The whole athletic world was glued to the livestream of Nike’s #Breaking2 attempt last May 6 for good reason. The event itself was more than just a marketing stunt by Nike nor a world record attempt; it was an experiment that tested the limits of both human physiology and technology. The goal was quite simple, break the longstanding 2hr marathon barrier. Of course, this is easier said than done.
What Was it About?
To give you some background information, the marathon record stands at 2:02:57 (Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, Berlin 2014). Nike selected 3 of the world’s top distance runners based on their physical attributes, experience, and pedigree.
The attempt in itself is a feat of human engineering. The course was designed in such a way that the runners can draft off a group of pacers to help minimize drag. Similar to how pacelines in cycling work, the pool of 18 pacers are divided into 6 groups of 3. During each lap, 6 pacers would form a diamond formation to slice the wind for the 3 stars. Each group of pacers would have to run 4.8km (2 loops) at 21kph and would overlap with another group after every loop. The goal is to keep the pace steady from start to finish, no surges, no fast starts; calm and consistent is the name of the game. This in itself, is already a very tough workout but it is designed to keep the pacers fresh enough to lead the way for Kipchoge, Desisa, and Tadese.
Who are our runners?
High Volume Runner, Very Little at Specific Speed
Very Good Lactate and VO2Max Profiles
Not used to drinking/fueling.
Hasn’t raced in almost a year.
In a performance slump.
Fastest Half Marathon: 59:30
Fastest Marathon: 2:04:45
21k Test Run: 62:55
Finished Event in 2:14:10
Lactate Profile attributed to a Middle Distance Runner
Half Marathon World Record Holder: 58:23
Strong Kick (based on Lactate Profile)
Not used to drinking/fueling.
Not used to pack running.
Prone to fueling problems.
21k Test Run: 59:41
Fell off pace at 21km (59:49)
Finished Event in 2:06:51 (PB)
Familiar with Proper Hydration and Fueling
Excellent Lactate and VO2Max Profiles
2016 Olympic Marathon Champion
Marathon PB: 2:03:05
21k Test Run: 59:17
Finished Event in 2:00:25
Why Then is it “Impossible?”
If you look at the chart above, you’ll notice that a 1:59:59 marathon is a long shot. There are baby steps made whenever records are broken. Based on recent data, the new record is less than 1% faster than the previous one. In contrast, 2:00:25 is 2.06% faster than the current world record.
Although I’m not a fan of overgeneralization through population trends, it’s often said that doubling the distance would result in slowing down by 5%. For example, If you can run a 5km in 30mins, you can finish a 10km in 63mins (i.e. 10km pace is 5% slower than 5km pace). Putting that assumption at work, even the world half marathon holder Tadese would miss out on the target by 2mins and 17 seconds (2:02:16).
On top of all this, the fastest ever 21k split in an actual marathon was 61:11 (Berlin 2016). To be able to break the record, they’d need to beat this by more than a minute and maintain this. To put things into perspective, going faster by 1minute 30 seconds at those speeds would mean reaching the 21km mark half a kilometer earlier.
What Happened During the Race?
Needless to say, Nike chose Monza, a racetrack in Italy, as the venue for this attempt because it allowed for easier logistics (loops), and it had very long sweeping corners, low altitude and ideal weather conditions.
On race day, the weather conditions were perfect: overcast, no rain, with very cool temperatures. The pacers were able to execute smooth ingress and egress movements that kept everything within target.
For the runners, the first few kilometers were obviously easy. However, things started to fall apart midway into the run.
Desisa, even early on, didn’t look very smooth as he was running. There was a lot of upper body movement that seemed to sap more energy than necessary. On top of this, he had a series of bad races as of late and hasn’t been able to compete the past year. His pre-event time trials a few weeks ago were also lack luster as he was way above the 60min target time for 21km. This was further exacerbated by his bad fueling and hydration habits. In a nutshell, Desisa has what it takes but his current mental/emotional state now and his unfamiliarity with long distance fueling might have botched his chances. True enough, he was even lapped by the leader Kipchoge as the former finished with a time of 2:14:10.
