Running’s Greatest Minds on Nike’s Two-Hour Marathon Project
Earlier this week, the Portland brand announced a wildly ambitious plan to break the two-hour marathon barrier by next spring. We asked three experts to weigh in on the stunt and the outcry it has provoked.
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Earlier this week, Nike announced the launch of Breaking2, an effort to enable one of three athletes—Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea—to break the two-hour marathon barrier by next spring. The brand's announcement of its “moonshot” was thin on details: Nike just said it would use “a system of groundbreaking innovation” to achieve the milestone. The project has sparked controversy about the specifics of the effort, the physiological requirements of the three athletes, and the ripple effect that such an attempt could have on the sport. Much of this discussion revolved around whether Nike would alter the race environment so much that running's governing bodies would not sanction the world record.
To help us cut through the noise, we put three authorities in the running community—Alex Hutchinson, the Runner's World columnist covering Breaking2; Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic; and Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans—in conversation.
OUTSIDE: First, let’s talk about your initial reactions to the project. When did you learn about it?
JOYNER: Ed Caeser emailed me the story he’d done for Wired. I was thrilled about it because, as everybody knows, I started yapping about breaking the two-hour barrier in the late ‘80s, and wrote a paper about it in the early ‘90s. So, as a scientist, I was obviously thrilled to see that someone wanted to test some theoretical ideas I’d generated in the real world.
FINN: Well, the thing that jumped out at me when I first saw it was the date. The idea was to do it in a few months. And my initial instinct and reaction was that that's impossible. It's not like we've discovered some incredible new talent. We're talking about Kipchoge, an incredible talent. He's already run incredible races at his absolute peak. I was a bit confused, and then I got the impression that they were going to do something to bend the rules or break the rules. I heard that this is not going to be a legitimate world record, and that threw up all sorts of issues for me personally.
It brings up the whole question of it being a scientific experiment, which is fine. In some ways, it brings up the issues of it being a marketing stunt, because they're getting a lot of coverage. But it's a sport. And my big feeling is that the point of sport is to play within a set of pre-fixed boundaries. If you're going to break those rules, what's the point? And we know this has been done in the past. We have Justin Gatlin getting Usain Bolt's world record using a wind turbine. So my reaction was, as a sports fan, what's the point? This isn't sport. I can see the scientific points and the human endeavor point, but as a sports fan it’s grating.
Alex, what was your reaction? In a 2014 article, you predicted that the two-hour mark would be broken in 2075.
HUTCHINSON: I laughed when I first got the phone call from the editor-in-chief at Runner's World asking if I'd be interested in covering this. And when I asked what the timeline is and he said next spring, I thought it was a bit of a joke. But I also figured that a big company doesn't make big announcements like that without putting some serious thought into it.
I'm a pessimist, especially when it comes to the marathon. These things are hard. That 2075 conclusion was how I figured things might trickle out in the normal course of events. But Mike and I have had many conversations, and so have many other people, about some of the things that could be done right away without involving any magic or any new training techniques, just optimizing the things that aren't optimized at big city marathons, like course design or drafting, where you can immediately cut off a minute or two. I don't know all the details of what Nike is doing and I can't talk about some of the stuff that I do know, but my sense is there's enough theoretically to get within shouting distance.
Mike, your 1991 paper concluded that, using your model, 1:57:58 was the fastest hypothetical marathon time. Does that number still hold up for you?
JOYNER: Yes. But I think the key thing that people need to realize is that I wasn't exactly trying to make a prediction. I was trying to better understand the factors that are key determinants of endurance performance. The purpose of modeling in science is strictly to identify the gaps in knowledge and to identify new areas for people to think about.
As a scientist and a de facto sports historian, are you excited about this?
JOYNER: Well, first of all, I hope they do it on a legitimate course. People have had world records that have been sort of set up from time to time—certainly Roger Bannister did. That's probably the best known barrier broken by one of the last of the great amateurs. What people have to know for the sports history is that it's very rare for people to break records by one percent or more. The last time that happened in a distance race was a long time ago. And to get under two hours, we're talking about breaking the record by about 2.5 percent. What I've always told people is that I think it's possible for someone to get into the 2:01s now, or relatively soon, and then the fun begins.
Ed Caesar wrote in his Wired piece, “If the attempt is successful it will be the most significant moment for running since Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile in 1954.” Do you agree with that?
HUTCHINSON: I think that will depend on the circumstances under which it's run. And I think some of the sort of consternation that has arisen in response to the announcement is because we don't know what's happening. So people are speculating that it's going to be downhill with rocket packs on their backs and roller skates on their feet. And that would not be all that significant. So I think the significance is going to depend, in a very fine way, on the details.
And to digress for just a second, I want to pick up Mike's point about Roger Bannister. You could basically lift a lot of the quotes from today and apply them to what people said about Bannister's four-minute mile attempt. These are not new points. It's a fiction that records have always just happened to come along naturally. A lot of barriers are broken with very specific attempts.
