Nike’s high-tech bid to break the 2-hour marathon record falls just short
Photo via Nike.
Humans have still yet to break the 2-hour marathon mark, but they’re getting close with the help of sports science and technology innovation.
Nike’s attempt to break the record fell just short on Saturday, as world-class Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge ran 26 miles in 2 hours and 25 seconds as part of a laboratory test of sorts that doubled as a marketing play by Nike.
Called Breaking2, Nike worked for two years to prepare for Saturday’s race, investing time and money into research related to shoes, training, nutrition, recovery, and other elements of long-distance running.
Nike, headquartered just outside Portland, Ore., streamed the race live on and . It took place in a controlled environment around Monza’s Formula One course in Milan, Italy.
“It’s the perfect place to test everything we’ve learned,” Nike wrote.
Eliud Kipchoge – 2:00:25
The barrier just got that much closer. #Breaking2 #JustDoIt pic..com/uw9Dz1zknE
— Nike (@Nike) May 6, 2017
Nike had three runners attempt the race, but Kipchoge was the only one with a real chance of breaking the 2-hour mark. His 2:00:24 mark is the best-ever, but technically not an official record because Nike used a throng of pacesetters throughout the race. Nike also had an electric car that projected a green line which showed ideal pace.
There were other tech-fueled aids for the runners, including special carbohydrate fluids and shoes with carbon-fiber plates.
Here’s a tidbit from Nike that details the science behind the preparation:
Before the team could work with the athletes to refine their training and conditioning, we needed to understand their current training schedules. In order to do so, our science team met the athletes and their coaches at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
At this first team camp, the science team provided each athlete with GPS watches and heart rate monitors to begin tracking the training load of each athlete. In addition, each athlete was connected to internal Nike performance prediction analysis software.
This helped to facilitate individualized athlete learnings, as well as forecast future running performances.
Next, the science group teamed up with the product group and went to the athletes’ home training grounds in Kenya, Ethiopia and Spain. They tested and integrated insights across the Nike Breaking2 project, gathered new data and observed first-hand the athletes daily training regimens and lifestyles, constantly looking for avenues where support could be provided.
The official world record for the marathon remains 2:02:57, which was set in 2014.
Wired was on the ground in Milan, Italy for the race and has a good recap here, as well as this detailed look at why Nike is doing this.
You can watch the race here:
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Is ‘sub-two-hour’ Nike marathon attempt just a clever marketing stunt?
Roll up, roll up – come and see the last of the “world marathon majors” before a man breaks the two-hour barrier.
This could be the pitch for Sunday’s London marathon when some 38,000 runners take to the capital’s streets in an event watched by millions. Many will be hoping for a race as memorable as last year when Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran a course record, coming home in 2:03:05.
But Kipchoge will not be competing this year. Instead, he is one of three Nike-sponsored runners who will next month seek to achieve what many had thought was impossible: run 26.2 miles in under 120 minutes.
The attempt will not take place at any of the world’s six renowned marathon courses – London, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo, New York and Chicago – collectively known as the majors. Rather, it will be run on a fixed 1.5-mile loop of the Monza racetrack outside Milan, a location specifically chosen as it has the optimum temperature, protection from the wind, and pancake-flat asphalt.
The run is being staged by Nike, which has poured vast amounts of money into the event and plans to stream it live.
Few experts think the barrier will be smashed, but many believe it could change the marathons of the future.
“If you go back to 2014 when Dennis Kimetto broke the record in Berlin [in a time of 2:02:57] they [the Monza runners] are going to have to finish two-thirds of a mile ahead of where he was when he crossed the line,” said John Brewer, professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and author of the forthcoming book, Run Smart.
“That’s a huge distance. It’s very easy to say ‘oh it’s less than three minutes’, and for someone me, running the marathon on Sunday in around four hours, three minutes is not that much, but for the pace that those guys are going at, it’s the equivalent of one second a lap in Formula One.”
A more realistic prospect is that one of the three breaks Kimetto’s record and is crowned the fastest man in the world over 26.2 miles. Either way, Nike wins.
“Even if the event is not an official marathon, everyone knows that the distance comes from the race, and so even if the record is not officially ratified, it will be known as the fastest ever marathon,” said Professor Martin Polley, director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester, and author of The British Olympics. “The real challenge will come afterwards: if one of the Nike runners manages the incredible ‘sub-two’ at Monza, will he be able to repeat it on the streets of the next city marathon or at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020?”
Few think this would be possible because the conditions in a real marathon are so different, triggering accusations that Nike is attempting little more than a marketing gimmick.
But Ellis Cashmore, professor of sociology at Aston University, Birmingham, and author of Sports Culture, said the running world had benefited from specially created events in the past.
“Nowhere does it state you shouldn’t prearrange races in an explicit attempt to run records – or else Roger Bannister wouldn’t have run the first sub-four-minute mile,” said Cashmore, who suggested Nike was simply doing what all brands do: reach large audiences.
“Sport is now the most valuable advertising platform in history. Ask yourself next time you watch a marathon, a football match or an F1 race: am I watching sport, or am I being subjected to two or more hours of advertising? The competition we watch is superficial: the competition in earnest is brand vs brand.”
Indeed, marathons have been acutely aware of their commercial potential.
“Oxo provided the official refreshment for runners in the 1908 London Olympics marathon,” Polley said. “Commercial backers quickly staged rematches between the winner, Johnny Hayes, and the disqualified Dorando Pietri at Madison Square Garden and the Royal Albert Hall.”
The latter race took a stultifying 524 laps, which may explain why it never caught on. For similar reasons, Brewer thinks London has little to fear from Monza. “Watching them go round and round for two hours is not the most absorbing, whereas Sunday’s marathon has got real stories of real people.”
