BOSTON -- Geoffrey Mutai had barely crossed the Boston Marathon finish line in an unprecedented 2 hours, 3 minutes, 2 seconds when the murmurs began.
How fast can a human run 26.2 miles?
The previously imponderable 2:02 was just seconds away, and the 2-hour marathon was being discussed in reverential terms once used for the 4-minute mile: A barrier once thought insurmountable, now coming into range.
"I used to think that I would never see it in my lifetime," 1983 Boston Marathon winner Greg Meyer said this week as 27,000 runners converged on the city for the 116th edition of the race. "But now, I don't know."
A hearty tailwind and cool temperatures helped Mutai finish the 2011 race in the fastest time ever for the 26.2-mile distance, shattering the official world record of 2:03:59 set by Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin in 2008. Runner-up Moses Mosop, who finished 4 seconds back, also beat Gebrselassie's time, and Ryan Hall beat the American record.
But Mutai finally hit the wall when he went up against the international track federation, which only recognizes records from loop courses to prevent runners from taking advantage of tailwinds or downhill layouts. (Boston is a point-to-point race and, though its hills have traditionally made it one of the tougher courses, the finish line is at a lower elevation than the start.)
That meant Mutai was forced to settle for a "world best" instead of a "world record." (It remained Gebrselassie's until Patrick Makau officially broke it at Berlin with a 2:03:38 in September.)
Asked about the decision not to accept his run as a record, Mutai said this week, "I felt pain."
But the Kenyan soon turned his attention from the record books to the streets. He won the New York City Marathon in the fall, slicing 2 minutes, 37 seconds off the course record there. He is back in Boston to defend his title and try to earn a spot on the Kenyan Olympic team – a competition so tough, and political, he has not technically been guaranteed a spot even if he wins on Monday.
"If I win, I will not even have to ask anything," said Mutai, who was the 19th Kenyan men's winner in Boston in 21 years. "It's not easy to reach the level that we ran last year, but I will try my best."
Fellow Kenyan Caroline Kilel took the women's race, outsprinting American Desiree Davila down Boylston Street to win by 2 seconds. It was the fourth straight year that the women's margin of victory was 3 seconds or less.
But the attention was on the men, and Mutai's blistering pace.
In a race run without pacesetters on a course that had always been considered difficult, Mutai beat the world record by almost a minute. Back in Boston this week, Mutai compared the progress of marathoners to the improvement in cars, and said the record time will continue to drop.
"In the coming years, people will run like that," he said. "In the past, some were running 2:05 and people could not believe it. In the coming years, people will run 2:02, even lower."
It took about 26 years for the marathon record to go from 2:07:12 run by Carlos Lopes in 1985 to Makau's 2:03:38, a drop of 214 seconds; a similar drop would put the world record on the 2-hour doorstep, or drop Mutai's world best into the 1:59 range.
So, how low can they go?
"No one knows," said Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston winner. "That's the fun of it all."
While Rodgers commended Mutai on the skill of his victory, he said the fast time was "flukey" – a combination of perfect weather and enough strong contenders who could push each other to the end. Rodgers also noted that 3 1/2 minutes is a long time; to drop the record from Makau's time to below 2 hours, a runner would have to improve his pace by more than 8 seconds a mile.
"It's not like the 4-minute mile," he said. "I don't think we'll be seeing 2 hours on the men's side any time soon."
Certainly not this year.
This race is expected to be much slower, in part because many of the top competitors are resting up for the London Olympics and in part due to temperatures that are predicted to climb toward the high 80s. But just having Mutai and third-place finisher Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who broke 2:05, in the field could get in the minds of those surrounding them on the starting line.
"You've got to stand there thinking not only `Can I beat that guy,' but also `Can I run that fast,'" Meyer said. "You go, `God, I wonder how fast he is this time?'"
For Jason Hartmann, it's yet another reason to fear Boston. The 31-year-old from Boulder, Colo., won the Twin Cities Marathon in 2009 and ran a personal best of 2:11:06 last year in Chicago – good enough to make him the top American in the field during an Olympic year when the best runners are resting up for London.
"It's a 26.2 -mile run, so that can already be intimidating. And Boston is a course that is so difficult, with so much history. Even completing the race can be tough," he said, letting out a long sigh before continuing with his list. "And, finally, it can be intimidating that someone ran that fast. But, hopefully, I can be a part of that group this year, too."