FINN: Another problem I have with this is that the marathon world record is almost in an unprecedented space right now. People have been breaking this world record time after time over the last five to six to 10 years. This is not a record that's long overdue to be broken. We're already seeing boundaries being pushed. It's already a very extreme, impressive record.
HUTCHINSON: I think what we're talking about here is not Eliud Kipchoge suddenly learning how to train harder and suddenly getting faster. The main thing that's going to happen here is the environment being changed. So if he can run a 2:03 effort on that day, Nike believes they can alter the environment in such a way that will be a two-hour marathon. And I understand that it will make lots of people unhappy, and fair enough, but it's not that they think they've magically discovered a way of training better.
FINN: Another thing that's different with Bannister's record is that here we've got a shoe company, a clothing brand, that is basically conducting an experiment, and it's selecting athletes through some sort of selection process. It doesn't feel like the same thing. It doesn't feel authentic. It doesn't come with the human story you get with sport and sport is very much a human story about striving.
HUTCHINSON: Personally, my perfect world of sports would be that everyone gets the same equipment instead of it being a technological race like sailing or modern pentathlon at the Olympics. You show up and you get the boat you're given. And so the athlete wins, not the technologist. That's my vision of sport. But ultimately the rules are what they are. And I don't blame athletes or corporations for trying to enhance within the rules, and I think it's up to us as sports fans to ask that authorities make the rules as restrictive as possible in order to to keep the focus on the athletes. But they'll look for whatever edge they can get until we make stricter rules.
Nike’s Vice President of Footwear Innovation Tony Bignell said recently: “The sub-two hour marathon is one of those epic barriers that people bust through. It's like breaking 10 seconds for the 100 meters or four minutes for the mile. At the end of the day we just want to show it can be done. We want to show that it's within the capability of human physiology.” Adharanand, you've been critical of this effort and why Nike says they want to break the record. How come?
FINN: I'm not against going for records and breaking records. If they're going to do it on a legitimate course, in a legitimate way, that's incredible. I have no problem with that. But this doesn't have that same feeling and I feel like that message is going to get lost. We're going to have this situation where we have this false world record, and Nike is going to push it, it's going to be a big story, it is going to undermine what's already happening in the sport, which has been incredible. You run 2:02:57 and the reaction is, “Ok, we're nearly there,” rather than, “Wow, that's incredible.”
And in this whole story, it's Nike against the record. Eliud Kipchoge hasn't had a single quote out of his mouth, we haven't heard a single thing he's saying about it. He's just a cog in the wheel rather than the driving force behind it.
HUTCHINSON: In terms of the points that Adharanand is making about running a sort of adulterated 1:59, and then everyone for the next 10 years not caring when people run 2:01 under more normal conditions, I think that really would be unfortunate and that's something that's a legitimate worry from my perspective. My hope is that the significance of the attempt will be in proportion to the legitimacy of the attempt.
And not all rules are equal. If they do it by not having a set start time in order to wait for the best wind or if they have a logo that's too big on their singlets or something, thus making it not an official record, that won't bother me. If it's downhill, then I hope it gets less attention. I hope the attention it gets is commensurate with the legitimacy of the effort. I will say that after my visit to Portland, I was more convinced that this is a legitimate attempt than I was before I visited.
Do you know if the athletes are going back and forth between East Africa and Oregon or if they are in Oregon for the next few months?
HUTCHINSON: They're training in their home environments. They've had a couple of visits to Nike but the next training, and the next interactions with the scientists, will be in their home countries. They're training with their own coaches. Nike's not dictating the training or their nutrition. The athletes are basically doing what they do, and Nike is mainly focused on conditions and equipment.
Have you assigned any sort of probability of this happening?
HUTCHINSON: In my head, there's between a one and ten percent chance of it happening. And that's depending on exactly how they decide to do it. There's maybe a 50 percent chance that it will be faster than the current world record.
JOYNER: I would agree with Alex, and I stick with what I've been telling people since the world record started to fall a lot the last four or five years. Let's get people in the 2:01s, then the fun starts. It should be a terrific achievement.
FINN: I personally think there's almost zero percent chance of them running sub-two hours legitimately on a course and with a record that can be ratified as a world record. I just cannot see any way Eliud Kipchoge will suddenly cut three minutes off what he's already done. I mean, I've run with the guy, and he's an incredible athlete, and I'm happy to be wrong, but that's my feeling.
Any last thoughts?
HUTCHINSON: It's going to be interesting to watch, and the extent of the respect we should give it will kind of have to wait a little bit. That's frustrating for me as anyone else, but let's see what they do before we either condemn or celebrate it too much.
FINN: The two-hour barrier is clearly a romantic and amazing story. It's something people are going to be shooting for no matter if this succeeds or fails. It's going to continue to be a point of discussion until it happens, which may be years and years and years from now. My personal feeling is that it's going to take someone who's as physically gifted as it gets. Like when Usain Bolt suddenly rewrote the rules of sprinting. It's going to take someone of another level somehow if it's going to happen sooner, rather than through natural progression.
JOYNER: If it happens, do I get to go to the top of a mountain and say, “I told you so!”?