Completing a sub-two-hour marathon remains one of the last great barriers in athletics, but in achieving a time of 2:00:25, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge came closer than any man in history to achieving the feat. We look at Kipchoge’s effort, and consider what it will take for any athlete to go under two hours

Athletes are always searching for ways to run faster, jump higher and endure more pain than those who came before them. Because of this mindset, generation after generation of athletes have been able to make the impossible possible, so we’ve seen Usain Bolt run 100m in just under 9.58 seconds; we’ve seen Michael Phelps win 23 Olympic gold medals and we’ve seen Muhammad Ali come back from an unjust, enforced exile to regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Yet even with athletes’ ability to do the impossible, there is still one feat no athlete has been able to accomplish, and I don’t want to sound too much like the Dumbo soundtrack here, but even after all we’ve seen athletes accomplish, we’ll have done seen about everything when we see an athlete run a marathon in under two hours.

But breaking the two-hour limit in the marathon probably has less to do with breaking a sporting barrier and more in common with America’s pursuit of putting a man on the moon in the 60s, such is the leap that needs to be made to achieve the goal. Last month, though, Nike took a ‘moon shot’ and attempted to reduce the marathon record from 2:02:57 – held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya – to under two hours, which represents roughly a 2.5% performance improvement.

Ultimately, Nike’s controversial effort was unsuccessful, but it did redefine what we know to be possible in the marathon, as Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge ran the 42.195km or 26.2 miles in two hours and twenty-five seconds, as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project. Kipchoge’s achievement wasn’t officially recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and whether that’s right or wrong is the cause of much debate, but regardless of whether Kipchoge’s run was official or not, it did something much more important: it raised hopes that we might just be on the verge of seeing an elephant fly.

Making a marathon runner

The 2.5% performance improvement  – which is huge –needed to run a marathon in under two hours means that a sub-two-hour marathon still seems like almost an impossible dream to most, but beside all the sceptics, there is at least one man who believes it is possible, and he has been saying so for more than 25 years. However, Mayo Clinic researcher Michael Joyner is careful to point out that the ‘prediction’ he made in 1991 wasn’t really a wild guess about whether someone could run a marathon in under two hours; instead, he says that he laid out a blueprint of what it would take for the perfect athlete to go sub two.

If one person had the best Vo2 max , the best lactate threshold and the best running economy they’d break two hours

“In the late 60s and early 70s, it became pretty clear that there were three main physiological factors that were determinants of distance running performance,” says Joyner. “These factors are VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen someone can transport, something called the lactate threshold and running economy. I just simply said what would happen if an individual had the best value for each of these variables that had even been reported in the scientific literature.

“If one person had the best VO2 max, the best lactate threshold and the best running economy they’d break two hours. People think it was a prediction; it really wasn’t so much a prediction. The goal wasn’t to predict that somebody could break two hours, but to say why is there this gap, and if there’s a gap in the times is there a gap in our knowledge?

“I identified some issues related to fatigue. Not much is known about running economy, and that’s still true; [I also looked at] issues like genetics and some other things that maybe hadn’t been explored as much, so this was really an effort to identify issues that needed further exploration, as opposed to a flat out prediction. Obviously that’s morphed into a prediction over the years as the record came down. But what started as an intellectual exercise now makes me a visionary.”

Breaking2

Nike’s effort to break the two-hour marathon mark didn’t just require the efforts of some of the fastest endurance runners on the planet, it also utilised some of the sharpest minds from the worlds of biomechanics, nutrition, physiology, engineering and materials development. Joyner himself didn’t work on Nike’s Breaking2 project, but the man leading the research effort on Breaking2, Brad Wilkins, previously worked in Joyner’s office, and as he says, the Nike team “were clearly familiar with what I had done”.

Nike’s attempt took place at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza outside Milan, Italy. Monza was chosen because it has very few bends, which meant that runners wouldn’t expend as much energy needlessly going around curves. The Monza course was also handpicked because of the ease at which other runners, acting as pacemakers, could to slip in and out of race.

