As the marathon record creeps slowly to Ross’s predicted 2:02, it is interesting to think about where the next world record might be run. Nearly every city and town seems to host its own race these days, and as a result there are hundreds of races each year. But where exactly are the “fastest” courses?
How fast is a marathon race course?
When we talk about marathon courses, we mention how some are faster than others. The “speed” of a race course is likely a function first of the nature of the course. To put it another way, it is unlikley that a hilly course will produce fast times, and same goes for a course at altitude.
Two other predictors of whether or not a marathon course will produce a fast time are the depth of the field and the presence (or absence) of pace setters. For example, marathons that can assemble large and competitive fields will create large potential for a fast (and maybe record) time. If they include pace setters the potential increases.
Finally, the weather will influence record performance as it is well established that as the temperature rises, performance times slow.
Therefore the potential for fast race times and potential records fall to a smaller number of races that combine some or all of the above characteristics. These races include ones we all know (Chicago, London, Rotterdam) and ones we have not heard of (or do not associate as major marathon races) such as Tokyo, Otsu, and Beijing.
We have examined the top marathon times under 2:08:53 (402 performances) and have analyzed where each time was run. These top performances were achieved at 35 different races. However, to make the analysis more meaningful we have required that a race have at least five times below 2:08:53 to be included. The race time you see for each race is the average of the top five times run over that course.
What we see from this analysis first is that perhaps Berlin’s time is biased since Paul Tergat and Sammy Korir both broke the previous WR when Tergat ran 2:04:55 and Korir ran 2:04:56. The next three fastest times there are all approximately 2:06, which is very fast, but they are over one minute slower than both Tergat’s and Korir’s times in 2003.
The second conclusion we can make is that if you want to run a fast time and potentially break the world record, then quickly the choices fall to Berlin, Chicago, and London (in that order). Although London has made headlines with the incredible men’s fields it has been able to assemble recently, the last time the winner ran under 2:06 was in 2002 when both Gebreselassie and Tergat debuted and Khannouchi showed them both how to win a marathon (and set a record).
It is notable to mention that of the top 402 performances, London can claim 50, Chicago 45, Rotterdam 40, and Berlin 35. Incredibly, Tokyo is not far behind and has 27 of the fastest performances with a mean time of 2:07:22, proving that although not considered a major city marathon it most certainly has a fast course.
Come back later when we analyze the world record performances and which marathon is more likely to produce the next record!