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‘Most of the peo­ple were say­ing they will die be­fore they see a man run­ning un­der two hours. But I think I will prove them wrong.’ – 2016 Olympic marathon cham­pion Eliud Kip­choge (above, in red), dur­ing the build-up to his at­tempt to break the two-hour bar­rier in Italy

Stand­ing on the tar­mac of the iconic Monza race track three of the great­est dis­tance run­ners in his­tory shiv­ered in the chilly half-light of early dawn. Ex­pec­ta­tion hung heavy in the air.

The Au­to­dromo Nazionale Monza, a his­toric For­mula One race cir­cuit nes­tled in the wood­lands of a for­mer royal park north­east of Mi­lan, can seat 115,000 spec­ta­tors. Since its con­struc­tion in 1922, the ‘Temple of Speed’, as it’s af­fec­tion­ately known, has echoed with the high-oc­tane roar of epic races, hosted count­less speed records (at 231.523mph, which Colom­bian driver Juan Pablo Mon­toya reached in the 2005 Ital­ian Grand Prix, a marathon would take less than seven min­utes) and mourned the deaths of 52 driv­ers and 35 spec­ta­tors, mostly in the free­wheel­ing early days of mo­tor­sport.

At 5.40am on May 5, though, only a few hun­dred peo­ple – se­lect mem­bers of the me­dia, Nike em­ploy­ees and run­ners from clubs and crews given a priv­i­leged in­vite – hugged the track on ei­ther side of the start/fin­ish line. On the track were de­fend­ing Olympic marathon cham­pion Eliud Kip­choge, half-marathon world record holder Zerse­nay Tadese and ris­ing star Lelisa De­sisa. Clus­tered around them were a hand­picked group of elite pac­ers; sci­en­tists buzzed about mak­ing last-minute prepa­ra­tions.

Since last De­cem­ber, when Nike re­vealed that it was mar­shalling its con­sid­er­able re­sources for an as­sault on the two-hour marathon, spec­u­la­tion had swirled about how, pre­cisely, the com­pany planned to slice such a big chunk off Kenyan Den­nis Kimetto’s 2014 world record of 2:02:57. Would they run down a moun­tain? Wear rocket-pow­ered shoes in a gi­ant wind tun­nel? Much of the more fan­ci­ful spec­u­la­tion was put to rest at a test-run half­marathon event with the same ath­letes in Monza in March. So we knew the ath­letes were about to run on a course that has been ob­ses­sively mea­sured and is IAAF cer­ti­fied for World Records. We also knew, cru­cially, that the at­tempt would break at least one IAAF rule with its use of ro­tat­ing pac­ers, so what­ever the re­sult it would not be an of­fi­cial WR. We could see the run­ners sport­ing their be­spoke mod­els of Nike’s much trum­peted and some­what con­tro­ver­sial ‘sub-two shoe’. We knew Nike’s sports sci­ence had sweated over every de­tail and cho­sen the very best slot from a three-day weather win­dow. What no one knew was if all that would be enough.

Af­ter some hy­per­bole-heavy build- up, the run­ners set off to cheers, fol­low­ing a sleek (and ex­haust-free) black Tesla pace car driven by a For­mula One test driver whose skills would be nec­es­sary to main­tain a rock-steady pace while con­sis­tently stay­ing at least five me­tres in front of the pack. The first six pace­mak­ers quickly co­a­lesced into an ar­row­head for­ma­tion, with Kip­choge, Tadese and De­sisa tucked tightly be­hind them. The dig­i­tal clock mounted on the Tesla be­gan ‘ tick­ing’ and, with lan­guid strides and im­pas­sive vis­ages, the three men made the su­per­hu­man pace of just un­der four min­utes and 35 sec­onds per mile look de­cep­tively hu­man – for now.


cor­po­rate his­tory of Nike’s Break­ing2 pro­ject is writ­ten, it will un­doubt­edly wax po­etic about ‘test­ing the lim­its of the hu­man heart’ (as the com­pany’s ini­tial press re­lease put it) and moon land­ings and Sir Roger Ban­nis­ter. At a highly chore­ographed press con­fer­ence on the eve of the at­tempt, Nike’s sci­ence team were fed ques­tions and sup­plied emo­tive an­swers on their mis­sion to in­spire ath­letes of all lev­els and abil­i­ties, to test the lim­its of hu­man po­ten­tial and push sport to new fron­tiers. Images of Ban­nis­ter break­ing the If­fley Road tape and Neil Arm­strong putting sole to ex­tra-ter­res­trial sur­face flashed re­peat­edly on a screen.

‘ We felt that this is one of those holy grail bar­ri­ers,’ says Nike CEO Mark Parker of the pro­ject’s ori­gins. While many may have their cyn­i­cism stoked by the style and per­ceived earnest­ness of it all, there’s no doubt­ing the ro­mance and imag­i­na­tion-cap­tur­ing qual­i­ties of a sub-two-hour marathon. And af­ter spend­ing the six months prior to the at­tempt be­hind the scenes fol­low­ing the pro­ject and get­ting to know the peo­ple di­rectly in­volved, we can at­test to the sin­cer­ity of their mo­ti­va­tions.

