Men's Marathon World Record Progression

Dennis Kimetto celebrates his world-record marathon performance in 2014. Boris Streubel/Bongarts-Getty Images

Determining world records in most track and field events is fairly straightforward, but road races – including the marathon – offer a unique challenge, because each course is different. In response to this challenge, the IAAF has established a set of standards regarding marathon course layouts, and the methods for measuring those courses. Only races held on courses that meet the IAAF standards are eligible for record-setting purposes.

As a result, the IAAF only recognizes records set from 2002 to the present as ratified world standards. Nevertheless, the IAAF does recognize 33 marathon times, performed from 1908 to 1999, as the “world bests” of their time.

The first world best acknowledged by the IAAF was American Johnny Hayes’ victory in the 1908 marathon, which he finished in 2:55:18.4. Hayes was initially credited with second place behind Italy’s Dorando Pietri, who crossed the finish line first. But Pietri was disqualified after being helped physically by race officials as he approached the finish line. Previous Olympic marathons had been run on courses of various lengths, but the 1908 marathon was the first to be run at the current standard length of 42.195 km, or 26 miles, 385 yards.

The marathon world best time was broken five times in 1909, by – in order – Americans Robert Fowler, James Clark and Albert Raines, then Henry Barrett of the UK and finally by Sweden’s Thure Johansson, who completed a Stockholm marathon in 2:40:34.2.

The next two world bests came 19 days apart in May 1913. Great Britain’s Harry Green lowered the world best to 2:38:16.2 on May 12, but Alexis Ahlgren of Sweden improved the standard to 2:36:06.6 on May 31, at the Polytechnic Marathon in London. Ahlgren’s achievement survived for seven years, until Finland’s Hannes Kolehmainen won the 1920 Olympic marathon in 2:32:35.8.

The IAAF recognizes Kolehmainen’s performance even though the Antwerp was longer than today’s standard, measuring 42.75 km.

The marathon world best returned to the United States in 1925 when Albert Michelsen posted a time of 2:29:01.8 at the Port Chester Marathon in New York. Michelsen's achievement survived for 10 years, and then three different Japanese runners all lowered the standard in 1935. Fusashige Suzuki dropped the world best to 2:27:49.0 on March 31, Yasuo Ikenaka reduced it to 2:26:44.0 on April 3, then Korea’s Sohn Kee-Chung lowered it by two seconds on November 3. Because Korea was then part of the Japanese Empire, he officially competed for Japan and used the name Son Kitei. He went on to win the Olympic gold medal in 1936.

Boston’s Best

The Boston Marathon – held on a course that currently does not conform to IAAF standards – played host to its only official record-book performance in 1947, when Korea's Suh Yun-bok lowered the world best to 2:25:39. Suh, who was coached by Sohn Kee-Chung, owned the world best for five years, before Great Britain's Jim Peters improved the standard to 2:20:42.2 at the 1952 Polytechnic Marathon. Peters lowered the world best three more times in the following two years, peaking at 2:17:39.4 at the 1954 Polytechnic race.

In 1958, Sergei Popov of the Soviet Union improved the world best to 2:15:17 while winning the European Championship in Stockholm. Two years later, Abebe Bikila was a last-second addition to the Ethiopian Olympic marathon team. He ran barefoot at the 1960 Rome Games and earned the gold medal in a new world-best time of 2:15:16.2. Toru Terasawa of Japan barely beat Bikila's time in 1963, winning the Beppu-Oita Marathon in Japan in 2:15:15.8.

The next two world-best performances came at the familiar Polytechnic Marathon, as American Leonard “Buddy” Edelen won the 1963 race in 2:14:28, then Basil Heatley of the UK crossed the line first the following year, in 2:13:55. Bikila took the honors back later that year, however, winning the 1964 Olympic gold medal in 2:12:12.2.

The Polytechnic Marathon produced its third world-best performance in three years in 1965, as Japan's Morio Shigematsu won in 2:12:00.

Australia's Derek Clayton then lowered the standard twice, to 2:09:36.4 in 1967 and then to 2:08:33.6 in 1969, in Antwerp. Although several runners beat Clayton's time in the next few years, none are currently recognized by the IAAF. Indeed, the next world-best performance came at the 1981 Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, when Australia's Robert De Castella finished in 2:08:18. The year 1984 saw the first marathon world best set on U.S. soil since 1947, as Great Britain's Steve Jones lowered the standard to 2:08:05 at the Chicago Marathon, in his marathon debut. Portugal's Carlos Lopes, the 1984 Olympic champion, then reduced the mark to 2:07:12 in his final competitive race, at the 1985 Rotterdam Marathon. Belayneh Dinsamo of Ethiopia lowered it further, to 2:06:50, in Rotterdam in 1988.

The First Recognized World Record

Dinsamo’s standard survived for 10 years, until Brazil’s Ronaldo da Costa took 45 seconds off the world best, winning the 1998 Berlin Marathon in 2:06:05. The following year, Khalid Khannouchi of Morocco lowered the world best to 2:05:42 at the Chicago Marathon. At the 2002 London Marathon Khannouchi became the first modern marathon world record-holder recognized by the IAAF when he crossed the line in 2:05:38. Khannouchi had become a naturalized American citizen in 2000, and his 2002 London performance remains the American marathon record, as of 2015.

Paul Tergat became the first Kenyan to own the marathon world record when he won the 2003 Berlin Marathon in 2:04:55.

The performance was the first of six consecutive world record-setting marathon runs to occur on the Berlin course. The second and third were both run by Haile Gebrselassie. The Ethiopian won the 2007 Berlin event in 2:04:26 and the 2008 race in 2:03:59. In 2011, Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai won the Boston Marathon in 2:03:02, but his time was not ratified because the Boston course still didn’t conform to IAAF record standards. Later that year another Kenyan, Patrick Makau, improved the official mark to 2:03:38, in Berlin. Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang won the 2013 Berlin Marathon in 2:03:23, then Dennis Kimetto lowered the official mark below 2:03 – and below Mutai’s 2011 Boston time – to 2:02:57.

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Your Citation
Rosenbaum, Mike. "Men's Marathon World Record Progression." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Rosenbaum, Mike. (2016, August 23). Men's Marathon World Record Progression. Retrieved from Rosenbaum, Mike. "Men's Marathon World Record Progression." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 13, 2017).