OK, how can I not weigh-in on the sub-2 hour marathon experiment by Nike? First, as to the potential. Alright, yes, based on every metric available, it is possible, barely, though not probable. As much of life is a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy, it is only when we think something is possible that it enters into the realm of the doable. After the belief it is a matter of execution.
There is no doubt Nike has the resources to make such an attempt valid, and the marketing savvy to maximize the public interest. The big question for me is the unintended consequences of the attempt.
As Runners World’s Alex Hutchinson concludes in his article on the attempt, “the race is still 26.2 miles long”. But, it isn’t a race. It is an exhibition of scientific discovery. In fact, this will be the first time such an attempt will be made purely in service to a finishing time, rather than within a competitive format. That focus, alone, changes the entire conception of a marathon in the usual sense.
The world land speed records set on the Bonneville Salt Flats weren’t races, they were individual time trials. The cycling land speed record was set with a cyclist riding tucked in behind a cowl-shielded race car to reduce wind drag. So, too, will the sub 2-hour marathon be attempted behind pacesetters.
But that’s the question. In this time when so many of the sport’s records are under the shadow of performance drugs, is another outlier performance what the sport needs, no matter how exotic?
Ever since Roger Bannister ran history’s first sub-four minute mile in 1954 using two world-class pacesetters, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, the entire sport has been consumed with fast times at the expense of competition between and among men and women.
I said it then, and will again. If the 2014 Boston Marathon had been a paced race, Meb Keflezighi would not have been the champion.
Along the same line, America’s Matthew Centrowitz won the Olympic gold medal at the Rio Games 1500 meters in a modest 3:50, leading some to question the validity of such a slow time earning an Olympic gold medal. But that point of view completely negates the nature of competition.
If one of the three athletes Nike has selected to make the attempt at a sub-2 hour marathon in the spring of 2017 – Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese – actually goes out and does it, whoop-dee-do! But what will that do to the competitive spirit of the sport? A fast time in the service of a competitive effort, to me, is of a much higher value than a pure timed trial.
Last night at the Honolulu Marathon post-race party at the Outrigger Canoe Club, we were discussing just that subject. Lawrence Cherono’s 2:09:39 course record had a fine pacer in Festus Tallum, but the record fell because of a spirited battle with 2014 Honolulu champion Wilson Chebet.
Running hard requires massive blood flow to the hardest working muscles, the legs. That means when you most need your wits about you in a competitive effort, you have fewer of them at your disposal, because blood has been shunted away from your brain to your legs. Therefore making good decisions in the heat of competition is what defines a real champion.
For example, can Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop (2012 Olympic 1500m champion and recognized world #1) run faster than Matthew Centrowitz? Yes. But does Matthew have better racing savvy than Asbel? Also yes (seemingly). So which is the better man? Well, it all depends on what you value.
Wouldn’t a sub-2 hour marathon be more impressive coming organically in the heat of competition? Even if it takes another 50 years or more to achieve? Because that’s what the odds indicate the timeframe will be for a competition to lead to a sub-2 hour marathon.
This Nike attempt is both a lab experiment and marketing promotion rolled into one. Oh, it will be fun to watch, no doubt. But I wonder, track and road racing have been so beholden to paced times over the last generation that they have incentived and been overrun by allegations and findings of massive drug use. This in turn has soured the public on the sport to the point of dismissal and disinterest. Think this will help? I guess we will find out soon enough.