The scent of a sub-two marathon has been in the air for a few years now. While the women’s world record hasn’t budged since Paula Rad­cliffe’s 2:15:25 in 2003, the men’s record has dropped six times in that span. Jos Her­mens, the gar­ru­lous Dutch man­ager who rep­re­sents both Kip­choge and Ethiopian great Ke­nenisa Bekele, says the idea first started to seem plau­si­ble back in 2008, when Haile Ge­brse­lassie be­came the first man to run un­der 2:04. A 2011 pa­per in the Journal of ap­plied phys­i­ol­ogy ti­tled ,‘ The two-hour marathon: who and when?’ sparked 38 re­sponses from other re­searchers on the var­i­ous fac­tors that might bring the bar­rier closer. And in late 2014, shortly af­ter Kimetto dipped un­der 2:03 at the Ber­lin Marathon, Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Brighton, launched his own Sub2hr Pro­ject, work­ing with top run­ners, in­clud­ing Bekele, to pur­sue a sub-two within five years.

Still, two min­utes and 57 sec­onds was a sub­stan­tial gap. More pre­cisely it’s 2.4 per cent, a dis­tance that has rarely in the his­tory of ath­let­ics been bridged in a sin­gle leap. Rad­cliffe, to be fair, im­proved the women’s record by a to­tal of 2.4 per cent in two record runs; Usain Bolt, as mind-bog­gling as he is, has only low­ered the 100m record by 1.6 per cent. So why did a shoe com­pany de­cide to make an enor­mously quixotic bet whose to­tal cost will eas­ily run into tens of mil­lions of dol­lars? Many have touted their own the­o­ries on this in vary­ing strengths of cyn­i­cism, and well, if the shoe fits…

In June 2013, Nike’s in­no­va­tion team launched an in­ter­nal ini­tia­tive with the goal of speed­ing run­ners up by three per cent – a fig­ure with ob­vi­ous links to the sub-two chase. It was, re­calls Tony Big­nall, Nike’s Vice Pres­i­dent of Footwear In­no­va­tion, a call for sub­stance over hype: ‘ We were push­ing for mea­sur­able per­for­mance gains.’ In pur­suit of that goal, the com­pany’s de­sign­ers ini­tially de­cided to cre­ate a ‘track spike for the marathon’ – a stiff, ul­tra­light shoe built purely for speed. They stripped off any ex­tra­ne­ous com­po­nents, ditch­ing cush­ion­ing and leav­ing out­sole rub­ber only where the foot hits the ground; in one pro­to­type, they chopped off the heel com­pletely, since elite dis­tance run­ners gen­er­ally land on their fore­foot. There was just one prob­lem: ev­ery­one who tested the shoes hated them. For 26.2 miles on paved roads, the ath­letes in­sisted, they wanted a softer ride.

The so­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Geng Luo, a biome­chan­ics re­searcher who joined Nike in 2013, was to shift the fo­cus from ‘light­weight’ to ‘right weight.’ A new cush­ion­ing foam, which the com­pany dubbed Zoomx, of­fered a cross be­tween the prop­er­ties of plas­tic and rub­ber at a third the weight of usual mid­sole ma­te­ri­als. That al­lowed Luo and his team to adopt a much thicker, springier sole with­out weigh­ing the shoe down. Then, within this thick sole, they em­bed­ded a thin car­bon-fi­bre plate to stiffen the shoe, in or­der to min­imise the en­ergy lost when your toes bend. To get the precise ge­om­e­try right, they tested pro­to­type af­ter pro­to­type, go­ing through more than 100 ver­sions. With the rapid pro­to­typ­ing ma­chin­ery in the com­pany’s top- se­cret ‘ In­no­va­tion Kitchen’, they could pro­duce a com­pletely new shoe in as lit­tle as an hour. ‘For a shoe nerd like my­self, this is heaven’ says Luo, who was sketch­ing footwear de­signs by the time he was five years old.

Be­fore long, the new ap­proach was yield­ing eye­brow-rais­ing re­sults in the lab. Test sub­jects were able to main­tain a given pace on the tread­mill while burn­ing about four per cent less en­ergy, on av­er­age, than they did in Nike’s top- of- the-range Zoom Streak rac­ing flats. And as some of the com­pany’s spon­sored elite run­ners be­gan giv­ing them a try, the feed­back was wildly pos­i­tive: no one wanted to give the pro­to­types back af­ter test­ing. Not only did the shoes feel fast, the run­ners re­ported; they also re­duced sore­ness to­ward the end of long runs, has­tened re­cov­ery af­ter­wards, then cooked you a three-course din­ner and did the wash­ing up. Sha­lane Flana­gan, an Olympic medal­list who was pre­par­ing to qual­ify for her third US Olympic team, be­gan hav­ing night­mares that some­one was com­ing to take her pair away. Flana­gan and Galen Rupp wore pro­to­types at the Rio Olympics. Rupp won marathon bronze; the two men in front of him, Eliud Kip­choge and Lilesa Fey­isa, were also wear­ing the shoes.

All of this, mean­while, re­mained top se­cret. The pro­to­type shoes used in com­pe­ti­tion were dis­guised as or­di­nary Zoom Streaks. Those in­volved in the pro­ject re­main cagey about ex­actly when the shoes’ po­ten­tial be­came clear, but by June 2014, a year af­ter the

three per cent pro­ject was launched, the in­no­va­tion team was ready to make a cru­cial de­ci­sion. They weren’t just go­ing to build a su­per­shoe; they were go­ing to or­gan­ise a subtwo-hour marathon at­tempt. To do that, they would need to think be­yond shoes and ap­parel and con­sider every el­e­ment that could pos­si­bly af­fect marathon times: the ath­letes, the course, the weather, the race plan, train­ing, nutri­tion, hy­dra­tion, psy­chol­ogy. They would con­sider, and, when pos­si­ble, con­trol, every de­tail; they would re­think the very na­ture of the race.


