What is the lowest level at which a human could run a marathon in under two hours?

Inspired by What is the lowest level at which a human can beat the 100m world record (or: the presumed human limit) without using magic?, which I read just after finishing the Athens Marathon last November. Earlier in 2019, Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance (42.195 km, about 26.2 miles) somewhat an order of magnitude faster than me in an amazing time of just under 2 hours, during the Ineos 1:59 Challenge.

Most D&D optimization attempts are aimed at short periods/distances (focused on combat situations), so for a change I'd like my (human) athlete to perform a feat of endurance: break the marathon distance record. What is the minimum level at which this can be achieved? A level 12 Monk has a base speed of 30ft + 40ft (assuming they're unarmed) = 70ft, which, extrapolating the 'Movement and Distance' table on page 162 of my 3.5e Player's Handbook translates to a Hustle speed of 14 miles an hour. A second hour of hustling incurs 1 point of nonlethal damage, and makes the character fatigued (I know how that feels) but doesn't influence movement speed, so this monk should cross the finish line after 1:52 and a bit.

Since, unlike Usain Bolt, Eliud Kipchoge got some help from others (pacemakers, nutrition provided by a horseback bike rider, pacing lasers) during this record attempt, our human athlete character is allowed to invoke the help of their fellow party members, but no magic: otherwise, you could just hire a bunch of Sorcerers, located at specific intervals on the track, each casting Expeditious Retreats for a continuous 30ft/round bonus. So everything that is qualified as a spell-like or supernatural ability is out of the question.

Assume D&D 3.5e rules, and any officially rule book is allowed (I only have the Core Rulebooks, which for instance (AFAICT) don't contain a feat which increases movement). When in doubt, the contest rules in the linked question apply (except for the assistance of up to five party members, which are the same level as the athlete).

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– V2Blast
Jan 11 '20 at 22:10

2 Answers

You can get there without any levels with favorable rulings, but otherwise level 1

The Character

The character to run the sub-2-hour marathon at level 1 with three of the following selections (only one of which can be a class, and only two of which can be a feat):

• The Barbarian class (for Fast Movement)
• The Cleric class with the Celerity Domain (Spell Compendium)
• The Ardent class with the Freedom Mantle (Complete Psionics)
• The Monk class with the feat of Carmendine Monk selecting Fast Movement (Champions of Valor)
• The Druid class with the Druidic Avenger variant1 (Unearthed Arcana)
• The Quick trait (Unearthed Arcana)
• The Fleet of Foot regional feat (Player's Guide to Faerûn)

...as well as these debatable selections:

• The Fast Leg graft (Fiend Folio) perhaps granted by a Sibriex (Fiendish Codex I) with the Instant Graft Special Action since grafts are not "magical" strictly speaking
• If the barbarian class is chosen, the Altered State feat2 assuming gifts from totem spirits are valid with the no magic restriction and you have 1d6 days to prepare ("Dragon Magazine 332")

1 Credit to KRyan's answer for mentioning this class variant.
2 Credit to JohnP in the comments for the find.

The Marathon

For a two hour journey, our character must move at a hustle since running is severely limited in terms of duration. This means that the character must travel 13.1 miles in an hour which requires a land speed of greater than 57.68 feet.

• Humans have a base land speed of 30 feet.
• Each of the three selections increase land speed by 10 feet.

The second hour at a hustle will cost 1 nonlethal damage, but that's certainly survivable for our character, who completes the marathon at around 1:55.36.

These three selections could be the Quick trait, the Fleet of Foot regional feat (via the extra feat from being human), and the Fast Leg graft meaning that a "level 0" character could run the marathon in under 2 hours (i.e. a character without needing their level 1 feat, nor any class levels). Technically, this level 0 character would not adhere to character creation rules since race and class are chosen before feats, but the spirit of the classless marathon runner is possible.

Fastest at level 1?

