THERE ARE A few times in history that humans have accomplished a physical feat that up until that point seemed impossible.
The first sub-four-minute mile, the first summit of Everest, these are feats that are now replicated with some regularity but that truly pushed the limits of human potential at the time.
Next year, however, a group of runners will be trying to accomplish what might be one of the most insane of those goals ever — racing a marathon in under two hours.
That means they’ll have to average a blazing-fast per-mile time of 4:34 for the entire 26.2 miles. Even if someone manages it, don’t expect to see this sort of thing replicated on a regular basis.
While there are several groups trying to utilise everything we know about the science of human athletic performance to achieve this goal, the notable news right now is Nike’s December announcement of the Breaking2 project, which they describe as “an innovation moonshot designed to unlock human potential.”
What that means is that they are going to match three of the top distance runners in the world with the formidable resources of Nike to provide them with the coaching and materials (and money) to try to create the perfect conditions for someone to break the two-hour barrier.
Right now, the world record is held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, 32, who ran the 26.2 in 2:02:57 at the 2014 Berlin marathon, at a pace of 4:41 per mile.
Nike’s runners are Eliud Kipchoge, 32, of Kenya, 5’6″, 115 pounds, gold medal winner of the men’s marathon at Rio 2016 and called “the best marathoner in the world right now” by Alex Hutchinson in Runner’s World; Lelisa Desisa, 26, of Ethiopia, 5’9″, 125 pounds, two-time winner of the Boston Marathon; and Zersenay Tadese, 34, of Eritrea, 5’3″, 119 pounds, considered one of the most efficient runners ever, who holds the half-marathon world record of 58:23.
If the three runners in Nike’s project are going to hit their goal, they’ll have to finish each mile at least seven seconds faster than Kimetto did in Berlin.
Can it be done?
One of the first sports scientists to calculate that a sub-two-hour marathon could be possible is Michael Joyner of Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, who Ed Caesar, author of “Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon,” describes rather perfectly in Wired as “a polymathic anesthesiologist.”
In a 1991 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Joyner estimated that, with the perfect conditions, an ideal runner might be able to complete a marathon in 1:57:58.
“”I did that [calculation] for fun a long time ago now,” Joyner told me in an interview earlier this year. “I did it initially to try to understand how the limiting factors associated with performance interact, and I said that if one person had the optimal values for every single factor [things like VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy] they would run quite fast.”
At the time, the world record was 2:06:50, almost four minutes slower than Kimetto’s 2014 time, 23 years later.
Shaving another almost-three minutes off that time in a much shorter time span will be a challenge.
What it will take
Nike, of course, will be able to provide some of the key elements for the feat — the top shoe and clothing material scientists, top exercise physiologists and nutritionists, and coaches, for example. But there are a number of other key factors too.
The athletes need to be “right” in the first place — most people couldn’t come close to a two-hour time, no matter how much training they receive. Different body types are perfect fits for certain sports, and while there’s some variation among these racers, they all fit the mold for a distance runner (long legs, not too tall, and, of course, skinny). These three were carefully selected both for their current abilities and their potential to improve.
Crucially, Nike will be paying the racers well for their time, since they’ll almost certainly have to forego prize money from other races they won’t be involved in as they train.
Some existing courses like Berlin, Dubai, and the Polish town of Debno are particularly fast, but it’s likely that a more ideal course could be custom developed for the attempt. The ideal would be a course that’s flat and has few, if any, turns (and no sharp turns). Exercise scientist Yannis Pitsiladis, founder of the competing Sub2 project, plans to have runners attempt the goal at particularly low altitude near the Dead Sea, where there’s more oxygen available to breathe. Nike has yet to announce their course.
Hutchinson, who has revealed many of the details about Breaking2, calculated a few years ago that it’d be 2075 before the two-hour barrier would be broken, that it would be just below 40 degrees outside so the runners wouldn’t overheat, and that a team of physiologically “perfect” runners would need to work together like professional cyclists to “draft,” reducing wind resistance for the other members of the group (professional pace-setters help with this role at certain races now, but they rarely are there for the whole course).
Hutchinson now writes that the goal still seems “wildly audacious” and improbable, but possible.
Caesar, who tried to imagine what it would take to run a two-hour race for his book, says that much of what Nike has decided to try is “gratifyingly similar” to what he estimated (they’ve been working on the project since before his book was published) and that other of their ideas are “much more elegant and incisive than any I outlined.”
When I previously spoke to Joyner, he certainly thought the right person on the right day would be able to break the barrier.
“No one has yet gone all out to try to have the fastest possible course,” with pacemakers and everything else required, he said. “You just need to get the top guys on the top day on the top course and with a good prize money scheme, it appears.”
- Kevin Loria