SUB 2-HOUR MARATHON?

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.

END

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11 thoughts on “SUB 2-HOUR MARATHON?

  1. Nice piece, as usual, Toni. But, using Roger Bannister’s sub-4 is a questionable example for the pursuit of barrier-breaking to signal the end of meaningful competition – although it was definitely a barrier broken. What happened after shows that it doesn’t have to be “either/or”. You can have record pursuits and you can have true competition like the ‘Mile of the Century’ when Bannister and Lady raced the British Empire (at that time – sic) and Commonwealth Games – the important thing is to have both but with the emphasis on the real competition, as you say. The following is excerpted from my British Milers’ Club article of Spring 2014 and I believe is relevant to the example used –

    Act II – Running, after May 6th 1954, in which a racing career concludes.
    “The ‘floodgates’ didn’t open, as predicted, for sub-4 minute miles after that day at Iffley Road but within a month, the Australian runner John Landy had broken Roger Bannister’s record, running 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland. Global interest was focused on the mile distance and this set the scene for an epic meeting, ‘The Mile of the Century’, to be conducted in July in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada. The mile final would be a showdown between the world’s two fastest milers, Landy the front-runner against Bannister the fast finisher and it was as hyped and anticipated as Mo Farah’s 2012 Olympic appearances. In execution it did not disappoint.

    Following Landy’s front-runnning, Roger Bannister recalls his thinking with 200m remaining, “If Landy did not slacken soon I would be finished. As we entered the last bend I tried to convince myself that he was tiring. With each stride now I attempted to husband a little strength for the moment at the end of the bend when I had decided to pounce. I knew this would be the point where Landy would least expect me, and if I failed to overtake him the race would be his.
    When the moment came my mind would galvanise my body to the greatest effort it had ever known. I knew I was tired. There might be no response, but it was my only chance.”

    What happened next sealed the legendary status of this race. By pure coincidence, Bannister launched his attack right at the exact moment that Landy looked back inside and to his left. The Englishman passed unseen and gained the vital few metres for, what earlier in the race, seemed an improbable victory.

    A statue near the site of the now-demolished stadium depicts this historic moment of subsequent anguish for John Landy. But, Landy takes the incident with good humour reportedly saying of the moment and statue that while Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, he looked back and was turned into a statue of bronze.

    The final result saw both runners go under four minutes but Bannister came in first at 3:58.8 to Landy’s 3:59.6. Later that year, Roger Bannister was awarded the Silver Pears Trophy, bestowed annually for the outstanding British achievement in any field. He also secured the European title in the 1500 metres before retiring from competition, aged 25, and dedicating his life’s work fully to medicine.”

    So the sub 2 may stimulate media and public interest in running – it is up to us to ensure that the real nature of competition is never forgotten or marginalized.

    • Thanks for the response, Peter. Articulate as always. And I agree it doesn’t have to be either/or. But it seems to me that in recent years the balance has tipped for time over competition. For instance, every event over 400m in the Diamond League is paced.

      There has been something of a backlash on the roads as Chicago has joined Boston and NYC as non-paced. Nothing wrong with record attempt, or haste races, but just as a spice not as the main meal time and time again. Tends to turn off casual fans. And we certainly don’t need that. Be well. TR

  2. Peter gets it….I was just about to write the same thing.

    The either/or mentality gets annoying. Fast time trials and racing can both be enjoyable.

    Anyways whatever happens it will soon be forgotten….marathons now are really just big Jogathons with 99% of the running public. Who wins or how fast is relevant to only a few these days. With the rest they care about a 2 hour marathon about as much as solving the Riemann Hypothesis.

  3. Anyways I’m curious how Nike goes about it. I could see them setting up a 1 mile tartan oval, protected from the wind…rabbits, run early evening, super light shoes…reminds me of Mosop’s 30k at Hayward where he averaged 4:39.7…

  4. The good news is that in track and field and road running, we at least bother to run the race. Let’s let others win the argument of “who’s better”, while the winner walks off with the medal. (I would view claims that I beat a “better” runner another as a compliment!) But if/when someone runs a sub 2 under “artificial” conditions, will you and your fellow race announcers be forced to compare a race-in-progress against the splits of the “WR”, even in an Olympic race, even when the competition is otherwise amazing? Like when someone is on 2:02 flat pace? Would be dandy to hear you push back on that!

    The San Francisco road racing community got it right – Bay to Breakers, Wharf to Wharf, twice around Lake Merced. How far is that? Well, its its the distance from the Bay to the Breakers, the Wharf to the Wharf, and twice around Lake Merced. Give or take. Course records are kept (more important, did the woman beat the centipede? Joanie did :), then with the fun argument of wind speed and direction, temperature, Olympic year, etc. So that’s fun. 🙂

    It could be worse. Look at college football. Its become a beauty pageant, where actaully winning doesn’t much matter. Its who “everyone” “knows” is the “better” team. Penn State, the team that won “clearly the best conference”, isn’t in the playoff (the top 4 teams in the country). (I’m no fan of Penn State, so I’m good with it 🙂 Instead, a team they beat is. And if we want to “decide who is better” in that conference, it took Ohio State two overtimes to beat Michigan, in Columbus, and Michigan obliterated Penn State (which is why Ohio State is “better” than Penn State?), so Michigan is better than Ohio State. (The Transitive Property of Sports is valid, right?) Clemson and Washington are in the top 4 because they won their “clearly” weaker conferences? See how this goes? And we want logic in less important things like politics? 🙂

    Centro has the Olympic gold medal, Kiprop has the “but I’m faster” label. Which one would trade for the other? Joanie beat far “better” runners in 1984. Many jumpers will tell you that they have outjumped their PRs in practice – that and $3.85 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

    The good news is we still bother to run the races. At least as long as Nike allows it.

  5. Thanks Toni, always a topic worthy of spirited debate until a sub-2 actually happens. And solid case re: the nature of competition—this artificial spectacle will be significantly different than (for example) a Berlin, where running & winning against the best inspire faster times. Here, in a man v. clock rather than man v. man situation, what’s the motivation to finish the “race” once the realization dawns that a sub-2 won’t happen? Depending on how much Nike is paying them, I wouldn’t be surprised if each smartly DNF’ed by the halfway mark. Unfortunately in a post-Trump world, it seems more people appreciate a spectacle than legitimate competition. This has all the makings of a disappointment and a publicity stunt by Nike, since I certainly don’t expect any of these men—remarkable talents though they may be—to shave 3+ (7+ for Tadese!) minutes off their personal bests under any circumstance. But publicity stunt or not, I’ll be among those watching with eyes wide open.

    I added my 4 cents and put my own spin on this discussion several years ago, if you’re interested: https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2013/09/27/mind-games-and-the-two-hour-marathon/

  6. Maybe they should try to break 2:01 first, more drama in that than breaking 1:59…but seriously, I think most of us agree that the race is the thing.

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  9. Judging by how Nike’s vaunted medical and heat science technology had Shalene Flanagan stagger and flop around during the last 3K of the Olympic Trials marathon, I don’t give this much of a chance. It’s a corporate ego trip that is sponsoring a circus act.

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