With the optimal selections (assuming favorable rulings on debatable ones):

• The Barbarian class
• The Quick trait
• The Fleet of Foot feat
• The Altered State feat
• The Fast Leg graft

...a level 1 character could achieve a land speed of 80 feet which yields a marathon of 1:26.52

Without favorable rulings on debatable selections, you get:

• Any of the class selections other than Monk
• The Quick Trait
• The Fleet of Foot feat
• The Dash feat3 (for 5 feet of land speed)

This results in a land speed of 65 feet which yields a marathon of 1:46.49

3 Credit to KRyan's answer for mentioning this feat.

• Now somebody just needs to do it with a level 0 character Jan 9 '20 at 21:03
• @Medix2 You can get kind of close with no class levels from just the Quick Trait, Fleet of Foot feat, and the Dash feat. That gets you a marathon in 2:05.85. If you run for the first minute and then hustle, you can get the marathon in 2:03.85. Jan 9 '20 at 21:09
• Baaah, can’t believe I forgot Quick. Well done. Jan 9 '20 at 21:25
• @HeyICanChan I'm fairly sure given that Kipchoge's attempt was scheduled, that our character's can be as well. Jan 10 '20 at 14:55
• @Medix2 "Level 0" accomplished Jan 10 '20 at 16:16

David Coffron’s answer does better than this one, but just for the sake of listing out some more options (which are also compatible with the Quick trait he uses and that I forgot about).

2nd level: 1st-level monk/1st-level barbarian or druid

To run 26.2 miles in 2 hours, a 3.5e character needs to achieve an average movement speed of 115.3 feet for the entire 2 hours.

Any character with a movement speed of 30 feet can achieve the necessary speed just by running—without heavy armor or a heavy load, running quadruples your movement for a round, so you’d move 120 feet. The problem with running is that

A character with a Constitution score of 9 or higher can run for a minute without a problem. Generally, a character can run for a minute or two before having to rest for a minute.

[...]

A character can’t run for an extended period of time.

Attempts to run and rest in cycles effectively work out to a hustle.

The rules don’t really give any way around this; these just are what they are. In fact, there isn’t even anything saying that you can ignore these rules by simply being immune to fatigue or whatever—so even an undead or construct creature can’t run for more than a minute or two, nevermind the fact that they literally never get tired. That’s probably an oversight, but an optimization challenge has to be played by the rules, and this is what they are.

The next-best option, hustle, deals 1 point of nonlethal damage when you get into your second hour, at which point you are fatigued (and can no longer run at all). Ironically, that doesn’t really matter—run isn’t a useful option for us, and taking a single point of nonlethal damage isn’t going to stop anybody. Fatigue also applies −2 penalties to Strength and Dexterity, but we aren’t really using either anyway.

Anyway,

A character moving his or her speed twice in a single round [...] is hustling when he or she moves.

So as long as we have a movement speed of 60 feet, we can hustle at 120 feet per round and achieve our goal.

Feat-wise, we start with two as a human, and we could take Dash from Complete Warrior for +5 feet, and/or Fleet of Foot from Player’s Guide to Faerûn for +10 feet. Fleet of Foot is Forgotten Realms material, can only be taken at 1st level, and requires you to be an elf, half-elf, or human from one of a few specific regions in Faerûn. Luckily, the challenge specified human as the race, and no requirements on where they are from, so our human can be from the Shaar or Thindol and take Fleet of Foot.

Beyond those, we want fast movement, obviously, and a few classes get that at 1st level:

• Barbarian
• Cleric, if they have the celerity domain, though it might be Su
• Ardent, if they have the freedom mantle, though it might be Su
• Druid, if they are a druidic avenger, though it might not stack with barbarian

Each of these offers +10 feet at 1st level, so if we took the first level of two of them, along with Fleet of Foot, that brings us up to the necessary 60 foot movement speed. Dash doesn’t really help with the primary—65 feet is overkill, while 55 feet won’t do it—so we could take a different feat instead, but since Fleet of Foot is the only feat I can find with +10 or more movement speed (at least, that isn’t supernatural), that doesn’t help us directly.

It does help us indirectly, though, because ardent, cleric, and druid each have potential problems.

Ardent and cleric get their movement speed from a psionic mantle and a deity’s domain, respectively, which makes them questionable: a quick check doesn’t find anything saying they’re supernatural, but I’m not certain there isn’t one hiding somewhere, and even if there isn’t, some might say that’s an oversight. For what it’s worth, there are several domains that explicitly say that the granted power is a supernatural ability—which may mean that celerity’s movement bonus, which does not say that, is not. There aren’t any mantles with similar wording, and the freedom mantle only gives the bonus while you have psionic focus—but nothing says that is supernatural, either, though it does require that you have at least 1 power point remaining. So maybe ardent or cleric is fine, but we have other options.

