FIND­ING 26 SEC­ONDS

How Nike's ul­tra-con­trolled, grip­ping and con­tro­ver­sial project to break the two-hour bar­rier in the marathon will change run­ning for­ever

Canadian Running - - EXOTIC DESTINATION - By Michael Doyle

The three men stood at the start­ing line in the pre-dawn indigo, with only the head­lights of the chase Tesla back­light­ing them. They stood be­fore the loom­ing broad­cast cam­era, sur­rounded by the Ital­ian for­est. An eerie si­lence. The scene was more rem­i­nis­cent of a sci­ence fic­tion film than an ath­let­ics event.

They’d been se­lected by Nike, pared down from 60 of the best dis­tance run­ners the com­pany spon­sored. Zerse­nay Tadese, Lilesa De­sisa and Eliud Kip­choge were the last three stand­ing, run­ning a gaunt­let of test­ing and eval­u­a­tion for a project that was al­ready in the works for years, and would take another two more to get them to where they were now stand­ing. These three marathon­ers were charged with what’s been com­pared to the ath­letic equiv­a­lent of the Apollo space mis­sions, which put a man on the moon. A bet­ter com­par­i­son of Break­ing2, it’s chris­tened co­de­name, would be Project Mer­cury, nasa’s rad­i­cal f irst at­tempt at putting a hu­man be­ing in space.

The three se­lected men stood out from their six pac­ers, who were uni­formly clad in black. Tadese in pale blue, De­sisa in white and Kip­choge, al­ready one of the great­est marathon­ers of all time, in a car­di­nal red sin­glet. And all the fo­cus was on him on the lonely road, with just these nine run­ners, the small group of sports sci­en­tists that shep­herded the project, and the Nike sup­port team gath­ered to start Break­ing2 on the tar­mac of the back curve of the 2. 4-kilo­me­tre track of the Au­to­dromo Nazionale Monza, the fastest F1 track in the world. A F1 test driver sat be­hind the wheel of the lead Tesla, hired to drive a re­lent­less and unf linch­ing pace of a half-sec­ond faster than 21.1km/hr six me­tres ahead of the run­ners – hope­fully de­liv­er­ing one of them to a 1:59:59 marathon. If none of the run­ners could keep up, he would carry on, haunt­ing them, his brake lights fading around the next bend in the track.

There was no great cheer f rom t he 110,000-ca­pac­ity grand­stands when the trio set out to break two hours in the marathon. Af­ter all, there were only about 200 peo­ple in at­ten­dance in Monza, and we were all rel­e­gated to the fin­ish line area. Nike had de­cided that Break­ing2 would be a highly con­trolled ex­per­i­ment. The crowd con­sisted of about 100 in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ists (hand­picked by Nike), 50 or so lucky mem­bers of Nike’s Run Club, who’d been glamp­ing just off­site, and an over­worked and un­der-slept crew of about 50 the com­pany’s most trusted em­ploy­ees, brought in from around the world, to fully con­trol ev­ery pos­si­ble vari­able of this grand run­ning ex­per­i­ment.

Sandy Bodecker, a VP with Nike, who was so in­vested in the project that he had “1:59:59” tat­tooed on his wrist, held the air horn, ner­vously sway­ing side-to-side. The com­men­ta­tors, loom­ing above him, men­tion this de­tail and the cam­era, also sus­pended over­head and al­ways watch­ing, catches Bodecker’s ner­vous smile as he is the spot­light for a mo­ment. This is the Break­ing2 broad­cast and, re­ally, the iden­tity of the project it­self – painfully self-aware, tense, per­sonal and, as is used many times by the Nike team, au­da­cious.

The pre-dawn sky, un­clear and threat­en­ing to let loose rain at some point in the day, is in­ter­rupted by a laser fired onto the ground from the back of the Tesla which il­lu­mi­nates the spot where a 1:59:59 will be achieved. The pha­lanx of six pac­ers shake their legs out as the green line cuts across them.

