Sonia O’Sullivan: Sub-two-hour marathon now looking like a real runner

Despite the controlled environment, Eliud Kipchoge’s run still a considerable feat

Things started out early and slow last Saturday morning, then quickly gathered pace.

It began with the Darkness into Light event in Melbourne, only not long after that, I found myself caught up in the chase to run the first sub-two-hour marathon.

Darkness into Light was first staged in Ireland nine years ago, and now has satellite events around the world. The Melbourne walk was staged at the Albert Park Lake, starting at 5am, with the same purpose of bringing people together to raise funds and awareness for the Pieta House, which aims to prevent suicide and self-harm.

It’s also emphasises the importance of the healthy balance of the human mind, body and spirit, the coincidence being the sub-two-hour marathon attempt was all about testing the limits of that same mind, body and spirit.


There was also some irony that the marathon record attempt came in the same week as the European athletics federation proposed to “rewrite” all athletics world records prior to 2005, and essentially start all over again.

By Saturday morning, it was about rewriting records in another sense, most of the rules in the marathon running rule book were ignored by sports shoe company Nike to see just how fast a human body can cover the marathon distance, in their project ‘Breaking 2’.

The aim was to determine how close a perfectly prepared athlete could get to the seemingly impossible two-hour barrier, the existing world record being 2:02:57. Most people didn’t believe it could be done, and most were surprised at how close Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge, one of the chosen three athletes, got to the elusive two-hour mark.

Kipchoge ran the equivalent of one second too slow per mile over the 26.2 mile distance, although he really didn’t fall off pace until the last 5km.

Two more hand-picked athletes were on board: Lelila Disisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese, the current half marathon world record holder of Eritrea, but they both fell off the pace before the halfway mark. It was left to Kipchoge to defy the doubters and beat the clock – with the aid of a phalanx of rotating pacemakers .

Drug testing 

Still, if the two-hour record was surpassed it would not be officially recorded as a record, under IAAF rules. Only a couple of the rules the athletes actually adhered to was the marathon distance covered (42.2km or in old money 26 miles 385yds), and they were apparently subjected to all the usual drug testing protocols, before and after the event.

After that race set up was non-traditional, maybe a futuristic view of what we may expect from elite marathon runners. Everything was staged to ensure optimal performance by the athletes, such as near perfect weather conditions, 18 world class athletes alternating the pacing duties in groups of six (which is against the rules of standard marathon running). As well as maintaining the pace, the pacers also acted as a human moving shield against any slight breeze.

The athletes’ drinks were also handed carefully from bicycles moving alongside to minimise any break in stride (which is also against the rules).

The athletes were also wearing specially designed Nike shoes that were individually built to fit each athlete, using the most scientifically engineered structure, claiming to give the athletes a “four per cent” energy saving. That’s a bold claim to make, although it will be interesting to see how these shoes fare if ever released on the general market.

I wasn’t sure I would watch the race unfold: two hours in my day I would have to set aside in an already typically busy Saturday. I wasn’t even sure what time Breaking 2 would begin, and how I might be able to fit in a curious look.

Even before we got home from Darkness into Light, the marathon had started; we were already following the live stream on the phone in the car. I was getting commentary from my daughter Sophie, who was surprisingly tuned in, as were many of her school cross-country team.

They had actually been talking about it at training that morning, so the awareness had them all engaged and communicating with each other. From that point of view it was interesting, how athletics can still engage the younger generation, even the sight of perfectly-tuned marathon runners and their pacers running the 17.5 laps of the Monza race track in Italy.

So close

Back home, we sat the kitchen counter, the laptop streaming the marathon as I prepared something to eat. Even I was a little surprised myself at how something that was so far from a competitive race became addictive to watch.

It was, coincidentally, the same day 63 years previous when Roger Bannister had crashed through the four-minute mile barrier. It seemed like the stars may have aligned and the marathon two-hour barrier would also be achieved.

In the end it just wasn’t to be, Kipchoge crossing the line just 25 seconds outside the two-hour mark, running 2:00:25: less than half a minute, less than half the lap of an athletics track, less than one furlong. So close and yet so far.

Still it was the fastest ever marathon time run, and certainly suggested that it is possible for a human to break two hours in the near future. Maybe sooner rather than later.

When Bannister broke through the four-minute mile barrier, the floodgates soon opened as more and more athletes began to achieve the once seemingly impossible feat.

It may well be similar in the marathon. Once something even looks within reach it doesn’t take long for more people to believe it can be achieved. And I think Saturday morning certainly proved that.

The race is truly on now to be the first to go sub-two-hour. It’s an attractive challenge to be the first, but it will require the same professional and scientific investment that Nike invested, over two years planning to get within touching distance of the perfect result.

Of course it is not athletics as we know it. This is more technical and scientific, going beyond pure human athletic ability. At the same time the bar has been raised and I think the sceptics are starting to believe that maybe this was more than just a marketing project. This is the attention to detail that is required to push the human body to its limits, with all the variables controlled so there is no room for error.

Science experiment

It makes me wonder what will be the next barrier for women to break through. The numbers are not so round and neat, but possibly 2:12 over the marathon distance?

When you chase records so clinically like that, it does take the emotion and human factor out of the equation. It almost becomes a science experiment. I always felt this would be a cold and clinical approach to sport, something I wasn’t always sure I would be interested in.

Yet all that changed on Saturday, and I think there is a place in athletics for these clinical events. Just not all the time. Breaking 2 has taken the chase to a new level and as long as it is not exploited, and athletes don’t cry wolf every week, it can work again.

I believe it won’t be long now before someone crashes though the two-hour barrier and creates marathon history. It may require breaking most conventional rules along the way, such as the shoe technology, while also maintaining enough control so we don’t go down another pathway that questions the credibility of athletics.

But it was fascinating to see how new concepts and more controlled environments could test the limits of the human mind, body and spirit.