, to De­cem­ber 1, 2016. Kip­choge, Tadese and De­sisa were ush­ered through se­cu­rity into the Mia Hamm Build­ing on Nike’s man­i­cured mega-cam­pus in Port­land, Ore­gon, where the In­no­va­tion Kitchen and other re­search labs are lo­cated. Only a tiny frac­tion of the com­pany’s em­ploy­ees have ac­cess to the build­ing’s se­crets. (A guard even col­lared Hamm, the for­mer US soc­cer megas­tar, on one visit. ‘ I said, I tell you what, there’s a pic­ture of me on the wall,’ she re­called in a news­pa­per in­ter­view, ‘and the name on the front of the build­ing.’) Once past the se­cu­rity gates, they en­tered a hall­way lead­ing to the test labs that’s ac­tu­ally a two-lane rub­berised track; a gi­ant mu­ral on the wall at the end of the track read ‘1:59:59.’ No pres­sure, then.

The three run­ners were at Nike HQ for a round of phys­i­o­log­i­cal tests and prod­uct weart­est­ing, mark­ing the of­fi­cial start of train­ing for the sub-two at­tempt. Over the pre­ced­ing 18 months they’d all been ex­ten­sively tested as part of an ex­haus­tive ath­lete se­lec­tion process co­or­di­nated by Brad Wilkins, the direc­tor of NXT Gen­er­a­tion Re­search in the Nike Sport Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory and the pro­ject’s sci­en­tific lead. Wilkins and his team had the as­sis­tance of out­side con­sul­tants such as Univer­sity of Ex­eter phys­i­ol­o­gist Andy Jones. Sift­ing through the hun­dreds of Nike- spon­sored dis­tance run­ners – a group that omits the three most re­cent marathon record- set­ters, Kimetto, Wil­son Kip­sang and Pa­trick Makau, who are all spon­sored by, whis­per it, Adi­das – the sci­en­tists win­nowed the field to run­ners with sub-2:05 marathon or sub-60:00 half-marathon cre­den­tials and in­vited 18 of the most promis­ing can­di­dates for fur­ther test­ing.

Jones, a soft-spo­ken Welsh­man, was a teen prodigy in the 1980s, notch­ing bests of 30:13 for 10K and 1:06:55 for the half-marathon as a 17-year- old, the for­mer of which is still a UK age-group record. At univer­sity, his in­ter­ests turned to the sci­en­tific side of train­ing, and while still a grad­u­ate stu­dent he agreed to run some tests on a young prospect named Paula Rad­cliffe, who was strug­gling with anaemia. Their re­la­tion­ship end­ing up last­ing the rest of Rad­cliffe’s ca­reer and bol­stered Jones’s faith in the abil­ity of lab test­ing to yield valu­able in­sights about a runner’s fit­ness, race-readi­ness and per­for­mance po­ten­tial. In 2002, when Rad­cliffe was pre­par­ing for her marathon de­but, Jones told her that her lab data in­di­cated she was ready to run 2:18 – a rather bold claim given that the world record was 2:18:47. She went on to run 2:18:55 in Lon­don. Later that year, be­fore the Chicago Marathon, he told her she was now ready to run 2:17; she ran 2:17:18. Fi­nally, the fol­low­ing spring, he told her that her lab val­ues in­di­cated a 2:16 – and she ran 2:15:25 at Lon­don.

His ex­pe­ri­ence with Rad­cliffe gave Jones con­fi­dence in the power of tread­mill test­ing to pre­dict seem­ingly im­prob­a­ble feats, but they also un­der­scored the other nec­es­sary in­tan­gi­bles. ‘ Her ca­pac­ity to hurt her­self was un­prece­dented,’ says Jones. So while the Break­ing2 team as­sessed their can­di­dates’ lab val­ues – max­i­mal oxy­gen ca­pac­ity, lac­tate thresh­old and run­ning econ­omy, which is a mea­sure of ef­fi­ciency – and had them run two miles on the track at sub-two-hour marathon pace fol­lowed by an all-out 400m lap, they also made more gut-level as­sess­ments. They con­sid­ered the ath­letes’ swag­ger, their re­sponse to chal­lenges, and other el­e­ments of at­ti­tude and out­look that might make or break the mis­sion.

Of the three fi­nal choices, Kip­choge, the 32-year- old Olympic cham­pion from Kenya, was, on pa­per, the most ob­vi­ous. His marathon best of 2:03:05, set last year in Lon­don, is the third-fastest time in his­tory, and he also boasts en­vi­able track cre­den­tials at shorter dis­tances. Sur­pris­ingly, his lab tests weren’t as im­pres­sive as ex­pected, but as he stepped onto the tread­mill it was soon clear why. It was just his sec­ond time on a tread­mill, and as he tip­toed onto the whirring belt, it was hard not to think of Bambi flail­ing around on the ice. This was a case where Jones and his col­leagues over­looked the lab data: Kip­choge’s rac­ing cre­den­tials, along with his im­pas­sive and un­shake­able self-con­fi­dence, made him an easy pick.