Druidic avenger doesn’t have those problems, since their fast movement is “identical to the barbarian ability of the same name,” and that is explicitly extraordinary (i.e. non-magical). The problem is whether or not that stacks if we take it alongside barbarian: Unearthed Arcana doesn’t cover that situation. And neither does the wording of the barbarian’s fast movement ability itself. So the question becomes whether or not the barbarian’s “fast movement” and the druidic avenger’s “fast movement [that is] identical to the barbarian ability of the same name” count as the “same source” for the bonus-stacking rules. No one has a hard-and-fast answer for that.

So the barbarian or druidic avenger have no problems separately, but may not work with each other. Ardent or cleric may not qualify at all. And we need two classes with +10 movement speed at 1st level.

Enter the monk, which gets fast movement, explicitly extraordinary, and even better, it’s explicitly an enhancement bonus to speed, rather than the barbarian’s untyped bonus—that means that we don’t have to worry about whether the two “fast movement” abilities are the same source. Problem: monk doesn’t get fast movement until 3rd level.

No problem: Carmendine Monk is a feat that makes us count as two levels higher for one of a selection of monk abilities, that includes fast movement. So with monk 1st we’d actually be monk 3rd for the purposes of fast movement, i.e. +10 feet, and that brings us to the 60 feet we need. We have to be a member of the Zealots of the Written Word, who are monks and followers of the Faerûn god Deneir. That should be fine for this challenge, as neither the monk’s fast movement nor the Carmendine Monk feat are supernatural in nature, and we’re already from Faerûn in order to take Fleet of Foot (neither the Shaar nor Thindol are exactly centers of Deneir worship, but the faith is still found in each).

In order to take Carmendine Monk, however, we have to be a monk, so since we get a feat at 1st and not at 2nd, we should actually start as a 1st-level monk, and then take our level of barbarian or druidic avenger. Barbarian is actually a bit of a problem because monks must be lawful and barbarians must not be lawful. Luckily for us, the chaos monk is found in Dragon vol. 335, and also gets the same fast movement ability, and since Deneir is Neutral Good there is no problem with us being a Chaotic Good 1st-level chaos monk/1st-level barbarian.

The other alternative, if barbarian is desired rather than druidic avenger, is the “swift and deadly hunter” variant druid from Unearthed Arcana instead of monk. Ironically, Unearthed Arcana does cover multiclassing between druidic avenger and “swift and deadly hunter,” and the fast movement officially has no problem stacking. The problem is whether or not such a druid can take Carmendine Monk, which requires being a member of the Zealots of the Written Word, who are “monks” devoted to Deneir, though nothing explicitly says you have to be a member of the monk class to join. Even if a swift and deadly hunter can join, whether or not counting two monk levels higher for fast movement is good enough for the swift and deadly hunter’s “fast movement (as monk)” feature is also unclear. This probably works, but then, in a sense, so did ardent or cleric, but since chaos monk and druidic avenger exist we don’t have to bother.

That means that in two hours we achieve 27.3 miles, or we complete the marathon in 1 hour, 55 minutes, 16.8 seconds.

• The Rules Compendium essentially prohibits creatures with Constitution as a nonability from running at all: "You can run for a number of rounds equal to your Constitution score, but after that you must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution check to continue running" (93). Further, a creature with Constitution as a nonability "automatically fails Constitution checks" (105). Jan 9 '20 at 20:52
• One question, how in the world did you find all these things? Some personal database, an online one, or sheer memory? Jan 9 '20 at 20:52
• @HeyICanChan Ah, huh. Don’t love that rule, but I suppose it works. Jan 9 '20 at 20:55
• @Medix2 A mix; a lot of it is memory, but for example, I had forgotten about Carmendine Monk’s bonus to effective monk level (I usually think of it as just an Int-to-AC option), and I didn’t know about Fleet of Foot at all. I do use various websites (imarvintpa, realmshelps, dndtools) for help searching and remembering things, though aside from imarvintpa I cannot and won’t link them since they are all very dubious with respect to copyright (and dndtools has been C&D’d by Wizards three or four times now). Still, for my personal use, I own almost all 3.5e sources: the sites just provide search. Jan 9 '20 at 20:57
• You could substitute the Monk chicanery for a 1st level Cleric of the Celerity domain, which also grants the +10 to speed. Jan 9 '20 at 21:20