How Many Runners Can Run a Marathon in Under 4 Hours

Sub 4

Spencer wrote a very interesting article recently on about running a sub-2:00 half marathon.  In that article he outlined the number of people who actually can run a sub-2:00 half and you know what, the results underscore just what an achievement a sub-2:00 half is.

That got me to thinking about race statistics and just what percentage of marathoners can run a sub-4:00 marathon or even a sub-3:00 marathon.  I have actually had that question for some time and I have even discussed it in course of conversation with a few friends of mine.

The sub-4:00 marathon is a hallmark achievement for a lot of runners out there and it turns out that it should be.  My first marathon is over 4 hours and I have a number of friends who have a sub-4:00 marathon as a target goal.

Evaluating Recent Race Results

In trying to assess how challenging it is to run a sub-4:00 marathon, I looked at the percentage of individuals who ran a sub-4:00 time versus the total number of finishers in a select group of marathons.  I used the data from the most recent running of the 10 largest US marathons (with complete data sets).  The specific marathons I used were as follows:

RaceLocationYear# of Finishers
NY City MarathonNew York, NY201146,795
Chicago MarathonChicago, IL201235,755
Honolulu MarathonHonolulu, HI201224,156
Marine Corps MarathonWashington, D.C.201223,519
Boston MarathonBoston, MA201221,554
Los Angeles MarathonLos Angeles, CA201218,583
Walt Disney World MarathonOrlando, FL201213,513
Twin Cities MarathonMinneapolis, MN20128,783
Rock n Roll San Diego MarathonSan Diego, CA20127,105
Portland MarathonPortland, OR20126,518

This rolls up to be a total of 206,281 runners who have recently completed a marathon and I figure that is a pretty solid population to draw some conclusions from.

What Percentage of Runners Run a Sub-4:00 Marathon?

Looking at the percentage of finishers who completed the marathon distance in under 4 hours you can see that a sub-4:00 marathon is quite an achievement.  From the races that I looked at there were a total of 50,014 of the 206,281 finishers who completed the race in less than 4 hours for a percentage of 24.2%.  So what does that mean?  Basically if you can run a sub-4:00 marathon you are in the top quartile of marathon runners out there.

Race# Sub-4:00 Finishers% Sub-4:00 Finishers
Boston Marathon864540.1%
Twin Cities Marathon334538.1%
NY City Marathon1512432.3%
Portland Marathon175126.9%
Chicago Marathon875824.5%
Rock n Roll San Diego Marathon166723.5%
Marine Corps Marathon449919.1%
Los Angeles Marathon279315.0%
Walt Disney World Marathon198014.7%
Honolulu Marathon14526.0%

Looking at the individual races you can see some interesting trends.  First, look at the race with the highest percentage of sub-4:00 finishers – the Boston Marathon with 40.1% of finishers going sub-4:00.  This was actually the slow year at Boston due to the record heat they had during the event.  That must mean either the course is super fast or the quality of runners participating is pretty high.  As the Boston Marathon has a very stringent qualifying standard to be able to run the race, the answer is the latter.  Having run Boston in 2013, I would be happy to testify in court that it is not what I could call an “easy” or fast course.

In the case of the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, MN, I understand that opposite is true in that it is a fairly fast course so if you are looking for a big marathon with a fast course to get that Boston Qualifying time, look no farther than the Twin Cities Marathon.  That said, I would always recommend a smaller marathon if you are looking for a Boston qualifier.

I was surprised looking at the races with the lowest percentage of sub-4:00 finishers.  The Honolulu Marathon in Honolulu, HI only had 6% of the 24,156 finishers in 2012 run a sub-4:00 time.  Why is that?  Is it a challenging course? Is it really hot? Is it too easy to stop at the beach and catch a few waves along the way?  I am not really sure as I have no real experience with this particular race.  I can say that if I am in Hawaii, I would find it difficult to focus on anything other than the surroundings.

I did find a blog post from a sub-4:00 marathon runner from the Honolulu Marathon in 2012 and I believe the words he used to describe the event were a “hot, sweaty and hard marathon,” with conditions that were described as “hot, muggy, and energy draining.”  Note to self, run the Twin Cities Marathon instead of the Honolulu Marathon.

That said, looking the marathons that have the lower percentage of runners going sub-4:00 (i.e., Walt Disney World, Honolulu, and Los Angeles) those are races where you would expect to find a lower percentage of “traditional” marathon runners in the field.  Perhaps the percentages are lower because you find a higher percentage of people doing the marathon just for the experience as opposed to focusing on achieving a time goal.

What about a Sub-3:00 Marathon?

My personal best in a marathon is 3:03 back in 2012 and a goal of mine is to break the 3 hour mark.  Based on the information I found, that would be one heck of a goal to achieve.

Just as I did with the sub-4:00 marathon data analysis, I evaluated the number of sub-3:00 finishers to the total number of finishers and found that 1.6% of marathon finishers on average can run under 3 hours (3,221 out of 206,218 finishers).  Wow…I had no idea that it would be that low.  That means that if you run a sub-3:00 marathon you are almost in the 99th percentile of marathon runners.

