Moonshot Marathon … Nike seeks to break the 2 hour marathon barrier
December 14, 2016
Nike has launched Breaking2 part of the NXT Generation Research Project at the Nike Sport Research Lab, seeking to break one of sport’s most formidable barriers, the two-hour marathon.
After more than two years of research, preparation and testing, three top distance runners— Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya, supported by Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese – have officially started their Nike-backed build-up toward a sub-two-hour attempt sometime in the spring, the exact timing and location of which have yet to be finalised.
Kipchoge, in particular is a master practitioner, having matured from a world champion track athlete to become the world’s best marathoner – just missing the world record in London this year, whilst running the perfect tactical race for Rio Gold. At his training camp near Iten in Kenya he lives a spartan life, running three times a day, eating ugali meals, and sleeping. Preparing himself for his next superhuman effort.
The Breaking2 team’s goal is to run 1:59:59 or faster, a pace of 4:34 per mile for 26.2 miles. Nobody has come close to that; the current world record is 2:02:57, by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto set in 2014. That’s 4:41 per mile—a stunning pace that nonetheless left Kimetto more than a half-mile from the finish line at the two-hour mark. At the same time, running 58-59 minutes for the half-marathon has become quite normal now for elite runners, therefore it is not impossible to sustain an aerobic pace.
Breaking2 is a 20-person team, based at Nike Campus in Beaverton, Oregon, including shoe designers, biomechanics engineers, distance coaches, psychologists and physiologists. As well as coaching the athletes to peak performance, they will search the world for the perfect course, the right conditions, the optimal nutrition, the right pacing and support, as well of course, the best shoes.
Nike’s announcement will undoubtedly raise eyebrows. Just two years ago, in a data-driven investigation by Runners World magazine of what it would take, they concluded that the barrier would be broken in 2075. That admittedly pessimistic prediction was based on the assumption that the record would continue to be shaved down by small margins, in keeping with previous trends.
But Nike is instead looking to carve a full three minutes, or about 2.5 percent, off the record—an unusual, though not entirely unprecedented, leap. Paula Radcliffe lowered the women’s marathon record twice for a total improvement of almost exactly 2.5 percent over the previous record; her record of 2:15:25, set in 2003, still stands.
Still, “reverse-engineering” such a big breakthrough requires a different approach from the incremental gains that Nike researchers have been pursuing for the last 40 years. “We know that we need to break the two-hour marathon. That’s a defined outcome,” says Brad Wilkins, the director of NXT Generation Research in the Nike Sport Research Lab. “So now let’s take a step back. What do we need to understand scientifically? What are the problems that we need to solve?”
Nike isn’t alone in believing that the barrier is nearly ready to fall. In late 2014, Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton in Britain, launched his Sub2Hr Project with an initial goal of breaking the barrier within five years. While Pitsiladis’s initiative has struggled to raise the $30 million he estimates will be needed, he is already working with Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele who ran 2:03:03 in Berlin in September to become the second-fastest marathoner in history.
Adidas have also set up a sub 2 project, including current record holder Kimetto, and likely to be based around the Berlin Marathon which it sponsors, and has been the setting for a number of recent records.
Of course, Nike and Adidas have operated in an increasingly competitive market, not only for sports marketing influence but in sales of sportswear. The rise of so-called athleisure has brought new competitors like UnderArmour to Lululemon into the mix and sales of casual, fashion-forward shoes have risen faster than performance-oriented sneakers.
Those conditions have put more pressure on the likes of Nike and Adidas to reignite sales of performance gear. “A pendulum swing in fashion preference from performance towards lifestyle fashion athletic footwear has contributed to a bearish sentiment on Nike,” said analysts recently, following a stock market slide of around 30% of its value during 2016.
A sub-2-hour marathon is considered something of a last frontier in running, since the four-minute mile was shattered decades ago. At that time, runners including Roger Bannister in England and John Landy in Australia raced weekly to try to become the first to shatter the elusive barrier. Once it was broken by Bannister, it seemed far easier, and Landy went on to beat it by several seconds. At the time though, it was a battle that focused the sporting world. The topic is often debated but experts are skeptical that the barrier will be broken in the near term.
Nike is keeping much of the Breaking2 plan under wraps for now, and many of the details are still being finalized. It is unlikely the quest will take place during a traditional, open marathon; rather, it will be held on a closed course, at a time and place believed optimal by Nike. It’s unclear whether the record, if achieved, will be sanctioned by the IAAF.
“The sub-two-hour marathon is one of those epic barriers that people bust through,” Nike’s VP of Footwear Innovation, Tony Bignell, told us. “It’s like breaking 10 seconds for the 100 meters or 4 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.”