Strictly speaking, the marathon world record was only first recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federation (known as World Athletics today) in 2003. Before then, the term ‘world best’ or similar was used to describe the fastest time set in the marathon.
For me, the matter is simple. Even if it was not the official world record as recognised for shorter distances, there was clearly (or not so clearly at times) someone who ran 42.195 kilometres or 26 miles 385 yards at an appropriately certified event faster than anyone had before.
This is what I mean by the marathon world record.
What is the Association of Road Racing Statisticians? Why do you prefer their list for the marathon world record progression over the list from World Athletics?
The Association of Road Racing Statisticians, or ARRS for short, was co-founded by Ken Young in 2003. Young was arguably one of the pivotal figures in making marathon events as accurate as they are today. Back in 1973 he had started the National Running Data Center, whose goal was to provide accurate statistics for athletics events of all distances. In 1982 they launched a validation program for all courses where American records had been set.
This led to the re-measurement of the course used for the 1981 New York City Marathon. Despite the same course being used in previous years when Grete Waitz had set the world record, World Athletics did not invalidate those results. However, the ARRS did: Young and his fellow statisticians had collected data from across the world to determine the accuracy of various results. This included the disputed time set by Derek Clayton at the 1969 Antwerp Marathon.
In short, ARRS have gone to significant efforts to maintain the accuracy of their list, and have clearly explained why they diverge from World Athletics. Having looked into these divergences as part of my research, I find their reasoning more than convincing.
Abebe Bikila. He not only set the marathon world record and the Olympic record simultaneously at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he did so barefoot. While I acknowledge the achievements of those athletes that went before him, Bikila set the benchmark for how fast you can run the marathon without any shoes at all.
There are several sources that claim Shivnath Singh ran barefoot when he won the marathon at the 1978 Indian National Championships held in Jalandhar. His time was 2:11:59.4, which would be significantly faster than Abebe Bikila's time set in 1960. Singh is still at the time of writing the National Record holder in India for the marathon.
Although Singh definitely competed in shorter distances barefoot, as many photographs show, I've not come across any evidence that he competed at the marathon distance barefoot. In pictures of Singh at the 1976 Olympics and video of him in at the 1980 Olympics, both times competing in the marathon, he is clearly wearing shoes.
It would be unusual for an athlete to compete in shoes at one of the most significant races of their career when their best time was set barefoot only two years prior. Singh was without question an exceptional athlete, however his marathon time of 2:11:59.4 was almost certainly set in shoes.
If someone has evidence to the contrary I'd happily be proven wrong.
Phạm Thị Bình. At the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, she won gold in the women's marathon in 2:45:34 and incredibly did so barefoot. This is the fastest such time I have found, and although it was not the world record at the time like Abebe Bikila's performance in 1960, it still answers the question of how fast a women can run the marathon without shoes. On this basis I've started my list with the first world record time faster than this benchmark, 2:43:54.5 by Jacqueline Hansen in 1974.
The Guinness World Records had erroneously claimed that when Tegla Loroupe battled through food poisoning to finish 13th in 2:29:45 in the women's marathon at the 2000 Olympics, she did so barefoot. They repeated this claim in print and on their website. This has since been repeated through other channels, including her Wikipedia page.
We have many photos from that event, including the one below, showing Loroupe in bib #2402 and notably wearing shoes, the same Nike Air Streak model she set the marathon world record in on two separate occasions, first in 1998 and again in 1999.
I reached out to the Guinness World Records team to ask for their entry to be updated, and to their credit they have since updated their website to reflect that Phạm Thị Bình holds the distinction of the women's barefoot marathon world record.
Of course, if you know of any women who have run the marathon barefoot even faster than Phạm Thị Bình, please get in touch.
I’m aware that in 2011 the International Association of Athletics Federations, known today as World Athletics, changed the rules so that the women's marathon world record could only be set in women's-only marathons. Any other time is considered 'world best'.
No such qualification applies to men. I'd simply quote the World Marathon Majors and the Association of International Marathons, who released a statement at the time saying:
The current situation where the fastest time is not now recognized as a record is confusing and unfair and does not represent the history of our sport.
For the sake of this website, I'm using the same definition for both men and women: over time there is the irrefutable fact that a woman has run 42.195km or 26 miles 385 yards faster than any other woman before.
As long as the event has been properly sanctioned, that is the standard I am using. This is not to diminish the achievement of Mary Keitany, who ran the third fastest women's marathon ever at the 2017 London Marathon. It is just that both Brigid Kosgei and Paula Radcliffe have run faster.
For the record, Keitany was wearing the Adidas Takumi Sen 3. Originally designed for the Japanese market, the 190 gram racing flat she wore featured Boost cushioning in the forefoot for the first time.
For the men’s list, they start at the same place, the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Abebe Bikila set the marathon world record at that event, barefoot no less, and would set the world record again at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo albeit this time wearing shoes. For the women's list, it was a landmark moment for women's distance running.
For many of the athletes featured on this website, Olympic gold was something they wanted as much as the world record. Inclusion of both also mirrors shorter distance events where there is both a world record and an Olympic record.
Without diminishing the achievements of those who have won gold at the Commonwealth Games or the World Athletics Championships, it is the Olympics that is the most significant international competition.
While there have been boycotts, in theory every nation should be able to compete. This is why the Olympic record is the only diversion from the world record. Plus, it allows me to include some more shoes, and tell some interesting stories along the way…
Quite possibly! Although there are many entries that were easy to research, some required educated guesses. There are some events that, for whatever reason, have few if any photographs available. Some of those photos are simply not clear enough for me to identify what the athlete was wearing.
Where I’ve had to make such guesses, I’ve tried to find images of marathons shortly before or after the event in question. Although this is not necessarily always the case, I’m assuming that professional athletes and particularly distance runners would not change their shoes at short notice without good reason.
If you have pictures or other evidence available, I’d love to chat. Part of this project involved getting things wrong initially, and later being corrected. Of course, I’ve provided full credit to those who have helped me along the way, the community have really helped with some of the trickier entries.
You can reach me at @MarathonShoeNrd on Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you!
Sorry about that! I’ve tried where possible to provide accreditation to the images I’ve used, including making reasonable efforts to contact the owner. Sometimes despite my best efforts I was unable to find the original source, or to contact the original photographer. If I’ve used one of your images, please get in touch via my Twitter account @MarathonShoeNrd. In some instances it has been extremely difficult identifying the original source for some of the images used, so I appreciate your understanding.
I’m very flattered, please send me a request via my Twitter account @MarathonShoeNrd, and I’d be happy to discuss what you have in mind.