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Eliud Kipchoge Breaks Two-Hour Marathon Barrier
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VIENNA — On a misty Saturday morning in Vienna, on a course specially chosen for speed, in an athletic spectacle of historic proportions, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran 26.2 miles in a once-inconceivable time of 1 hour 59 minutes 40 seconds.
In becoming the first person to cover the marathon distance in less than two hours, Kipchoge, 34, achieved a sports milestone granted almost mythical status in the running world, breaking through a temporal barrier that many would have deemed untouchable only a few years ago.
Kipchoge, an eight-time major marathon winner and three-time Olympic medalist, pounded his chest twice as he crossed the finish line in Vienna’s leafy Prater Park, where the majority of the run had unfolded on a long straightaway of recently paved road, with roundabouts on either end.
Cheered on by a thick crowd of spectators, he was lifted into the air by members of his team, including the 41 professional runners who had acted as pacesetters during the run.
For Kipchoge, the feat merely burnished his credentials as the world’s greatest marathoner.
“Together, when we run, we can make this world a beautiful world,” Kipchoge said after finishing.
For all its magnitude, the accomplishment will be regarded largely as a symbolic one. The eye-popping time, which was 10 seconds quicker than the 1:59:50 time Kipchoge and his team had set out to achieve, will not be officially recognized as a world record because it was not run under open marathon conditions and because it featured a dense rotation of professional pacesetters.
What the event lacked in officially sanctioned gravitas, though, it seemed determined to make up for with theater and grandiose proclamations.
The run, organized by the petrochemical company INEOS, featured a cycle of hype and commercial buildup more reminiscent of a heavyweight prizefight than a road race.
Organizers billed the two-hour mark as “the last barrier of modern athletics” and tried to get a hashtag, #nohumanislimited, trending on social media.
Kipchoge repeatedly compared a potential sub-two-hour marathon to humanity’s first journey onto the surface of the moon.
“The pressure was very big on my shoulders,” said Kipchoge, who revealed he had received a call from President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya the night before the run.
Whatever the scope of the achievement, it required a prodigious amount of planning.
Seeking the most welcoming environment for Kipchoge to attempt such a feat, the event’s organizers had settled on Vienna: It was not too warm, not too cold and not at all hilly.
The altitude, 540 feet above sea level, was just right, and it was only one time zone away from Kipchoge’s training camp in Kaptagat, Kenya, where he had worked out for the past four months under the guidance of his longtime coach, Patrick Sang.
He had led a monastic existence there, eating, sleeping and exercising for the sole purpose of running fast. To his normal preparations he added workouts focused on core strength in order to lessen the strain on his hamstrings.
On Saturday, Kipchoge showed the subtlest signs of strain on his face in the first half of the run and fell a couple seconds behind his desired pace in a few portions. He ran the final stretches of the marathon with his lips curled into a gentle smile. Afterward, he walked with a barely perceptible limp.
“There are no guarantees in sports,” Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire founder of INEOS, said to Kipchoge after the finish. “You could have had a bad day. But you had a really good day.”
Kipchoge had made an attempt at the two-hour barrier once before. In 2017, in a similar event organized by Nike, he ran a 2:00:25 marathon around an auto racetrack in Monza, Italy. It was by far the fastest marathon ever run, but it was not officially recognized as a world record because it was not run under normal race conditions
Since then, and in officially sanctioned major marathons, Kipchoge produced the two fastest times in history at the time they were run, posting a world-record time of 2:01:39 in Berlin in 2018 and 2:02:37 last April in London.
“Berlin was about running a world record,” Kipchoge said this past week. “Vienna is about running and breaking history, the first man on the moon.”
He arrived in Austria on Tuesday, but the exact start date for the attempt was not finalized until the following day, and the precise start time was not settled until Friday afternoon.
What materialized on Saturday was perhaps the most finely tuned, carefully orchestrated marathon-length run in history.
Kipchoge got his hotel bed at 4:50 a.m. and had oatmeal for breakfast.
At 8:15 a.m.
, after a three-hour wait that he called “the hardest time ever in my life,” he set out from the Reichsbrücke, a picturesque bridge spanning the Danube, and charged across a stretch of downhill road that led him into the park. There, he ran around a 9.6-kilometer flat circuit, more than 90 percent of which unfurled in a straight line. Portions of the road were painted with lines to highlight the fastest possible path.
Kipchoge — who wore a white singlet, white sneakers (Nikes, as of yet unreleased to the public, built around a carbon-fiber plate) and white sleeves on his arms — had immense support.
He ran behind an electric timing car driving 4:34 per mile (with a second car on standby) and with his flock of rotating pacesetters (35 on the course, six on reserve) who happened to include some of the best distance runners in the world, including former world and Olympic gold medalists Bernard Lagat and Matthew Centrowitz.
Those pacemakers, wearing black jerseys and stern expressions, formed a protective, aerodynamic pocket around Kipchoge, five of them running in front in an open-V formation and two more in the back.
They knew exactly where to run thanks to a pattern of thick, green laser beams projected onto the street by the timing car.
At predetermined times, the seven pacemakers would make way for another group of seven to slide in and take over.
A team member on a bicycle periodically pedaled into the pack to deliver Kipchoge a carbohydrate-heavy cocktail of gels and fluids.
“Looking at the 1:59:40 time, I got so emotional,” said Lagat, a two-time Olympic medalist.
Down the final stretch, as it was clear that the milestone was easily in reach, the pacesetters, timing car and accompanying cyclists all peeled away, leaving Kipchoge alone to soak in the shouts and applause of the crowd.
After crossing the finish line, Kipchoge jumped into the arms of his wife, Grace, and children. Through all his years of competition, all the victories and medals and records in his career, this was the first time his family had watched him run in person.
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