Breaking2 eludes Nike and man; all you need to know


From left to right in back row: Lesisa Desisa, Zersenay Tadese, and Eliud Kipchoge begin ...
From left to right in back row: Lesisa Desisa, Zersenay Tadese, and Eliud Kipchoge begin a half marathon test on the Formula One circuit in Monza, Italy on March 7. The trio will attempt to run a sub-2:00 Marathon at the venue in early May. (PHOTO/CHRIS LAWRENCE)

Do we go again or do we implode under the weight of our own superficial ambitions?

Man has failed to breach athletics’ last barrier and an audacious bid that stoked as much controversy as it did command global attention has just but floundered.

Eliud Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic marathon champion narrowly failed in the attempt to run the ultimate distance under the mythical two-hour mark, finishing in a time of 2hr 00min 24sec on Saturday.

The time of 25 seconds could be the most dreaded figure of his lifetime – if he fails to have another swing at history.

Running alongside two other elite marathon runners, his winning time shaved two minute and 33 seconds off the world record of 2hr 02min 57sec set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya.

The ‘Breaking2’, the latest enterprise of American sportswear giant Nike to run the marathon race in 1hour 59minutes and 59seconds or less, will not enter the record books largely because of the non-compliant system of pacemaking used in the attempt, made on the Monza National Autodrome racing circuit.

For the entire attempt, Kipchoge ran behind a six-man pacesetting team which trailed a time-keeping vehicle by less than 10 metres.

This weekend, aided by a host of technological and environmental advances, three carefully-selected elite African athletes will attempt to run the first sub-two hour marathon.

The ‘Breaking 2’, according to Nike, to show that a combination of talent, training and technology can produce astounding results without the need for chemical assistance.

Many people were intrigued to see just how much difference such a collection of ‘marginal gains’ can make and suggest that, at a time when athletics is reeling from relentless bad news, such a quantum leap in human endurance, arguably the greatest in the sport’s history, is something to be welcomed and celebrated.

Below we look at the key aspects of the project.

The current record and its progression

Kimetto set the current record as ratified by world governing body the IAAF of two hours, two minutes, 57 seconds in Berlin in 2014, which is about four minutes faster than it was in 1988.

Kimetto’s time works out to 4:41.5 minutes per mile; a sub-two would require less than 4:35 per mile – an improvement of about seven seconds per mile, or around 2.5 percent.

On the face of it, that appeared an impossible leap.

In 2014 the respected Runners World magazine published a data-driven analysis of more than 10,000 top marathon performances over 50 years that predicted a sub-two under normal race conditions would not happen until 2075.

The key to this attempt is that Nike are trying to ensure all the other variables make such an impact that, in theory, the athletes will produce effort levels that equate to a 2.03 time but, boosted by all the extra help, will actually produce sub-2.

Maybe the fastest-ever, but not a world record

The course will be ratified by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the athletes will satisfy all the usual anti-doping requirements, but the attempt will not be an officially sanctioned world record due to a host of variables, detailed below.

Who was running?

After extensive physiological research, Nike put together a team of three.

Kipchoge, the 32-year-old Kenyan was the stand-out performer. Last year’s Olympic marathon gold medalist and former 5,000 meters world champion has won seven of his eight marathons. His best of 2:03:05 is the third-fastest in history.

Zersenay Tadese, the Eritrean is the half-marathon world record holder with 58:23 minutes and, although he had nothing much in his locker over the full distance, Nike’s scientists identified him as having the potential to go much faster.

Lelisa Desisa, the 26-year-old Ethiopian has a marathon best of 2:04.45 and was another athlete whose numbers in the area of VO2 max, which measures the maximum rate of oxygen consumption, lactate profile, which provides an indicator of fatigue during exercise, and running economy were second to none.

The shoes

The 200 gramme Zoom Vaporfly Elite are central to the whole project. Nike assured the combination of a new foam and curved carbon insert, which also helps change the angle of the foot, means runners require four percent less energy to go at the same speed in comparison with their previous best shoe.

The shoes have been further custom-fitted for the three athletes – which should help prevent a repeat of the blisters that scuppered Ethiopian Keninisa Bekele’s London Marathon bid in similar Vaporfly 4% shoes.

A recent meeting of the IAAF technical committee ruled the shoes and their technology to be within their, admittedly vague, rules – though the Elite version will not be available for the public to buy.

The kit

Nike is also kitting their intrepid trio out in new socks, shorts and singlet, all of which are claimed to offer an advantage in terms of aerodynamics and/or ventilation and support. Again, many scoff at the idea but they also did that nearly 50 years ago when Briton Ron Hill broke the marathon record aided by a self-designed ‘cooling’ string vest.

The course

The sub-2 attempt will be run on about 17 laps of a 1.5 mile (2.4km)) loop that forms part of the Monza F1 track in northern Italy. After extensive research it was selected due to a combination of environmental factors, including average temperature, air pressure and wind levels. The surface, with no kerbs or cambers, was also considered optimal.

The course satisfies the rules on elevation that, for example, rule out records set on the overall downhill route of the Boston Marathon.

One area where the Monza track could give a tangible advantage is that the athletes will run exactly the marathon distance. Even on the fastest road courses, the fact that the ‘blue line’ has to follow curves and is marked a minimum distance from the kerb means that runners often actually cover many more meters than the 26 miles, 385 yards that has been the standard since the 1908 Olympics.

Pacemakers/drafting

This is another area where quantifiable benefits can be seen – and is the one that seems to have turned many people against the attempt.

The three runners will be sheltered throughout the attempt by a group of pacemakers, who will dip in and out at various times to ensure they maintain the demanded pace. Similar packs are used at big city marathons, with the only real difference being that they have to start the race together.

Such a controversy is not new. Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile was achieved with the aid of two pacemakers, while IAAF head Seb Coe’s golden run of world records in the early 1980s, and dozens more since, have all been set that way.

An indication of how having pacemakers for the entire distance can help is the women’s world record. Radcliffe set her 2.15.25 while being shielded by male runners throughout in the London Marathon of 2003. Nobody has got remotely close to it since and, as a result, there are now two official women’s world records. The Briton’s 2.15.25 and another set in ‘women-only’ races. Radcliffe’s mark under those rules being beaten by Mary Ketainy’s 2.17.01 at London last month.

Mobile drinks

Nike organized a practice event at Monza in March, where the athletes ingested core-temperature pills and used taped-on muscle oxygen and skin-temperature sensors.

The runners followed a car with a large clock on the back showing elapsed time, splits, and projected finish time.

They were also served drinks ‘on the move’ via a moped, avoiding the need to slow and lose rhythm at traditional drinks stations – another innovation the IAAF have concerns about.

Is anyone else chasing sub-two?

The last four world record holders – Kimetto, Wilson Kipsang, Patrick Makau and Haile Gebrselassie – have been sponsored by Nike’s great rival adidas and the German company is also running its own ‘Sub2’ project, complete with a new shoe of the same name. “Our Sub2 focus will continue to be led by innovation that helps to achieve new speeds in race environments, with more to come later this year,” adidas said.

In 2014, Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton in Britain, launched another Sub2Hr Project with an initial goal of breaking the barrier within five years, but his independent project appears to have stalled as he struggles to raise the $30 million he estimates will be needed over the five-year period.

-Material sourced from Reuters.

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