Next on the tread­mill was Tadese, a 34-year-old from Eritrea with stun­ning lab tests and a long list of ac­co­lades at shorter dis­tances: an Olympic track medal­list, a world cham­pion in cross- coun­try and in the half marathon, and the world record-holder at the lat­ter dis­tance, with a 58:23. A sci­en­tific pa­per pub­lished in 2007 pegged him as one of the most ef­fi­cient run­ners ever mea­sured. But there was a prob­lem: a his­tory of failed or dis­ap­point­ing marathon at­tempts, with a rel­a­tively mod­est best of 2: 10:41. Af­ter dis­cus­sions with his coach, Jones and his col­leagues con­cluded that Tadese’s marathon woes might be the re­sult of in­ad­e­quate in-race fu­elling. Fix that prob­lem, they hoped, and they might un­leash his con­sid­er­able po­ten­tial.

Mean­while, on an­other tread­mill in a large re­frig­er­ated room in the cor­ner of the lab, De­sisa was run­ning in a sin­glet and half-tights with eight wire­less ther­mome­ters at­tached to var­i­ous parts of his body. Around him sci­en­tists shiv­ered in the 10C air as they as­sessed his re­sponse to the cool con­di­tions ex­pected on race day. The 26-year-old Ethiopian had also im­pressed in the lab tests, and he had amassed a record of good show­ings on tough marathon cour­ses such as Boston (which he has won twice) and New York. Like many East African marathon stars, he grew up run­ning to and from a dis­tant ru­ral school, which was nearly an hour’s walk from his home – but that wasn’t far enough for the as­pir­ing runner, so he would give his books to friends and run a longer way home. He was, the team had con­cluded, a gifted racer whose com­pet­i­tive fire, com­bined with his im­pres­sive phys­i­ol­ogy, might pro­pel him to a sub-two.


glided into view along the home straight of the Monza track, Kip­choge, Tadese and De­sisa were tucked neatly be­hind their ar­row­head of pac­ers. The weather sen­sors were re­port­ing 12C, cheers cut through the misty rain and the run­ners looked so far un­trou­bled by the blis­ter­ing pace.

Out of sight, fresh pac­ers, ar­ranged into six teams of three and as­signed to run up to three two-lap (4.8km) shifts – were wait­ing to take over. It’s a tac­tic that isn’t avail­able in record-le­gal races, but isn’t with­out prece­dent. In 1953, Ban­nis­ter ran a 4:02.0 mile with the help of an Ox­ford team­mate who al­lowed him­self to be lapped in or­der to pace the fi­nal lap and a half of the race. The re­sult wasn’t rat­i­fied as a Bri­tish record, but, im­por­tantly, it con­vinced Ban­nis­ter that the four-minute mark was at­tain­able. When he fi­nally broke the bar­rier the fol­low­ing year, he ran the last three-quar­ters of a lap alone.

The ar­row­head draft­ing for­ma­tion gives a boost equiv­a­lent to run­ning down a hill with a 2.5 per cent gra­di­ent, ac­cord­ing to the Nike team’s com­pu­ta­tional mod­el­ling and wind-tun­nel test­ing. Main­tain­ing that edge all the way to the fin­ish line could be a make-or-break dif­fer­ence com­pared with most marathons, where the last pac­ers sel­dom make it to the 20-mile mark. The goal, ac­cord­ing to Wilkins, was al­ways to help the run­ners get un­der two hours with as lit­tle rule-bend­ing as pos­si­ble and hope that, as with Ban­nis­ter, the as­ter­isked feat would pave the way for a recog­nised WR.

The Monza course was the prod­uct of an ex­haus­tive globe-span­ning search for per­fect con­di­tions – and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to think out­side the usual big- city streets. Nike sent a team to the Nether­lands to check out the Af­s­luit­dijk, a ram­rod- straight 20-mile-long dam with, Wilkins says, ‘a mas­sive, pre­dictable tail­wind’. Such a set­ting would have vi­o­lated world-record rules, which dic­tate that the start and fin­ish of a road race can be sep­a­rated by no more than half the to­tal dis­tance. And worse, the North Sea set­ting made the weather too un­pre­dictable. Other op­tions in­cluded Chicago’s Mc­cormick Place, the largest con­ven­tion cen­tre in the US (in­suf­fi­cient air con­di­tion­ing, too many cor­ners) and the de­com­mis­sioned Tem­pel­hof air­port in Ber­lin (too ex­posed and windy). They also con­sid­ered build­ing a mas­sive ice wall along what­ever course they set­tled on to cool the ath­letes as they ran along­side it – a scheme whose even­tual demise is ap­par­ently still viewed with re­gret by some of the team’s tech­ni­cal crew.

In the end, Monza turned out to be the best com­pro­mise be­tween all the nec­es­sary vari­ables. Along with ooz­ing a glam­our fac­tor, the ‘Temple of Speed’ is far in­land, away from fickle coastal weather and just 183m above sea level, pro­vid­ing a full dose of oxy­gen with each breath. The loop has very grad­ual turns and is al­most per­fectly flat, with a to­tal el­e­va­tion change of un­der six me­tres. It has rel­a­tively low hu­mid­ity and the av­er­age low in early May is about 12C – at the high end of what Wilkins would have ide­ally wanted, but still work­able. Of course, of all the pos­si­ble fac­tors the team was try­ing to con­trol, weather is the least pre­dictable. The chances of get­ting per­fect con­di­tions on any given day are never great, but a de­tailed anal­y­sis of his­tor­i­cal weather records had con­vinced the team that within a three-day win­dow, they would have a 90 per cent chance of get­ting at least one per­fect day. So like a moon mis­sion, the sub-two at­tempt would have a launch win­dow rather than a firm date.

