When does sport become science fiction? When does running, this most natural and elemental form of exercise, become less about competition and more about experimentation?
In Vienna, Austria tomorrow, we’ll likely get our answer.
On the surface, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge has a noble and worthwhile goal — to have a man run the first sub-two-hour marathon in history — and yet so much of the drive towards that barrier is not about the athlete but the add-ons: New-age technology that is making many wonder what they’re watching.
Make no mistake: The athlete at its heart, Eliud Kipchoge, is the greatest marathoner in history, one whose supremacy at the event is dictatorial over the last six years. The 34-year-old Kenyan is the Olympic champion, has won 10 straight major marathons, and set the official world record last year in Berlin at 2:01:39.
Kipchoge has never had a shadow surrounding his accomplishments, his only crime in inviting the inevitable suspicion being just how fast he can run 26.2 miles (42.2km). Early tomorrow, he’ll set off from the Reichsbrücke bridge in Vienna and make a 1.2km run to the Praterstern roundabout, where he’ll begin four laps of 9.6km circuit which is almost completely flat, with just 2.4m of elevation change.
From the start, he will run at a pace of 2:50 per kilometre or 4:33 per mile and if all goes well, he’ll hit the finish in the Prater with his name etched among the immortals. But if it happens — and those close to Kipchoge are supremely confident it will — should it be lauded as a triumph for talent or technology?
In truth, it’s both.
No matter what he runs, Kipchoge’s time will not be a world record due to the use of a team of rotating pacemakers, 41 of them in all, who will alternate shifts of blocking the wind for Kipchoge.
This was the same setup used during the previous attempt at the two-hour barrier, on a race track in Monza, Italy in May 2017, which was orchestrated by Nike. Another reason it will be ineligible for record purposes is that Kipchoge will be handed drinks at regular intervals from a bike rather than picking them off a table, as required by IAAF regulations.
But if it’s not an official record, why bother? Yesterday afternoon Kipchoge was asked about his reasons for pursuing this goal when he has, in a record-eligible race, already re-positioned the boundaries of human ability.
“Berlin was about running a world record,” he said.
The truth is we’re likely a few decades away from seeing sub-two in a major marathon, so the only way it will arrive during Kipchoge’s career is in this manufactured setting. His motives are undeniably worthwhile, and few in the sport are as well-regarded as Kipchoge, an avid reader of self-help books who can sound more like a philosopher than an athlete when he speaks.
Controversy is never far from the conversation when it comes to breakthrough performances and for multiple reasons, this is no exception. The entire project is being funded by INEOS, a petrochemical company owned by the richest man in Britain, Jim Ratcliffe.
INEOS has racked up a series of permit violations related to air and water emissions over the past decade and despite making over £2bn (€2.3bn) profit last year, it has a history of opposing EU taxes and environmental rules.
Earlier this year it made its entry into high-level sport by purchasing Team Sky in cycling and many saw that as an attempt at sports-washing, a bid for INEOS to undo negative publicity surrounding its environmental impact.
But whatever about the ethics of the sponsor, what’s clear is that with Ratcliffe’s firm bankrolling the project, no stone has been left unturned in a bid to maximize Kipchoge’s chances.
The course — the Prater park in Vienna — was picked after a worldwide search using software to find locations that have ideal parameters for temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, elevation and precipitation at this time of year.
Forty-one world-class distance runners have been recruited as pacemakers, many of them paid five-figure sums to take part. Throughout the race, Kipchoge will be shielded from the elements with five athletes running in front of him in a V-shape, and another two just behind to either side, which was found during testing as the most efficient way to reduce drag.
A car will be driven in front moving at 21 km an hour, with a large clock on its back to inform athletes of their pace and to further reduce drag. A laser will be projected on the road in front of the pacemakers to ensure they keep an even, exact pace.
Kipchoge will run up and back on a 4.8km stretch of straight road which has roundabouts at either end. Such is the attention to detail that a camber has been built into the road as it circles the roundabout to ensure maximum efficiency, much like those seen on an indoor running track.
Kipchoge will consume water during the race but also a carbohydrate drink made by Maurten, a Swedish manufacturer which used breakthrough technology to create drinks that are far more effective at being absorbed and utilised by the body than traditional sports drinks.
Every time Kipchoge takes a drink from a bottle and discards it, it will be picked up and weighed to measure exactly how much was consumed, with feedback given to guide his future intake. There is no doubt, however, where the biggest performance edge is found, beyond Kipchoge’s ability: it’s in the shoes.
Back in 2016 Nike first introduced a prototype for its Vaporfly 4% shoe, so-called because independent research revealed it improved running economy by 4% compared to other top-of-the-line racing shoes.
Kipchoge was one of the very few athletes to get access to that shoe before a modified version of it hit the mass market in 2017 to coincide with Nike’s Breaking2 attempt and he wore it to win Olympic gold in 2016.
By now there is no doubt: the shoes work, so effectively that some world-class marathoners sponsored by rival brands have purchased them and painted over the Nike logos before wearing them to victory in major marathons in recent years.
The key feature is the use of a spoon-shaped carbon fibre blade in the midsole which is astonishingly effective at propelling athletes forward. In April this year Nike released the latest incarnation of the shoe, the Next%, which was 15g lighter than its predecessor and featured an even thicker midsole.
Nike has remained tight-lipped about the shoe Kipchoge will wear tomorrow and did not respond to questions about it earlier this week, but it’s understood to be far more efficient than the previous version.
In August last year Nike filed patents for a shoe design with pod-like cushioning arrangements of foam in its midsole combined with up to three carbon fibre plates of different lengths, a design that has never been seen before in high-level running shoes.
Kipchoge has been training in one such prototype for the past few months and a mass-market version of the shoe he will wear tomorrow is set to hit the shelves next year.
But should it be banned? Many in the sport believe so, given the IAAF rule states that shoes “must be reasonably available to all” which is not the case with the version currently being worn by Kipchoge.
However, the IAAF has yet to take action so the technological arms race continues, with rivals brands now building shoes with carbon fibre blades in time for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
If Kipchoge does run under two hours, the greatest pity is many will wonder how much of his achievement is down to talent, hard work and the expert guidance of long-time coach Patrick Sang, and how much is down to the shoe designers at Nike who have changed the game in distance-running in recent years.
Regardless of his result, Kipchoge will still hold the official world record at 2:01:39, and most in the sport will still see that as the best marathon performance of all time.
If the barrier falls, this will simply not be on a par with the four-minute mile, cracked for the first time by Roger Bannister in 1954, because this will remain a mark with an asterisk alongside.
But Kipchoge is okay with that. As he said, this isn’t about the record books as the IAAF keeps them. He may have a team of pacemakers, he may be the only participant and he may be handed his drinks from a bike rather than a table, but such bending of the rules doesn’t remove the reality that we are about to witness a man running 26.2 miles in two hours — or even less.
Beyond all the noise, that is a truly seismic achievement.