Marathon in under two hours? It’s the last Everest of athletics

Sports scientists say we won’t see landmark time until 2075 but Nike believe otherwise

 Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge winning the London marathon  in 2016. Kipchoge will  be part of Nike’s Breaking2 project. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge winning the London marathon in 2016. Kipchoge will be part of Nike’s Breaking2 project. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.

 

Now is probably not a great time to be making a new year’s resolution which promises to bend and break all the rules in the quest for those critical marginal gains. It’s hard enough trying to figure out the grey area without putting it all out there in black and white.

Such as trying to run the marathon in under two hours: it doesn’t matter how it’s measured – 26.2 miles, 42.1km, around 138,000 feet – no man has ever run the classic distance in under two hours. Only now, in which even by their own standards is a mostly brilliant publicity stunt, the people at Nike have announced plans to crack that two-hour barrier in the spring of 2017.

And it is the last great ‘barrier’ of athletics – if not sport itself. Along with the sub-four minute mile, and later the 10-second barrier for 100 metres, it represents a sort of Everest of human endeavour, only one that has yet to be conquered. 

The current world record is two hours, two minutes, and 57 seconds, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in Berlin, 2014. That might seem tantalisingly close to that two-hour barrier – a mere 177 seconds over those 26 miles, 385 yards. Yet in some ways it also seems impenetrable.

Since 1998, that world record has been dropping almost four times faster than in the previous decades, and has been broken seven times since 2000. Still, it seems to be stuck in or around that 2:02:57 and some of those in the sports science business have predicted that the two-hour barrier will remain intact until in or around 2075.

Now the people at Nike – in a project titled Breaking2 – intend on fast-tracking that to 2017, although to do so, they’ve bypassed the grey area and gone straight for the black and white: they’ll be using every possible technological advantage, legal or otherwise, ignoring the IAAF’s criteria on where and how marathon world records can be broken, and possibly bending a few more rules along the way.

Their goal is not to set an official world record but to prove that somehow, and therefore someday, a man can run 26 miles and 385 yards in 1:59:59 – or, of course, a tad faster. 

Little sketchy

The exact details of Nike’s plan – and deliberately so – are a still little sketchy. Firstly, they’ve employed a team of 20 sports scientists to prepare and assist the three runners who will make the two-hour attempt. Those three runners – Kenya’s Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge, Ethiopia’s two-time Boston marathon champion Lelisa Desisa, and world half-marathon record holder Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea – come with serious running credentials and will be skipping the lucrative sprint marathon season in order to focus all their efforts on Breaking2 (they’ll be handsomely paid for it too). 

It’s likely they’ll use a specially designed looped, downhill course, which would straightaway rule out the time for record purposes; they’ll likely employ a team of pacemakers, for different stages of the run, which would also breach IAAF rules; and they’ll using an as yet unrealised running shoe which will feature some sort of spring mechanism to further enhance stride length and cadence. 

Don’t be mistaken: they won’t be running on roller blades or with the assistance of a jet pack. That two-hour barrier, if indeed it is to be broken, will be achieved on and with human exertion alone, even if it’s ‘naturally’ aided in some way. They won’t be using any drugs either – at least Nike claim they won’t – but again it won’t be strictly run under IAAF rules on anti-doping.

Critics of the Nike plan – and they are many – reckon it is far too orchestrated and manipulated to have any meaningful impact, and the runners may as well be rats on a treadmill.

Kimetto’s 2:02:57 required an average mile-split of 4:41; to run 1:59:59, the average mile split must be 4:34, making for an overall decrease of around 2.5 per cent on the current world record. Kimetto’s pace, in other words, would have left him more than half a mile behind that 1:59:59. 

Highly orchestrated

Supporters of the Nike plan – and they are few – have already likened it to Roger Bannister’s quest to break the sub-four minute mile, back in 1954, and indeed his 3:59.4 represented only a .83 per cent improvement on the previous mile world record.

That run, for its time, was also highly orchestrated, Bannister carefully employing his two pacemakers, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. As planned, Brasher led for the first two laps, and then Chataway took over, before, with around 300m to go, Bannister took off.

“We had done it, the three of us,” Bannister subsequently said, many times, never forgetting it was actually a three-man effort. 

That sub-four was likewise compared with the Everest of sporting endeavour, and for good reason: they were, after all, both originally achieved within a year of each other, Edmund Hillary reaching the summit of Everest in May 1953, Bannister running his 3:59.4 in May 1954.

What they both shared, as Bannister often recalled, was that sense of breaking through a physiological and psychological barrier which “hitherto” could not be broken – “hitherto” a word not often used in the sporting context these days, partly because there aren’t many physiological and psychological barriers left to be broken.

Indeed Con Houlihan always described the marathon as a sort of horizontal Everest, that two-hour barrier being the peak and summit rolled into one. It all makes Breaking2 a fascinating prospect, even if it’s covered on a downhill course, or with spring-loaded runners, both of which by the way may ultimately become an inhibiting factor over 26.2 miles of running.

It would be equally fascinating if Athletics Ireland could come up with some sort of similar new year’s resolution to help break the Irish marathon record of 2:09:15, which has stood to John Treacy since 1988. Even if it was a publicity stunt, it might also help prove just how hard a barrier that is to break.

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