With less than 12 hours to go, as the press con­fer­ences, in­ter­views, ath­lete- parad­ing and t rack­in­spect­ing played out at Monza the night be­fore the at­tempt, there was a pal­pa­ble sense of op­ti­mism in the air. Team Nike may not have en­tirely be­lieved, but there was cer­tainly hope. The of­fi­cial line was that the build-up had gone very well and the ath­letes were in good shape – Kip­choge was the most likely to suc­ceed, ac­cord­ing to Jones, but he wouldn’t rule any of them out.

So with all the metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tions and the up­beat mood it came as a bit of sur­prise in the still- cold light of the next day when the wheels started to come off. Just 16km in, with around 11 laps still to go, De­sisa faded dra­mat­i­cally. The big screen’s CCTV footage showed him in vis­i­ble dis­com­fort, form be­gin­ning to un­ravel, drop­ping away from


the pack. That gap only widened as the run­ners passed the crowd in the fol­low­ing laps, and then things got worse. At around the 20km mark, not even half­way through, Tadese also be­gan to fall away. He sum­moned one last ef­fort to fight for a few strides to hold on, but soon there was sig­nif­i­cant day­light be­tween him and the pace group.

The odds may have short­ened as three be­came one, but Kip­choge’s progress re­mained serene. To call it metro­nomic would not do jus­tice to his fluid el­e­gance, and there was a ruth­less­ness to his de­vour­ing of the miles. The dig­its ticked on, the laps were ticked off and still he re­mained pre­cisely on pace, every stride a per­fect replica of its per­fect pre­de­ces­sor, his ex­pres­sion be­tray­ing no sign of strug­gle. And the mood in Monza, hav­ing taken a dou­ble dip at the ef­fec­tive loss of De­sisa and Tadesa be­gan to lift again. All be­gan to be­lieve that they were wit­ness­ing some­thing truly his­toric.


t he B reak­ing2 p ro­ject w as un­veiled to the world, in De­cem­ber 2016, Kip­choge, De­sisa and Tadese were back in their re­spec­tive home coun­tries, train­ing hard. None of the sci­ence that the tech ex­perts in Port­land were ob­sess­ing over would make any dif­fer­ence if the three pro­tag­o­nists didn’t ar­rive at the start­ing line in near-worl­drecord shape. Each man kept train­ing with his own coach and train­ing part­ners, fol­low­ing the path that have brought in­ter­na­tional suc­cess and fame. Nike’s team watched from afar, mon­i­tor­ing each work­out through up­loaded GPS and heart rate data, run­ning the work­outs through a so­phis­ti­cated com­puter pro­gram for anal­y­sis, and of­fer­ing feed­back and ad­vice when re­quested.

In late Jan­uary this year, a 12- per­son crew lef t the Nike lab­o­ra­tory for a two-week trip to visit Kip­choge in Kenya, De­sisa in Ethiopia and Tadese in Spain, where he was vis­it­ing his Span­ish coach. The con­trast be­tween the high-tech pur­suit of mar­ginal gains and the sim­ple life and el­e­men­tal grind of elite marathon train­ing was strik­ing. ‘ It’s very hum­bling to see the Olympic cham­pion haul­ing up cold water in a bucket from a well af­ter his work­out,’ says Phil Sk­iba, a con­sul­tant work­ing with the Nike team. The trip’s mis­sion was partly sci­en­tific, with more phys­i­o­log­i­cal test­ing for each ath­lete. It was partly pro­duct­fo­cused, with shoe and ap­parel ex­perts test­ing pro­to­types and seek­ing feed­back in or­der to per­son­alise the gear ex­actly to each ath­lete’s lik­ing, pre­ci­sion-tweak­ing di­men­sions and fit. But in some ways, the big­gest goal was to build trust, in each other and in the pro­ject’s process and lofty goals.

For ex­am­ple, Wilkins’s col­league Brett Kirby, the team’s lead phys­i­ol­o­gist, brought an im­pro­vised wear­able wind-speed me­tre. It’s one thing to tell some­one that a su­per­com­puter has cal­cu­lated that they must run ex­actly 81cm be­hind their pacer, at an an­gle of 46 de­grees to the left; it’s an­other to get on the track and run, mov­ing back and forth in dif­fer­ent draft­ing for­ma­tions, then see­ing ex­actly how the wind you face changes. Sim­i­larly, a por­ta­ble ul­tra­sound tool of­fered quick mea­sure­ments of how much car­bo­hy­drate was stored in the run­ners’ leg mus­cles. See­ing the de­cline in fuel stores af­ter a long run, and see­ing how it could be de­layed by drink­ing sports drink, was a much more vis­ceral demon­stra­tion of the im­por­tance of in-race fu­elling than any lec­ture on sports nutri­tion could have been.

