‘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.
SHOE-TING FOR THE MOON
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.
TRACK AND SHIELD
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
AS THE RUNNERS GLIDED INTO VIEW ALONG THE HOME STRAIGHT. KIPCHOGE, TADESE AND DESISA WERE TUCKED NEATLY BEHIND THEIR PACERS
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 runnersworld.co.uk/ 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
'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'
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.
'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'
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).