The silent Tesla turns on. All we hear is bird­song over­top the pen­sive elec­tronic

sound­track back at the fin­ish line. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of Trent Reznor and At­ti­cus Ross’s work on David Fincher films. Livestream host Sal Masekela, a vet­eran of the de­cid­edly more up­tempo X Games broad­casts, echoes through­out the sur­round­ing for­est of Monza Park, which was once Napoleon’s step­son’s back­yard when Italy was un­der French oc­cu­pa­tion at t he t urn of t he 18th cen­tury.

Bodecker pulls the airhorn. The ath­letes lunge for­ward del­i­cately, like the be­gin­ning of a 10,000m track race more than the scrum of a big city road race. The six pac­ers quickly form a pro­tec­tive chevron, and the back three will be sub­bing in and out just be­fore the end of each lap. This group of wind block­ers and quiet cheer­lead­ers will serve as the sin­gle most im­por­tant com­po­nent in get­ting Eliud Kip­choge so close to the un­think­able in 17 laps time.

Apart from the rhyth­mic din of their foot­falls, the run­ners only hear the birds and the dis­tant echo of Paula Rad­cliffe, also com­men­tat­ing. Then, the soon to be cru­cial beep of the first 200m tim­ing mat. The num­bers f lash up on the board af­fixed atop of the Tesla: 35 sec­onds. On pace for 2:50/km, 1:59:59 pace. These tiny splits will be­come con­stant and cru­cial feed­back for Kip­choge as the enor­mity of the task be­comes over­whelm­ing. For now, he just fo­cuses on his foot­fall – his cus­tom made Va­por­Fly Elites strik­ing the tar­mac just to the right of the red painted line. His per­fect path to a sub-twohour marathon.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE SHOES

“To fo­cus too much on the shoes is a mis­take,” says Dr. Philip Sk­iba of the Nike Sports Re­search Lab ( nsrl) when asked about the role Nike’s cus­tom shoe has played in this whole project. “The shoes don’t go with­out the hu­man. The shoes don’t pro­vide any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. This is not magic. We’re re­ally fo­cused on the per­son. What can we do to get the most amount out of the hu­man.”

“I think the first place we wanted to start was to ex­plore hu­man po­ten­tial,” says Dr. Brett Kirby, the lead phys­i­ol­o­gist for the project, re­spond­ing to a ques­tion about why the nsrl, who’ve spear­headed Break­ing2 since 2014, de­cided to stage a closed event in­stead of an old-fash­ioned race. “We had to en­able them and give the cer­tain cir­cum­stances to al­low them to un­veil the pos­si­bil­ity.”

Break­ing2 has been framed as a highly con­trolled event, leav­ing no vari­able to chance and ob­sess­ing over per­fec­tion in a sport where the el­e­ments often play the big­gest role in the out­come. But the Beaver­ton, Ore.-based nsrl team have been sur­pris­ingly hands off about many key fac­tors that de­ter­mine the out­come of a marathon. For one, they only vis­ited Tadese, De­sisa and Lilesa in their re­spec­tive train­ing en­vi­ron­ments a few times, check­ing in and of­fer­ing help in ar­eas they de­ter­mined in the lab to be weak spots in their train­ing and prepa­ra­tion.

About 20 ath­letes train with Kip­choge at the Global Sports camp in Ka­plan­gat, Kenya. They live like monks. Kip­choge, a wealthy and pow­er­ful man in Kenya, shares a room with a train­ing part­ner, and sleeps in a sin­gle bed. A small poster hangs over it with a quote by the Brazil­ian writer Paulo Coelho, re­mind­ing Kip­choge, “If you want to be suc­cess­ful, you re­spect one rule: never lie to your­self.” Out back, the 20 ath­letes share a sin­gle out­door la­trine.

The dirt track where they do their hard­est ses­sions is sur­rounded by trees and scat­tered shacks in the dis­tance, with one makeshift metal grand­stand, its Kelly green and white paint f leck­ing with age. It could only fit maybe 15 peo­ple, but no one at­tends as the great­est marathoner in his­tory trains for the most im­por­tant run of his life.