By the end of the trip, the sci­en­tists were feel­ing cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the pro­ject. Kip­choge’s marathon best of 2:03:05, set in 2016, showed he was close to world-record fit­ness. ‘The other two,’ Jones said at the time, ‘looked like they’re ca­pa­ble of 2:02, 2:03, 2:04, some­thing like that, on the best pos­si­ble day, which is kind of the area that we would need to be in if you add in all of th­ese other fac­tors like the draft­ing and the footwear and other bits and pieces that might get you closer to two hours.’ Oth­ers weren’t so sure: Lad­brokes briefly of­fered pun­ters the chance to dou­ble their money by bet­ting against the Break­ing2 pro­ject. Many run­ning ex­perts and com­men­ta­tors com­pletely dis­missed the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting any­where close to the two-hour mark, but what re­ally mat­tered, of course, was what the ath­letes be­lieved. Hav­ing that be­lief – in the data and in the self – was al­ways go­ing to be a cru­cial fac­tor in mak­ing such a gi­ant leap into the un­known, and it seemed their con­fi­dence was grow­ing. ‘Most of the peo­ple were say­ing they will die be­fore they see a man run­ning un­der two hours,’ said Kip­choge in the build-up. ‘ But I think I will prove them wrong.’

As he cruised to 30km in a barely fath­omable 1:25:20, a mere two sec­onds off pace, it was start­ing to look as though Kip­choge might just do that. At 35km, in 1:39:37, he was still only a highly re­cov­er­able six sec­onds be­hind. The man in or­ange was run­ning like clock­work and it was be­gin­ning to look like in the end we would be count­ing sec­onds, not min­utes.

One area those pre­cious sec­onds might have come from was the kit. Kip­choge, like De­sisa and Tadese, was head-to-toe in spe­cially de­vel­oped ap­parel de­signed to de­liver the most mar­ginal of mar­ginal gains, in­clud­ing half-tights with aero­dy­namic pat­tern­ing and tar­geted bands of com­pres­sion for mus­cle sup­port. (Why, Judel­son and his ap­parel team had asked the Nike­spon­sored run­ners they spoke to in Africa, do marathon­ers al­ways race in wind-grab­bing split shorts? ‘Be­cause that’s what you give us.’) The half-tights, along with a tighter-than-usual sleeve­less tank top, tex­tured aero­dy­namic tape on the inner calves to re­duce drag as the an­kles whip for­ward, and socks spe­cially de­signed to grip the sole of the shoes with­out slip­ping, were part of a grand re­think of ap­parel for marathon­ers. The over­all pack­age was ex­pected to save ‘be­tween one and 60 sec­onds’, ac­cord­ing to phys­i­ol­o­gist Dan Judel­son. ‘But even if it was just one sec­ond, that could be sig­nif­i­cant. We would feel re­ally bad if we didn’t try ev­ery­thing and they ran 2:00:01.’

Of course the most sig­nif­i­cant – and con­tro­ver­sial – piece of kit was on the ath­letes’ feet. Nike re­leased de­tails of its new, ground­break­ing Break­ing2 shoe be­fore the test half-marathon event at Monza in March. In ad­di­tion to the cus­tom mod­els worn by the three stars, the com­pany was to of­fer two mod­els to con­sumers. The Zoom­fly will be avail­able from June 8 and the higher- end Zoom Va­por­fly 4% (re­fer­ring to the lab-tested boost in ef­fi­ciency it of­fered) on June 19. (You can read our First Look re­views of them at Nike­vap­or­fly). It’s fair to say that the re­ac­tion to this much-her­alded tech­ni­cal break­through has been rather mixed. The­newyork­times quickly pub­lished a grainy CT scan of the Nike shoe, sent in by Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis of the ri­val Sub2hr pro­ject, in which the car­bon fi­bre plate looked like a hid­den knife re­vealed by air­port se­cu­rity. The plate, the Times claimed, was ‘meant to act as a kind of sling­shot, or cat­a­pult, to pro­pel run­ners for­ward’. And so we have the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: were such spring-loaded shoes re­ally fair?

The in­ter­na­tional rules on shoes, it turns out, are not par­tic­u­larly il­lu­mi­nat­ing. They for­bid ‘any tech­nol­ogy which will give the wearer any un­fair ad­van­tage’, but


what this means is not spec­i­fied. The last two men’s marathon world records were set in Adi­das shoes boast­ing its springy Boost foam, which in lab tests has been shown to of­fer a one per cent gain in ef­fi­ciency. Nike’s new foam ap­pears to be a fur­ther im­prove­ment, but not a rad­i­cal change.

The pres­ence of a car­bon fi­bre plate is trick­ier to de­code. Here, too, Adi­das (along with other com­pa­nies such as Fila) had al­ready paved the way. In the early 2000s, some Adi­das shoes in­cor­po­rated a car­bon fi­bre ‘ Pro­plate’ with a sim­i­lar though less pro­nounced curve. Tests by Dar­ren Ste­fanyshyn, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary in Canada, who helped de­velop the Pro­plate, showed that it, too, boosted ef­fi­ciency by about one per cent. The Pro­plate was even­tu­ally dis­con­tin­ued; Ste­fanyshyn’s un­der­stand­ing is that the cost of car­bon fi­bre, which at the time was rel­a­tively rare and ex­pen­sive, sealed its fate. (It’s worth not­ing that Ste­fanyshyn was an ad­viser for Geng Luo, who led the Va­por­fly de­sign team for Nike; an­other of Ste­fanyshyn’s for­mer stu­dents also helped with the de­sign.) The Pro­plate data was all pub­licly avail­able so it’s not a ques­tion of trans­fer­ring se­cret knowl­edge and the ge­neal­ogy of the new shoe is not hard to trace, which seems to un­der­mine claims that it breaks any ex­ist­ing rules.