Here is how the races break down:

Race# Sub-3:00 Finishers% Sub-3:00 Finishers
Twin Cities Marathon2552.9%
Boston Marathon5292.5%
NY City Marathon11212.4%
Chicago Marathon7252.0%
Portland Marathon751.2%
Rock n Roll San Diego Marathon741.0%
Marine Corps Marathon1600.7%
Los Angeles Marathon1300.7%
Walt Disney World Marathon750.6%
Honolulu Marathon770.3%

Interesting!  Looking at the marathons with the lowest percentage of sub-3:00 marathoners, we see our old friends Honolulu, Walt Disney World, and Los Angeles again.  On the other end of the spectrum we see Twin Cities again as well as Boston ranking high.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that if you start and finish a full marathon you are one of the most dedicated and admirable people in the world.  The awesome thing about the marathon is that finishing in and of itself is an achievement worthy of all the praise you will receive.  If you run a sub-4:00 marathon you certainly would be sticking out among your peers and is one of the main reasons the sub-4:00 marathon is a goal for so many.  It is laudable achievable and all you need to do to get there is the appropriate dedication, perseverance, and planning.

19 thoughts on “How Many Runners Can Run a Marathon in Under 4 Hours”

  1. Awesome post Stephen! I really love the stats you provided here…I had no idea that only about 1% of all marathoners finish under 3 hours…wow! I also agree with your analysis of why Boston, Twin Cities, and other marathons are either on the high or low end of number of people finishing under 4 hours. Great analysis!

    • Thanks. I have to admit I was rather surprised when I saw how low a percentage of people actually break the 3 hour mark. I figured it was low but I did not think it was that low.

      I have to admit that after researching this I am not super interested in running the Honolulu Marathon… If I ever do Disney I would of course have to do it in a Captain Hook outfit so I have a feeling that would cut into my finishing time. šŸ™‚

  2. Great article steve, looking forward to running my first one in October. Let the planning and training begin. Amazing stats on marathons too.

    • Thanks Steve. There were a few interesting trends in that data. Good luck training for the first marathon. The process is challenging but very rewarding.

    • You are very welcome. Thank you for reading and commenting. It was very eye opening for me to see the relative percentages. I know I have friends who have been super bummed when they did not break the 4-hour mark and you know seeing just what the percentages are really does put keep things in context.

  3. Good read, very interesting stats Stephen, it helps put the numbers/times in to perspective/context. I recently ran my first Marathon in Lisbon and loved the experience. It was terribly hot, which made it difficult for all the runners. I finished below the 4h mark, so I guess Iā€™m pretty happy with that effort. šŸ™‚


  4. Interesting article. Where did you get the complete data sets for these marathons?

  5. One thing to consider is the cut-off time of the race. Twin Cities Marathon is cut-off at 6-hours, really limiting the number of walkers. A faster cut-off time skews the percentage of finishers under 4-hours compared to other races, such as Honolulu, which doesn’t have a cut-off time. The highest elevation on the Honolulu course is 124′, so there aren’t huge hills, but you can count on it being warm. For the Los Angeles Marathon about 23% of the finishers finished in greater than 6 hours (over 4500 runners). The percentage of finishers under 4 hours is much smaller when over 4500 runners take over 6 hours. While Twin Cities isn’t the hardest course, picking Twin Cities to try to qualify for Boston based on these calculations of percentages wouldn’t increase your chances of qualifying for Boston when compared to other races.

  6. It would be interesting to see these stats over a longer period of time. I am guessing your current numbers are skewed just based on the Boston Marathon results. I ran Boston that year and the temperature was abnormally high (79 degrees at the start and 87 when I finished). I would normally have run it in under 3 hours and it took me just over 4 hours that year due to the heat and I am sure this effected many other runners times that day as well.

  7. Not to take away from the assertion that it is a real accomplishment, but Boston 2012 appears to be a bit of an anomaly for Boston. In 2013 there were over 2000 sub 3 hour finishers. 2014, again perhaps a bit of an anomaly, had over 2600 sub 3 hour finishers. Some pretty large differences that makes it difficult to draw conclusions. It makes sense and would appear Boston attracts a strong field and would generally have a higher percentage – even higher than 2012 indicates. You’ve also got other races you’re drawing on too.

    How did you get your Boston results? I went through a pretty painful exercise of having to page through 25 results at a time with criteria that would provide enough of a sample to get the correct answers.


  8. thank you for the article, it helped me to understand why the goal my friend is about to achieve tomorrow is such a big deal – her goal is to finish the race tomorrow under 4 hours and it will be her 50th state to do this in. Thank you so much for helping me to understand why it is that her goal and achieving it will be monumental.

  9. Great article with all the stats. I loved it. Recently I ran my first sub 4 marathon and knowing that only about 25% of runners finishes sub 4, I’m amazed. Thanks for the information and analysis.

  10. I ran my first 1/2 at the age of 36 and ran it in 2:00 I am training for my first full at I estimate 4:22 I am a little slower this year however I was bummed about it now I see it as the finish line is my achievement.

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