“They’re go­ing into this and say­ing, ‘ This is un­known to me,’ and they have to ex­plore the way they train and eat and raise the level,” says Kirby, in a me­dia scrum at the track on the eve of the race. Kirby will fol­low the three run­ners for the en­tire race on a bi­cy­cle, of­fer­ing up a to­tally dif­fer­ent ap­proach to nu­tri­tion and hy­dra­tion than ever at­tempted pre­vi­ously in a marathon. nsrl is guarded about the de­tails of the ath­letes’ fu­elling strate­gies, but they say that they’ve cal­i­brated each run­ner’s plan to meet their needs based on in­tense lab test­ing. Kirby and Sk­iba, do say that one ma­jor mis­take a run­ner makes in a marathon is throw­ing the same type of carb at the body through­out the race, and only at 5k intervals in larger quan­ti­ties.

Kip­choge ended up us­ing a new Swedish prod­uct cre­ated by a startup called Mau­rten. It’s taste­less and was ad­min­is­tered along the course in small, steady in­cre­ments. The dif­fer­ence be­tween Mau­rten and a tra­di­tional sports drink like Ga­torade is that it’s made of al­gae and pectin, in­stead of su­gar and an electrolyte so­lu­tion. Per­fectly bal­anced, this com­bi­na­tion can be ab­sorbed by the body three times more ef­fi­ciently. The prob­lem with tra­di­tional su­gar-based drinks is that, as the carb con­cen­tra­tion in­creases, the stom­ach actually slows down the ab­sorp­tion pe­riod. Kenin­isa Bekele used it in his win­ning run at the 2016 Ber­lin Marathon, run­ning the sec­ond fastest marathon of all time. In an in­ter­view with Sports Il­lus­trated, one of Mau­rten’s founders called it the Tesla of sports drinks – fit­ting for Break­ing2, which is per­haps the Tesla of marathons.

BUT WHAT ABOUT BER­LIN?

“I don’t think any of the ma­jor city marathon cour­ses are per­fect,” says Dr. Andy Jones, who was brought in to con­sult as a mem­ber of the nsrl team from the Uni­ver­sity of Ex­eter. His work with Paula Rad­cliffe led to her world record marathon break­through, ar­guably a per­for­mance on par with a 1:59 marathon, which was done on a con­ven­tional course at the Lon­don Marathon. “They all have twists and turns and cob­bles or hills, we wanted a com­pletely op­ti­mal course and con­di­tions with this.”

The four sci­en­tists, led by Dr. Brad Wilkins, the di­rec­tor of nsrl, scru­ti­nized the con­cept of the marathon and fix­ated on the as­pects that seemed to take away from an ath­lete’s op­ti­mal op­por­tu­nity to per­form at 100 per cent. They de­cided they needed to con­trol for tem­per­a­ture, wind, hu­mid­ity, and ide­ally have a cloudy day. “In a big city marathon, those are fixed be­cause of the thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants,” Jones points out on the balmy af­ter­noon be­fore Break­ing2 was set to hap­pen. When I came to Italy, Nike left my re­turn f light open, telling me they might move the race a day. If Break­ing2 were set to hap­pen on the Satur­day, it would have been a non-starter, some­thing no ma­jor city race can af­ford to do.

Be­fore set­tling on Monza, the team looked at just about ev­ery po­ten­tially op­ti­mal stretch for run­ning a fast yet fair marathon. They in­spected a dyke in the Nether­lands with a favourable tail­wind (which they ap­par­ently dis­missed to avoid crit­i­cism about the wind). They sought out a large in­door course and con­sid­ered the con­ven­tion cen­tre in Chicago, but they couldn’t har­ness the air con­di­tion­ing. They also ap­par­ently looked at another F1 track, in Mon­treal, but the weather was not trust­wor­thy enough. Pick­ing the home of the Ital­ian F1 Grand Prix, a palace of mod­ern speed-cen­tric tech­nol­ogy, seemed like a bril­liant mar­ket­ing move. But Monza’s weather, el­e­va­tion and grad­ual course are ideal for an out­door at­tempt at a fast marathon.