the shoes are ‘ spring- loaded’ does in­deed have a ker­nel of truth in it. ‘ Vir­tu­ally all mod­ern run­ning shoes al­ready have springs,’ says Rodger Kram, the head of the Univer­sity of Colorado’s Lo­co­mo­tion Lab, who con­ducted in­de­pen­dent test­ing on the shoes for Nike. ‘ We call them foam mid­soles.’ The car­bon fi­bre plates, how­ever, don’t add any additional springi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Luo, Ste­fanyshyn and other re­searchers who have worked with sim­i­lar de­signs. In­stead, one the­ory is that the plates save some en­ergy that is usu­ally lost when the big toe bends. An­other sug­gests they func­tion as a lever, de­liv­er­ing more force to the ground, while the curve of the plate al­lows the calf mus­cles to work at a more ef­fi­cient an­gle.

How­ever they work, the up­shot is that – ac­cord­ing to Kram’s test­ing, at least – they work. Is a shoe that of­fers a four per cent edge fair, es­pe­cially when it’s not avail­able, or even known, to com­peti­tors? For ath­letes such as US dis­tance runner Kara Goucher, who nar­rowly missed an Olympic spot when she fin­ished fourth at the Marathon Tri­als be­hind two ath­letes (Sha­lane Flana­gan and Amy Cragg) wear­ing the then-se­cret shoe, the news was cause for re­flec­tion. ‘ I was pretty up­set when I heard about it,’ she says. ‘If tech­nol­ogy is af­fect­ing races and what times peo­ple are run­ning, if that is found to be an un­fair ad­van­tage, then that’s an is­sue.’

Be­yond the fair­ness of the shoe, the whole premise of an ex­hi­bi­tion event de­signed solely to break the two-hour bar­rier rubbed some

in the run­ning com­mu­nity the wrong way – es­pe­cially an event that was the baby of a Pr-savvy mega-cor­po­ra­tion that didn’t plan to ad­here to the sport’s usual rules and, ac­cord­ing to the more cyn­i­cal, was re­ally far more con­cerned about the dig­its on its shoe sales bal­ance sheets than on the Monza race clock. Jos Her­mens, the vet­eran ath­lete man­ager, has lit­tle time for such grous­ing. Dur­ing his own run­ning ca­reer in the 1970s, Her­mens him­self ven­tured out­side the canon­i­cal run­ning dis­tances to set a pair of world records for the one-hour run; three decades later, he en­cour­aged his ath­lete Haile Ge­brse­lassie to do the same, in a solo time trial as­sisted by pace­mak­ers. Such events, like the two-hour chase, con­nect with a broader pub­lic that isn’t usu­ally por­ing over the lat­est marathon re­sults, says Her­mens. ‘It’s very good for our sport. Peo­ple that never talk about it are talk­ing about it.’ His words rang very true in the hours and days af­ter the at­tempt, when cov­er­age broke out of the run­ningsport silo and into main­stream news.


has run a marathon at any pace knows, the stretch be­tween 35km and 40km is the tough­est test, and in the ‘Temple of Speed’ the god-like pace was fi­nally be­gin­ning to make Kip­choge look hu­man. Hit­ting 40km in 1:54:04 left him 20 sec­onds off sub-two pace. Not ideal, but not cat­a­strophic. Did he have enough left in the tank for a fi­nal surge? All eyes in the sta­dium and watch­ing Nike’s live stream over the web were trans­fixed. Kip­choge’s form still looked per­fect, the drift in pace im­per­cep­ti­ble, but his pre­vi­ously im­pas­sive fea­tures had be­gun to flicker with some­thing else, in­ter­mit­tently co­a­lesc­ing into what at first could have been taken for a gri­mace – but no, th­ese were smiles. What was go­ing through his mind? Did the smile come from the be­lief that, in run­ning terms, he was about to ‘walk on the moon’?

While Kip­choge flowed though his fi­nal lap the ex­cite­ment in the sta­dium ebbed some­what as it be­came clear he did not have the legs to bridge the gap. Still, the noise was suit­ably cranked as he sprinted the fi­nal stretch to break the tape. He had come up just 26 sec­onds shy of the ul­ti­mate goal, but run the fastest 26.2 miles in his­tory, some two and a half min­utes faster than the of­fi­cial world record. In the end the mar­gins had been in­cred­i­bly fine: Kip­choge had av­er­aged 4:35.7 per mile, rather than the re­quired 4:34.5.

It was a stun­ning ef­fort and a near enough miss that the mood re­mained cel­e­bra­tory. Af­ter Tadese ( in a mas­sive PB of 2: 06: 51) and De­sisa ( in a dis­ap­point­ing 2:14:10 that re­flected a fall and lin­ger­ing ill­ness dur­ing train­ing) were cheered home, Kip­choge signed au­to­graphs and ex­changed high fives with the crowd. There was a pre­sen­ta­tion in which Carl Lewis showed a lit­tle less sub­lime abil­ity with the mi­cro­phone than he once dis­played with a track spike, much cheer­ing from the crowd and warmth be­tween ath­letes, pac­ers, coaches and pro­ject per­son­nel. Then the run­ners dis­ap­peared for dope test­ing with the Ital­ian Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tion.

