to set 55 world records.
39,698 runners
Organisers Virgin Money Giving said they expected the runners to raise £25m for charity – £3m more than last year.
Since Joseph Nzau won in Chicago in 1983, Kenyans have dominated marathon running. Kipchoge’s win was the 10th by a Kenyan in the last 12 London marathons; yesterday his compatriot, Stanley Biwott, came second.
There are just five million members of the Kalenjin, including Kipchoge and legendary distance runner Geoffrey Mutai.
The Kalenjin are now born at altitude, but their ancestors were born at sea level. Caesar says this is a good combination for the uptake and diffusion of oxygen.
Cool temperatures and no wind would be ideal.
2,500-year history
According to legend, the marathon was created after a messenger named Pheidippides ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians in 490BCE.
According to Running USA.

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