But the weather con­tin­ued to be a vex­ing prob­lem. Sure, the start­ing tem­per­a­ture as the run­ners stood on the back­side of the track was 10 C, which is nearly ideal for run­ning a fast marathon, but the hu­mid­ity re­mained high through­out the race, and even in­creased as it went on. Hu­mid­ity can be tricky; if it’s not overly warm, it seems like a non-fac­tor. The over­cast sky kept the pul­ver­iz­ing sun from scorch­ing the run­ners, but the blan­ket of mois­ture pro­duced a slow smoth­er­ing ef­fect, like sit­ting in a closed garage with a Vespa idling in the cor­ner. It seems in­ef­fec­tual, al­most cute at first. But, in time, its vapours have a vam­piric ef­fect on you.

THE CROWD GOES SILENT

Stand­ing at the side­line, Break­ing2 quickly be­came pen­sive yet hyp­notic. The first jar­ring shift back to the re­al­ity of watch­ing a group of run­ners f loat by at 2:50/km was when De­sisa was quickly dropped at 51 min­utes. Just as in any ma­jor city marathon, he seemed to shoot off the back, dis­carded to run his own race. Then Tadese be­gan to slip, los­ing con­tact just af­ter 59 min­utes, as the rest of the ar­row­head neared the half­way mark on pace.

At about 35k, Kip­choge be­gins to show signs of fa­tigue, with his pack of six pac­ers slip­ping back ever so slightly, first by only a few sec­onds, opt­ing to stay with him in­stead of chas­ing the un­car­ing Tesla.

With three laps to go, Kip­choge be­gins to smile. He starts look­ing up more, at noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, but tak­ing in what he’s in the midst of do­ing. He is suf­fer­ing, yes, but that’s in a sense why he starts to smile: he’s choos­ing to do this, to hurt.

As they rounded the cor­ner past the 38k marker, the Tesla al­ready left the turn, too far out of reach. Kip­choge takes his fuel any­way, and car­ries on. It’s silent as they hit the back stretch, with only two nsrl sci­en­tists trail­ing Kip­choge on bikes, tim­ing crew and kilo­me­tre marker at­ten­dants cheer­ing them on. A dan­ger­ous three-me­tre gap then opened be­tween Kip­choge and his pace group. As they go through the fi­nal pacer ex­change zone, just be­fore be­gin­ning the last lap, one fresh re­cruit pulls along­side Kip­choge, giv­ing him pos­i­tive en­cour­age­ment. He’s 18 sec­onds off pace, with only 2.5 kilo­me­tres to go. The pace group clearly doesn’t know what to do as he be­gins to slip fur­ther back.

The crowd, or lack thereof, was missed at this late stage. Later, Kip­choge ad­mit­ted in the press con­fer­ence that he missed the thou­sands of peo­ple lined up along the streets of a big city marathon. When he be­gan to slip off pace he needed a psy­cho­log­i­cal boost that he could not sum­mon within him­self to lift him back into the chevron of his pac­ers. In­stead, Kip­choge bat­tled the omi­nous grand­stands on the back straight­away, hang­ing on un­til fi­nally get­ting lured in by the tiny crowd wait­ing for him at the fin­ish line one last time. The four re­main­ing pac­ers frac­tured away from him as if he was about to crash into the Earth. They hopped in the air with ex­cite­ment, yelling at him to push harder, the fi­nal pacer pulling off to the side with 200m to go, will­ing Kip­choge to some­how cover the dis­tance in a sin­gle step. They then watched as the clock turned over from 1:59:59 to 2:00.

Kip­choge didn’t re­lent, run­ning hard to the fin­ish, winc­ing turn­ing to a smile. Later, he told me that he chooses to smile when he feels pain. “You have to choose to be happy,” he said.

He crossed the line, broke the tape and con­tin­ued to jog for a mo­ment, be­fore col­laps­ing to the ground in a mix of ex­haus­tion and ela­tion. He may not have bro­ken a sanc­tioned world record, but he ran the fastest marathon in his­tory.