In the post-event press con­fer­ence the at­ten­tion un­der­stand­ably fo­cused on Kip­choge. Asked if run­ning alone for so long had af­fected his per­for­mance, he wasn’t look­ing for any­where to hide. ‘Not re­ally, I had pac­ers,’ he said. ‘ Years ago my coach told me that you should al­ways treat your­self as the best com­peti­tor and today I was not think­ing of any­one else, just my­self.’

He was also not think­ing even re­motely in terms of fail­ure. ‘I rank this as the high­est ever per­for­mance in my life,’ he said. ‘ It’s great to show peo­ple that the two- hour marathon is pos­si­ble. That’s very im­por­tant to me.’ And, get­ting a lit­tle more philo­soph­i­cal: ‘ I’m a believer that it’s like climb­ing a tree – you step onto one branch and then the next. I am very happy to step onto the two-hour branch. (Now we are) just 26 sec­onds away from go­ing un­der two hours, and this is not the end of try­ing to run un­der two hours. There is more to come in the fu­ture.’

Nike’s sci­ence team were sim­i­larly up­beat. ‘Eliud ran the per­fect race and we cre­ated the right cir­cum­stances for him to per­form, so I’m de­lighted,’ said Brad Wilkins. But pressed on the big ques­tion – will they go for it a gain? – t hey wouldn’t com­mit, fo­cus­ing in­stead on the in­spi­ra­tion mes­sage. ‘ I hope that this in­spires other brands, other sports… kids, any­one to get mov­ing, to break a goal,’ said a sin­cerely en­thused Tony Big­nall. ‘I hope it can rein­vig­o­rate the marathon and ul­ti­mately get more peo­ple run­ning.’

The other big ques­tion, of course, is where might those vi­tal 26 sec­onds come from. Asked af­ter the event, Paula Rad­cliffe re­it­er­ated the crit­i­cal role of the ath­letes’ be­lief in the pos­si­bil­ity. ‘The be­lief is the ex­tra thing needed to make it hap­pen,’ she said. ‘Com­ing into this I would bet there was only Eliud Kip­choge who be­lieved. Yes­ter­day I think he be­lieved he could do it. But today he knows he can do it. And there will be a cou­ple of other peo­ple out there watch­ing who think that they are as good as Eliud and maybe they could do it, and that com­pe­ti­tion may help, too.’

Rad­cliffe also picked up on an­other fac­tor, the rel­a­tively sparse crowd. ‘The crowd were only in a 400m stretch and the rest of the time it would have felt like a train­ing run,’ she said. ‘And the crowd can make a big dif­fer­ence. Peo­ple tell me that Lon­don is a harder course than Ber­lin, but for me per­son­ally the crowd sup­port at Lon­don made a huge dif­fer­ence.’

While Kip­choge’s run won’t go in the of­fi­cial record books, it has changed the game. It has sud­denly and un­de­ni­ably trans­formed how we view what’s pos­si­ble in marathon times. What’s next? A sub-2: 02 in a record- el­i­gi­ble race? Why not? The of­fi­cial line is Nike doesn’t have any plans to stage a sim­i­larly man­u­fac­tured sub-two at­tempt, though sev­eral of the Nike sci­en­tists sounded open to the pos­si­bil­ity af­ter the near-miss in Monza. But Kip­choge cer­tainly isn’t done. Per­haps we will see him next in a con­ven­tional big- city marathon like Ber­lin, per­haps with pac­ers who sus­tain an ar­row­head draft­ing for­ma­tion for as long as pos­si­ble. And, of course, there are oth­ers chas­ing the subtwo grail – in­clud­ing an­other ma­jor sports com­pany for one – and they are now do­ing so with ex­tra vigour and be­lief.

Ul­ti­mately, be­yond the car­bon­plated su­per- shoes, the dra­gre­duc­ing ap­parel, the sports sci­ence, the quib­bles about pac­ers and the cyn­i­cism around Nike’s mo­tives for stag­ing the whole show, what re­ally shone through on that May morn­ing in Monza was a transcendent hu­man per­for­mance that re­de­fined our per­ceived lim­its. ‘ We are not ma­chines,’ said Kip­choge in the press con­fer­ence fol­low­ing the at­tempt. ‘ We are hu­man.’ He was talk­ing specif­i­cally about drop­ping those cru­cial few sec­onds in the last miles, but it res­onated deeper. Nike didn’t cre­ate a bionic run­ning ma­chine to take to the track in Monza. Eliud Kip­choge is a run­ning ma­chine de­signed not in the In­no­va­tion Kitchen but by mil­lions of years of hu­man evo­lu­tion, and af­ter he smashed ex­pec­ta­tions with such fluid el­e­gance, we can now all be­lieve that the hu­man ma­chine is ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing some­thing we pre­vi­ously didn’t think pos­si­ble.


ABOVE: Images from the ‘mood board’ of Ste­fan Guest (far right), se­nior de­sign direc­tor of the In­no­va­tion Nike Ex­plore Team Run­ning. Since the ini­tia­tive be­gan in 2013, the it­er­a­tions in­cluded a heel-less de­sign (grey shoe on left), and even­tu­ally yielded the Zoom Va­por­fly Elite (bot­tom, far right).

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