Image courtesy of Nike

Kipchoge’s attempt wasn’t done alone; he benefited from a slipstream created by other runners that pulled him towards the finish like a cyclist in a peloton, saving crucial energy, as well as acting as a windbreak. Nike and Kipchoge used a total of 30 pacers who were split into teams of three runners and each instructed to run at sub-two-hour pace, three times. The pacers are a major reason why the IAAF doesn’t recognise the attempt, but that’s not to say athletics’ governing body has a problem with using pace makers specifically: this isn’t new or uncommon. What it has a problem with is having them jump in and out of the race.

Despite the lack of recognition for Breaking2, runners, researchers and scientists all came together under the Nike banner to accomplish something truly amazing. But Nike wasn’t purely motivated by devotion to the art of marathon running. Like any sport Nike finds itself intimately involved in, its ultimate aim was to sell shoes. In the end, substituting pacers to keep Kipchoge at sub-two-hour pace proved less controversial than the sneakers on his feet.

As Joyner points out though, Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes, which the company says use a special carbon-fibre plate in the soles to make runners 4% more efficient than Nike’s previous fastest marathon shoe, aren’t really giving runners anything they couldn’t previously have gotten from the track itself.

“People have been tuning tracks for many years to try to maximise the elastic recoil and the bio mechanics of running,” says Joyner. “Basically all Nike did was take the track and put it in the shoe, so there’s nothing new about the ideas that they’re using.”

The perfect athlete

For around 20 miles, Eliud Kipchoge was able to maintain a sub-two-hour marathon pace, which is extraordinary in and of itself. Add that, by getting to within 26 seconds of running a marathon in under two hours, he and the rest of the runners and researchers have thrust marathon running forward by years. But is Kipchoge the perfect athlete Michael Joyner talked about back in 1991, and what makes him able to maintain a speed of around 13.1mph for 20 miles?

“It’s unusual to find high levels of running economy and VO2 max in the same person,” says Joyner. “These traits are also very rare, so if it’s a one-in-a-thousand trait or a one-in-ten-thousand trait and if you have to be the best ever for all three [running economy, VO2 max and lactate threshold], you do the math. You’re getting into the one in a billion, one in a trillion sorts of range.”

Despite Kipchoge being a one-in-a-billion, one-in-a-trillion athlete, Joyner isn’t convinced that his ability is completely down to nature and cites Kipchoge’s Kenyan upbringing as a major contributing factor to his success.

“These men are born at high altitude, they’re physically active their whole life, per capita income is less than one thousand dollars a year, so it’s a tremendous opportunity for them,” says Joyner. “They’re the right size and so forth, and if they have any natural ability it’s honed by training 100 to 200km per week at high altitude and really pushing it.”

Revising history

Whatever you think about the IAAF decision not to recognise Kipchoge’s achievement, he is the only man in the world to come close to running a sub-two-hour marathon, and he may well be the only man in the world who is capable. To the uninitiated it may seem that, given the techniques and tech used to propel Kipchoge towards a 2:00:25 time, his achievement is somewhat hollow, especially when compared with previous world record feats like Sir Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile, but, as Joyner explains, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

There’s a bit of revisionist history around Sir Roger, and one of the things that people have to understand is for his time Roger Bannister had a very high-tech effort

“There’s a bit of revisionist history around Sir Roger, and one of the things that people have to understand is for his time Roger Bannister had a very high-tech effort,” says Joyner. “The track had been refurbished and was state of the art. Bannister worked with a man call Dan Cunningham who was a superb respiratory physiologist and actually has a number of outstanding publications in the journal of physiology on the effects of oxygen on athletic performance, and he also had Chris Brasher and Chris Chadaway pacing. Brasher ultimately won an Olympic gold medal, and Chadaway eventually became a record holder at 5,000m and also broke four minutes sometime in the mid 1950s.

“So Bannister had a state-of-the-art track, he was paced and he had state-of-the-art physiology knowledge at the time. Bannister also had state-of-the-art training. I remember being painted this picture of a medical student who does his training in his spare time, and that’s certainly true, but he was coached by a man called Franz Stampfl who was one of the early advocates of interval training. Bannister was under the influence of Stampfl for one or two years prior to his effort. It made a huge difference.”