REIN­VENT­ING THE REIN­VENTED

Crit­ics of Break­ing2 feel that its highly con­trolled na­ture breaks from the tra­di­tion of marathon­ing. In fact, the mod­ern marathon, where a large field of elite and recre­ational run­ners race through the roads of a ma­jor city, isn’t a very old con­cept and be­gan as an ad hoc event. The first 42.195-kilo­me­tre course was cre­ated to ap­pease roy­alty at the 1908 Olympics. Be­fore that, the con­cept of a “marathon” just im­plied a very long, ar­du­ous footrace. Be­fore the first Lon­don Olympics, some­thing like Break­ing2, with only three top dis­tance run­ners slug­ging it out to run

the fastest, the most laps or beat a cer­tain time goal, was a more rec­og­niz­able type of race than a pen­sive 42k run through­out a ma­jor city. Af­ter all, how would gam­blers be able to bet on and then track the progress of their ath­lete if they took off from one point and then weren’t seen again un­til the end?

The Bos­ton Marathon is the old­est con­tin­u­ous marathon in the world, and it only adopted the cur­rent marathon dis­tance in 1927. The Ber­lin Marathon has be­come the prov­ing ground for world record run­ning over the last 14 years. The rea­son for this actually re­veals Ber­lin as a sort of “Break­ing2 light.” It’s the most favourable iaaf sanc­tioned course of all the ma­jor marathons. The weather in Ber­lin in late Septem­ber is al­most al­ways a per­fectly crisp 10 C. The or­ga­niz­ers rec­og­nize how de­sir­able the con­di­tions are for at­tack­ing a world record and fa­cil­i­tate the op­por­tu­nity with a group of pac­ers and usu­ally tar­get just a few of the fastest marathon­ers in the world to stage a very con­trolled race.

One ma­jor dif­fer­ence, how­ever, with Ber­lin and Break­ing2 is that there is still money on the line at a World Marathon Ma­jors race. And al­though a world record would come with a huge pay­day, it’s far too risky for even the most tal­ented marathoner to do some­thing “au­da­cious” as Nike would say. The pac­ers in Ber­lin are in­structed to go out at just un­der world record pace, and then let the last men stand­ing see if they can hold on or run a slight neg­a­tive split in the sec­ond half. To con­tinue the space pro­gram anal­ogy, a world record at­tempt in Ber­lin is like the Apollo 13 mis­sion: you hope to gain speed as you are sling­shot back home as the pac­ers break away af­ter 35k.

“No one has gone from the gun as hard as they can go,” Sk­iba points out. “They watch each other and they wait, and maybe at 15 miles they go. Now, we’re turn­ing these guys loose from the gun. I think that’s one of the best things we’re do­ing for them – just say­ing, ‘Go for it.’”

Wilkins chimes in, em­phat­i­cally: “We wanted to fo­cus on the hu­man. It can’t be un­der­stated. It’s the hu­man, with­out out­side fac­tors that inf lu­ence or im­pact the abil­ity of a hu­man to do it. We wanted to cre­ate the cir­cum­stances that al­lows them to achieve their po­ten­tial. Noth­ing like heat or too many cor­ners or hills. We wanted to take those things away and al­low for the hu­man to achieve their po­ten­tial.”

MAK­ING UP 26 SEC­ONDS

Break­ing2 was nearly the per­fect Petri dish. The one mi­nor crit­i­cism could be that the nsrl team de­cided not to be so con­trol­ling in the train­ing and on race day. On race week­end, they forewent prod­ding and prob­ing their three test sub­jects. In­stead, they let them hud­dle with their coaches, and race. It was a re­mark­ably pure mo­ment of bet­ting on the ath­lete in­stead of sci­ence. Kip­choge, Tadese and De­sisa weren’t laden with diodes be­fore the race to mea­sure so many valu­able take­aways. In or­der to make up those 26 sec­onds, they were not able to learn how quickly the three run­ners f lushed lac­tate, how rapidly their core tem­per­a­ture warmed, which sorts of carbs they burned through first, the na­ture of their in­di­vid­ual elec­tric ac­tiv­ity in their mus­cles, or which of them be­gan to fail first. They didn’t mea­sure ex­actly what their sweat rate was and how pre­dictable (or not) it may have been, the specifics of their paces and, in par­tic­u­lar, what ex­actly hap­pened to Eliud Kip­choge in the last few laps of the course. Not know­ing any of these vari­ables ul­ti­mately cost him ab­so­lute god-like great­ness and the unimag­in­able: the two-hour bar­rier, shat­tered.

