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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.