Sub two

Kipchoge came close, but ultimately even he wasn’t able to go sub-two hours, so what now? Will we ever see a man run a marathon within the time? Kipchoge himself is quoted as saying “the world is only 25 seconds away,” and Joyner, having said that a marathon time of under two hour was possible in 1991, isn’t about to change his mind now either.

“I think once people get to 2:01:30 the fun will begin,” says Joyner. ”I think someone will set up a sanctioned race on a perfect course with a prize money scheme that will get forty or fifty really good runners there and will encourage those runners to all work together in sort of a drafting pack like they do in cycling.”

Unfortunately, unlike other sports, marathon runners only get around two efforts a year in a five to ten-year career in which to create history. But make no mistake: the sub-two-hour marathon is coming because some day, some athlete will find a way to run faster and endure more pain than ever before. It’s what athletes do.

With billions of dollars being invested in building Disneyland-style, IoT connected stadiums, operators and sports clubs are entering a technologically enriched era, but can these sporting wonderlands tempt fans to give up their armchairs?

There’s nothing quite like the atmosphere inside a stadium during a sporting event: the roar of the crowd, the smell of overpriced fried food, the chanting, giant hats and foam fingers. The live spectator experience is a well-established cultural pastime that has been surprisingly resilient to social and economic changes, with fans travelling far and wide to watch their favourite players and athletes perform. But, the appeal of watching live, in-the-moment events is slipping.

Thanks to surging ticket prices and improved TV quality and camera options for home-viewing, stadium attendance is falling as even the most dedicated fans struggle to justify forking out their hard-earned cash for a sub-par view of the game. While technological developments have changed the way that sport is played on the ground, in the grandstand, digital improvements have been sorely lacking. Until now.

With billions of dollars invested in building Disneyland-style, IoT connected stadiums, operators and sports clubs are finally entering a technologically enriched era. However, in order to provide a stadium experience like never before, venue owners are asking fans to hand over large amounts of personal data. And with sophisticated surveillance systems following their every move, are connected stadiums forcing fans to sacrifice more than just their hard-earned cash for a heightened stadium experience?

If we build it they will come

When Japan announced its bid for the 2022 World Cup in 2010, it promised 200 HD cameras that would record 360° coverage of games and broadcast them live in 3D, with holographic projections allowing players to appear in stadiums around the world. The whole premise seemed a bit more sci-fi than reality. But in 2017, that holographic dream isn’t too far off.

Rapid technological developments have changed the way fans watch sporting events. From smartphones to high definition pause and play TV systems, advanced technology is now a ubiquitous part of modern life and the range of options available to modern spectators has grown. Armed with their devices, sports fans have become accustomed to receiving immediate game updates, play-by-play action and multiple camera angles. In contrast, the technology available inside stadiums felt outdated and compared with the multi-angle, on-demand coverage provided by live TV coverage, the glamour of the single-seat experience is fading.

While the live experience of in-stadium viewing cannot be replicated, even the most dedicated fans are struggling to justify paying the surging ticket prices for a subpar view of the game. To counter the threat from on-demand TV streaming, stadium owners are investing billions to transform outdated sporting venues into high-tech wonderlands. While bigger may have meant better in the past, stadium operators have entered an arms race of technological innovation as one by one, a steady stream of advanced and connected ‘smart’ stadiums are unveiled.

The technology used to run these stadiums is a far cry from the introduction of electronic scoreboards in the 1950s. Nowadays, clubs avidly boast about the Wi-Fi connection available inside stadiums that look more like Las Vegas casinos than sporting arenas. Gargantuan structures, such as the Sacramento Kings Golden 1 centre in the US or the design for the new Tottenham Hotspur ground in the UK, place increased focus on expanding the live event by connecting fans with an experience that it’s worth leaving home for.