They just let them run, which in ret­ro­spect means they left so much valu­able in­for­ma­tion on the course. None of the ath­letes or pac­ers were heav­ily eval­u­ated dur­ing the race, and it’s un­clear if any sig­nif­i­cant data was col­lected from any of the ath­letes in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the race. Per­haps even more im­por­tantly, Tadese and De­sisa’s races could pro­vide ex­cep­tional data by con­trast to Kip­choge’s nearly f law­less run. None of that in­for­ma­tion seems to have been doc­u­mented, which is a shame.

Early as­tro­nauts didn’t know if they’d make it back to Earth af­ter be­ing launched out of the or­bit bit and into space. Like that mis­sion into space,pace, the Tadese, De­sisa and Kip­choge just had to go for it and hope they’d make it. But af­ter fter Kip­choge’s run in Monza, there’s also no turn­ing back.

“A small poster hangs over it with a quote by the Brazil­ian writer Paulo Coelho, re­mind­ing Kip­choge, “If you want to be suc­cess­ful, you re­spect one rule: never lie to your­self.”

I n May, Nike made a huge splash with its Break­ing2 project, when Eliud Kip­choge ran the fastest marathon in his­tory. His 2:00:25 shocked the run­ning world, leav­ing ev­ery­one talk­ing about all the ad­vances that Nike’s sci­en­tists, de­sign­ers and the ath­letes made in or­der to make such a mas­sive leap for­ward.

The main tech­no­log­i­cal com­po­nent of Break­ing2 was Nike’s rad­i­cal new shoe, the Va­por­fly Elite. While this shoe isn’t avail­able to us mere mor­tals (only three pairs were cus­tom made to fit the Break­ing2 ath­letes’ feet), Nike have rolled out two sib­ling de­signs for the rest of us to ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Va­por­fly 4% is aptly named af­ter the in­creased run­ning econ­omy the shoe re­vealed in lab tests over other marathon rac­ing flats. That’s a jaw-drop­ping boost in how ef­fi­ciently a run­ner is able to per­form (as a ref­er­ence point, Kip­choge had to run three per cent faster to make up the dif­fer­ence be­tween the world record of 2:02:57 and a 1:59:59 marathon, so it’s ar­guable that the shoe nearly did de­liver on its prom­ise).

The main dif­fer­ences be­tween the Va­por­fly shoes and pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions of Nike’s shoes are in the ap­proach to the mid­sole, and a new car­bon plate in­serted within it. Pre­vi­ously, Nike (and most other brands) be­lieved that less was more when it came to build­ing fast, light­weight shoes. With this shoe, more is more. Its new ZoomX foam is quite a bit lighter than the old Zoom EVA, al­low­ing the de­sign­ers to layer in a huge stack height–some­thing its elite ath­letes ap­par­ently longed for in or­der to save them from all that pound­ing. This max­i­mal-style mid­sole al­lowed their en­gi­neers to get cre­ative in or­der to aug­ment en­ergy re­turn. They added in a hy­per flex­i­ble and snappy car­bon-fi­bre plate at a dra­matic an­gle, which ba­si­cally works like a mini div­ing board for your foot – with each strike, your foot is pro­pelled for­ward.

The Fi­nal sib­ling shoe is the generic Zoom Fly. While this shoe car­ries many of the same de­sign char­ac­ter­is­tics as the Elite and the 4%, it sports Nike’s per­fectly de­cent older Zoom mid­sole (also found in their stal­wart Pe­ga­sus model), as well as a plas­tic plate (in­stead of a car­bon one). Pre­sum­ably, this means it won’t de­liver that same boost in run­ning econ­omy. But I was able to test this shoe on the track in Monza for 21K right af­ter Kip­choge’s leg­endary run, and I must say, it felt light, firm and fast.

The Va­por­fly tech­nolo­gies should trig­ger a max­i­mal­ist rev­o­lu­tion in the rac­ing flat cat­e­gory, and these shoes could prob­a­bly be worn on just about any run, by a wide range of run­ners, as they are so cush­iony and com­fort­able.

LEFT Kip­choge com­pletes the world’s fastest marathon 2:00:25

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