The marathon in under two hours


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2017)

For decades, the same dream has haunted the running scene: to run the marathon in less than two hours. But even if the best of the best have constantly broken new world records, most studies still assume that it will take decades before the 120-minute barrier is broken. The American sports article manufacturer Nike is working on shaping the future. They want to make history and prove anew that the abilities of the human body are greater than we think—with the project “#breaking2”.

42.195 kilometres in less than two hours and the chance to make the impossible possible. Because sometimes, the belief that it is possible is motivation enough. In the end, it took more than a thousand years for humans to overcome the four-hour barrier. But since Sir Roger Bannister ran the marathon in 3:59.4 hours in 1954, many have followed in his footsteps. And now, Breaking2 will break the new record. This unprecedented experiment allies top scientists and the world’s fastest marathon runners. Nike wants to reach this supposedly unattainable level of performance and make it the norm. The project is therefore a great challenge for the company.

The wait was finally over on Saturday May 6, 2017: three of the best Nike athletes demonstrated just what human dedication and mental strength are able to achieve. Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese showed what athletes are capable of and what it means to break through one’s own barriers. They started their first attempt to run a marathon in under two hours at the race course in Monza, Italy.  The attempt was preceded by lots of research, plenty of hard work and considerable amounts of sweat – and at least a little piece of sports history was written early on said Saturday morning, even though it did not quite result in a new record: Eliud Kipchoge ran the 42.195-km course in 02:00:25, reaching his absolute limits during the race. This was the fastest marathon run ever measured – although it will not be registered as a world record, as the race was practically held under laboratory conditions. For this reason, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) cannot accept the time as a world record. Under regular conditions, Dennis Kimetto ran the marathon in Berlin back in 2014 in 2:02:57. This is the official old and new work record.

“I have been part of many races during my career at Nike. I have witnessed the magic of golden shoes and fast suits. I have seen how iconic athletes have given their all to the track. But I have never seen anything that even remotely compares to what I have been part of today. Today, millions of people across the globe have witnessed Eliud Kipchoge run a distance of 42.195 km faster than any other person before him. With a time of 2 hours and 25 seconds, this achievement is dramatically faster than the current world record – and represents more than just a race. It is a moment of global inspiration, which encourages every athlete in our community to break through the limitations of their potential. I would like to personally congratulate the Breaking2 athletes on their extraordinary accomplishment”, said Mark Parker, CEO of Nike. 

At the limits of bodily capacities, innovative details often make the difference between what’s possible and what seems impossible. Therefore, Bill Bowerman experimented with the outsole of the Nike Waffle Racer on a tartan track instead of a cinder track. For the Nike Swift Suit, an aerodynamic design was developed to reduce air resistance. The Nike Zoom Victory Elite was the first to use carbon fibres in the spike plates. This technology will now be integrated in marathon shoes to develop the best and fastest products for the Breaking2 athletes. 

The team of scientists and runners has worked towards that goal since 2014. Training, nutrition and regeneration of the athletes also play an important role and are precisely and scientifically analysed and regulated. Matthew Nurse and his team at the Nike Sport Research Lab oversee this process: “It is our task to make knowledge and insights available. We are a global source of knowledge on the science of human athletic performance and potential. Here, we transform information into innovation.”

The Nike Sport Research Lab has existed since 1980. It was created following the running boom of the late seventies with the aim of examining and understanding the needs of runners and developing the best possible products for them. For this purpose, the movements of athletes are quantified, the environment in which they run is analysed and so are the products they use. Nike tries to generate new knowledge out of this information and to incorporate it into its product development. That’s why several sensors are placed on Eliud Kipchoge’s body while he trains. They track his movements, breathing, heartrate and body temperature. 

Kipchoge is the third-fastest man in the world. The Kenyan has won an Olympic gold medal and is a professional marathon runner. Zersenay Tadese from Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia also trained with him for Breaking2. “Our record attempt is based on a few important basic principles,” says Brad Wilkins from the Nike Sport Research Lab. The first step was to find the right athletes among the many thousands that have a contract with Nike. The decisive criteria for this was their possible peak performance and the potential for improvement deriving from it. Who spends less energy than others for the same number of kilometres? Who has the most effective running style? Nike finally selected three athletes: Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese. The three Breaking2 runners have gone through numerous intensive tests at Nike’s so-called Camp One. Based on the collected data, custom-made shoes will be developed for each runner. Several shoes with different characteristics were tested, and each time the oxygen consumption of the runner was measured. The results provided information on which characteristics are needed for each runner to reach his peak performance. 

Based on these detailed findings and on constant feedback from the runners during training, the development team created a pair of innovative shoes for each of them with an ultra-light and extremely reactive Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4 Percent midsole as a core. The energy return of the Nike ZoomX is higher than any other foam material ever used in sports shoes by Nike. This special foam delivers its full performance in combination with a unidirectional carbon plate with a specific geometry that enhances the propulsion of every single step. The upper material is made of high-performance Flyknit, which adapts perfectly to the shape of the foot and the running style of each runner. Its aerodynamic properties were also optimised in the wind channel to reduce air resistance. Every little detail is further tested, monitored and, when necessary, adapted to the goal—to make the shoes of the Breaking2 runners a revolution—not only for Nike, but for the entire sport. 

The team never loses sight of the ultimate goal: the “moonshot marathon”, whose first attempt we have just completed. Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the stratosphere for Red Bull remains the perfect example. Nike wants to draw that kind of attention to its brand. But the location and the right time are crucial elements in planning the trials. “We are constantly looking for the right time slot and the right conditions in order to break the record” says Brett Kirby, chief physiologist of the project. For it is only possible to beat the two-hour barrier when all factors such as the athlete’s physical condition and the weather conditions—right temperature, wind, etc.—are optimal. Only then can the athletes reach their full potential. All conditions for an initial trial in Monza appeared to be perfect on May 6. 

The fact that science in commercial record trials is repeatedly sold as a product in the world of sport is also facing strong criticism. Until now, the running culture has developed over a long period of time and several generations of professional runners. Many experts say that it will not be possible to run a marathon under 120 minutes this year, that the record could be broken in 2019 at the earliest. “To critics we can only respond that our company has of the newest technology and science to optimise athletes’ training,” says Matthew Nurse. The preparations for the trial have been going on for two years now, but Nike is certain that they will set a record at the next trial.

Loved this article? Put it in your cart!


Picture credit © Nike

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published