These new designs offer far more than simply the viewing, they include shops, dining, bars, VR experiences and luxury lounges all in one convenient location. Fans can capture and upload gameplay, use their smartphones to find out which gate has the shortest queue time. They can even order food from their seat. Oh, and there is also sport.

Tracking and targeting fans

Unsurprisingly, the grainy black and white footage captured by old-school security cameras doesn’t quite cut the rug in these supercharged, technology-driven smart stadiums. While spectators may be focused on the novel developments designed to improve the viewing experience inside of these multiplex superstructures, behind the screens advanced data analytics and sophisticated systems are being used to watch a different kind of action.

Stadium operators are starting to pay more attention to who is filling the stands, rather than blindly selling tickets. There are two main reasons for this: security and data collection. Sporting events have always been a prime target for those looking to create as much panic and chaos as possible. The massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, explosions outside of the Bernabéu stadium hours before hours before a European Champions League semi-final in 2002, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 Stade de France attack; each fresh incident has left a significant mark on the sporting world. So, it’s understandable why sports authorities and stadium owners are keen to upgrade the systems used to prevent future incidents.

With access to consumer data through electronic tickets, app logins, social media streams and even fingerprint ID scanning, stadium owners can build a personalised fan portfolio for each individual who enters the ground, before, during and after the event has taken place. However, in order to provide an up-to-date, personalised stadium, you need to understand your fans inside and out.

Bar breaking into their houses and reading their diaries (which I am told is still considered way too invasive) clubs had little access to fans’ personal information

Now, in the past this was a little bit tricky. Bar breaking into their houses and reading their diaries (which I am told is still considered way too invasive) clubs had little access to fans’ personal information. But thanks to the internet, modern stadium owners have access to a mass of data which allows them to track and target spectators. For example, if a spectator is connected to the stadium Wi-Fi or using an official app, a team could use this connection to push out customised content for that user, such as live replays, links to social media channels or targeted adverts.

For obvious reasons, many stadium owners remain tight lipped about the extent of their new internal surveillance systems, but in the US, security firms tasked with monitoring crowd behaviour are increasingly turning to social media to identify potential troublemakers. Specialised and customisable systems, such as Babel Street and Geofeedia, similar to those already employed by police forces and government authorities, allow security staff to scan through posts published on social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Once fans are inside the stadium, personal identifiers, e.g. smartphones and electronic tickets, eliminate the perceived anonymity. With fans no longer just nameless face in the crowd, multi-angle GPU facial recognition technology can track spectators wherever they go. Any trouble, and they are gone.

Do sports teams care about safety or commerce? 

Sporting events draw in thousands of people, including attendees who don’t always behave – or get on – all packed into one big venue. In some cases, this brings out everything that is brilliant about sport. In others, well, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster. The security challenges facing stadiums are complex. Not only do they have to contend with the rowdy behaviour and general nuisance of disorderly fans, but the capacity and publicity of stadium venues make them a significant target for terror attacks.

So, it should come as no surprise that security is high up on the list of concerns for stadiums, sporting bodies, the police and basically everyone else involved in planning large-scale stadium events. And so far, the smart stadium trend has only increased the demands placed on security services. Hailed to be the most advanced stadium in the Europe, the revamped design of Spurs’ new White Hart Lane ground has gained permission to increase capacity from the original plan of 56,000 to 61,559 seats. While this increase may boost revenue for Spurs, increased security measures can hamper the spectator experience.

Some football clubs have attempted to bypass potential disruptions by introducing fingerprints and iris scanners, which fans can opt for if they want to avoid the queues for security checks. But given that there are very few events where customers would offer this extreme level of identifiable personal information without also passing through security checks to ensure they aren’t bringing dangerous items into the ground, the appearance of these systems seems less safety driven and more to do with tracking fans’ behaviour and purchasing habits.

Heightened safety measures are an understandable upgrade for stadiums tasked with controlling modern crowds. But as clubs explore the potential of advanced technology in live sporting events, privacy concerns are likely to dog invasive developments that use personal data to increase revenue and drive profits rather than ensuring the safety of spectators.