Tadese is a well-known 21km expert and currently holds the record for the fastest 21km ever (58:23). Compared to Kipchoge, he looked less smooth and relaxed. His unfamiliarity with tight pack running might have played a small role in this. Like Desisa, he was also prone to fueling problems. His lactate curve shows that he has a very strong kick. Unfortunately, this is practically useless for this particular event as “jumping the gun” on the competition is not necessary. His lactate curve shows he’s more geared towards middle distance running and would have trouble sustaining the pace necessary for the whole 42km. Nonetheless, he finished with a PR of 2:06:51.
It’s not a secret that Kipchoge was the star of the group. He was the 2016 Olympic Marathon Champion and has vast experience in the distance. He’s also quite familiar with fueling and hydration strategies though they did have to tweak his intake a fair bit. It’s pretty obvious that his Lactate and VO2Max numbers were spectacular but what would set him apart was his efficiency. Watching him during the event was a thing of beauty. He looked so calm and relaxed and even barely grimaced towards the end of the event. People would even say that “it doesn’t look like he’s running fast.” That’s a compliment as everything seemed effortless. He was on pace until the last 10km where things started to fall apart slowly. A 6 second deficit ballooned to 12, and eventually to 25. It’s easy to say “he should have sprinted the final stretch.” But trust me, he summoned every bit of his body to push but it can only go so hard.
Putting things into perspective, with a finish time of 2:00:25, we only need to go 0.36% to break 2 hours. While this particular event doesn’t count as a world record (i.e. because of motorized hydration caddies and pacing/drafting technicalities), it’s a showcase of what’s possible and it gives us an insight on what can further be improved
In my opinion, here are a few points we can further improve on…
First, the course consists of 17 loops around the race track, since each loop has an 18 foot rise, the runners had a net ascent of 306ft. Changing direction even on a long bend like in Monza also saps the athlete of some speed, this may be trivial or not but I think having a larger loop with less bends might be better. The downside is that it will lead to more complexity for logistics (e.g. swapping out runners, fueling etc.) If the course had less elevation gain and a larger turn diameter, I’m pretty sure breaking 2hrs would be very possible.
Second, perhaps more research should be done on the diamond formation for the pacers. Running at those speeds, the runners would definitely need some help from the pacers as they sliced through the wind. However, I’m not quite sure if the diamond formation is the best way to go. I wonder if they gathered some data on what formation would be ideal but in cycling, echelon formations adjust depending on wind speed and direction. Some claim that it plays a 1% or less role and might even contribute to heat build-up between runners. I’m more inclined towards believing that it plays a huge part not just in aerodynamics but also in pacing and rhythm as well.
Finally, it was discussed that running efficiency is one of the keys to winning. The jury is out on how one can improve his/her run efficiency. Some suggest strength and conditioning, some put an emphasis on proper form/technique, and others look at gear (e.g. shoes). I’m not her to say what works or doesn’t, whatever it may be, that little extra, might go a long way. In Desisa and Tadese’s case, perhaps having more fluid movements and relaxed upper bodies might play a huge role. However, I also understand that each person is unique; we can’t really impose a particular technique or form on a person, we can only tweak and improve it. They might be even more uncomfortable running in an “unnatural way” to them. I simplify it to 4 As: Assess, Adjust, Apply, and Adapt; this is our best bet.
Luckily, we don’t have to wait for next year to learn from this event and even see the developments come into play. There are two attempts coming up that aim to achieve the same thing. Adidas will attempt to break 2hrs in a race scenario while another team (sub2hrs) will try to do the same thing. I like to think of this not as a competiton but rather as a collective effort from humanity to challenge our concepts of what is possible or not. To me it’s not a question of whether they will succeed or not; it’s just a matter of “when?”