This weekend, aided by a host of technological and environmental advances, three carefully selected elite African athletes will attempt to run the first sub-two-hour marathon.
The ‘Breaking2’ project is the latest enterprise of American sportswear giant Nike and has split opinion in the world of athletics, not to mention physiology.
In one camp are the ‘purists’, who claim that the host of benefits being bestowed on the runners, including revolutionary shoes, a pack of interchangeable pacemakers, and a non-traditional course, mean the attempt is a marketing gimmick.
In some ways this is possibly the worst time to start shouting about fast marathon times with Kenya’s Rio Olympic and London marathon women’s champion Jemima Sumgong’s recent positive doping test landing a body blow to the event.
Nike, and others, however, insist projects like ‘Breaking 2’ show that a combination of talent, training, and technology can produce astounding results without the need for chemical assistance.
Many people are intrigued to see just how much difference such a collection of ‘marginal gains’ can make and suggest that, at a time when athletics is reeling from relentless bad news, such a quantum leap in human endurance, arguably the greatest in the sport’s history, is something to be welcomed and celebrated.
Kenyan Dennis Kimetto set the current record of two hours, two minutes, 57 seconds in Berlin in 2014, which is about four minutes faster than it was in 1988. Kimetto’s time works out to 4:41.5 minutes per mile; a sub-2 would require less than 4:35 per mile — an improvement of about seven seconds per mile, or around 2.5%. On the face of it, that appears an impossible leap.
In 2014 the respected Runners World magazine published a data-driven analysis of more than 10,000 top marathon performances over 50 years that predicted a sub-2 under normal race conditions would not happen until 2075.
The key to this attempt is that Nike is trying to ensure all the other variables make such an impact that, in theory, the athletes will produce effort levels that equate to a 2.03 time but, boosted by all the extra help, will actually produce sub-2.
The course will be ratified by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the athletes will satisfy all the usual anti-doping requirements, but the attempt will not be an officially sanctioned world record due to a host of variables, detailed below.
After extensive physiological research, Nike put together a team of three — Eliud Kipchoge, a 32-year-old Kenyan is the standout performer. Last year’s Olympic marathon gold medalist and former 5,000m world champion has won seven of his eight marathons. His best of 2:03:05 is the third-fastest in history. Zersenay Tadese, from Eritrea, is the half-marathon world record holder with 58:23 minutes and, although he has nothing much in his locker over the full distance, Nike’s scientists identified him as having the potential to go much faster. The third is 26-year-old Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa who has a marathon best of 2:04.45 and is another athlete whose numbers in the area of VO2 max, which measures the maximum rate of oxygen consumption, lactate profile, which provides an indicator of fatigue during exercise, and running economy were second to none.
The 200g Zoom Vaporfly Elite is central to the whole project. Nike says the combination of a new foam and curved carbon insert, which also helps change the angle of the foot, means runners require 4% less energy to go at the same speed in comparison with their previous best shoe.
The shoes have been further custom-fitted for the three athletes — which should help prevent a repeat of the blisters that scuppered Ethiopian Keninisa Bekele’s London Marathon bid in similar Vaporfly 4% shoes.
A recent meeting of the IAAF technical committee ruled the shoes and their technology to be within their, admittedly vague, rules — though the Elite version will not be available for the public to buy.
Nike is also kitting its intrepid trio out in new socks, shorts, and singlet, all of which are claimed to offer an advantage in terms of aerodynamics and/or ventilation and support.
Again, many scoff at the idea but they also did that nearly 50 years ago when Briton Ron Hill broke the marathon record aided by a self-designed ‘cooling’ string vest.
The sub-2 attempt will be run on about 17 laps of a 1.5 mile (2.4km) loop that forms part of the Monza F1 track in northern Italy. After extensive research, it was selected due to a combination of environmental factors, including average temperature, air pressure, and wind levels. The surface, with no kerbs or cambers, was also considered optimal.
The course satisfies the rules on elevation that, for example, rule out records set on the overall downhill route of the Boston Marathon.
One area where the Monza track could give a tangible advantage is that the athletes will run exactly the marathon distance. Even on the fastest road courses, the fact that the ‘blue line’ has to follow curves and is marked a minimum distance from the kerb means that runners often actually cover many more metres than the 26 miles, 385 yards that has been the standard since the 1908 Olympics.
This is another area where quantifiable benefits can be seen — and is the one that seems to have turned many people against the attempt.
The three runners will be sheltered throughout the attempt by a group of pacemakers, who will dip in and out at various times to ensure they maintain the demanded pace. Similar packs are used at big city marathons, with the only real difference being they have to start the race together.
Such a controversy is not new. Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile was achieved with the aid of two pacemakers, while IAAF head Seb Coe’s golden run of world records in the early 1980s, and dozens more since, have all been set that way.
An indication of how having pacemakers for the entire distance can help is the women’s world record. Radcliffe set her 2.15.25 while being shielded by male runners throughout in the London Marathon of 2003. Nobody has got remotely close to it since and, as a result, there are now two official women’s world records. The Briton’s 2.15.25 and another set in ‘women-only’ races. Radcliffe’s mark under those rules being beaten by Mary Ketainy’s 2.17.01 at London last month.
Nike organised a practice event at Monza in March, where the athletes ingested core-temperature pills and used taped-on muscle oxygen and skin-temperature sensors. The runners followed a car with a large clock on the back showing elapsed time, splits, and projected finish time. They were also served drinks ‘on the move’ via a moped, avoiding the need to slow and lose rhythm at traditional drinks stations — another innovation the IAAF have concerns about.
The last four world record holders — Kimetto, Wilson Kipsang, Patrick Makau, and Haile Gebrselassie — have been sponsored by Nike’s rival Adidas and the German company is also running its own ‘Sub2’ project, complete with a new shoe of the same name. “Our Sub2 focus will continue to be led by innovation that helps to achieve new speeds in race environments, with more to come later this year,” said Adidas.
In 2014, Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton, launched another Sub2Hr Project with an initial goal of breaking the barrier within five years, but his independent project appears to have stalled as he struggles to raise the $30m he estimates will be needed over the five-year period.