Like the murmur of far off hooves that rises from a distance on a tailing breeze the Sub Two Hour marathon quest became a lot more audible this past week.
First, Nike’s Project Breaking2 was publicly announced on Monday 12 December with a goal of breaking the 120 minute mark this coming spring. Two years in the making (though secretly) and featuring three of the world’s top distance runners, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, and Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, the project still remains somewhat hazy in its particulars as if the announcement came in haste to pip the Adidas announcement, which showed up later in the week via the Wall Street Journal. Nike’s joint announcement through Runners World and Wired. com arrived as the second entry in the sub2 quest, coming on the heels of University of Brighton sports science professor Yannis Pitsiladis‘ 2014 Sub2Hr Project, which is affiliated with top running agent Jos Hermens. That project carries a stated five year time frame, but is still searching for full funding.
So, now there are three going for a sub2 over 42km, and you know, we may finally have something here after all. Perhaps something ironic, in that none of the three projects are using actual runner competition as the mechanism to 1:59:59 or below. Instead, like in the days of Wes Santee, John Landy, and Roger Bannister, who independently pursued the sub-4 minute mile in the late 1940s, early `50s, it will be through the three-way project chase itself that the Everest marathon mark may be reached. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. This blog has written on the topic of competition vs. record setting before. And again here.
On May 6, 1954 Roger Bannister bettered Swede Gunder Hägg‘s 1945 mile record by two seconds to reset the mark at 3:59.4. Bannister’s barrier-breaker, though, only represented a 0.83% improvement over the previous mark. A sub2 marathon, then, would be a much higher climb in simple percentage terms, as a 1:59:59 today would represent a 2.5% decrease in the current 2:02:57 world best set in Berlin 2014 by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto.
Nonetheless, there has been a lot of interest and analysis in all the sub2 projects. Not all of it good, by the way, as the running community is notoriously critical in general, and not the least because of the deep corruption within the halls of power, and the widespread recognition that performance enhancing drugs have tainted so many of the records and Olympic performances of recent times. Accordingly, much of the push back against the sub2 projects centers on their focus on time versus competition. They are about IT, not about the men doing it.
Perhaps that might not have been the case when there was wider global participation at the elite level in marathon running. But more and more through the 21st century the sport has been reduced to a duel meet between Kenya and Ethiopia, especially so in the marathon. To underscore that reality, the latest IAAF records show eleven new entries onto the all-time top 100 marathons list in 2016, headed by Ethiopia’s Keninise Bekele, whose 2:03:03 win in Berlin this past fall now ranks #2 all-time.
Today, 66 of the top 100 marathon times ever run have been posted by athletes born in Kenya, 33 by Ethiopians, three by athletes born in Morocco, and one by an American-born runner, the 2:04:58 in Boston 2011 by Ryan Hall (I still count Boston, regardless of the rules nitpickers).
But what characterized Bekele’s performance in Berlin wasn’t simply his near-world record time, but the battle against Kenyan rival and ex-world record holder Wilson Kipsang, whose 2:03:13 brought him to the line just ten seconds later.
Though the marathon is only a little over 100 years old, many in the running world are holders of a flame that burns pure and bright along deeply rutted paths of tradition. But look, cars race around tracks, on trails, up mountains, over deserts, and on other circuits, too. They do so against one another, and against the clock, and even on the Bonneville Salt Flats in all out speed attempts, all in the name of progress and product development. If looked upon in that light, all the current sub2 marathon projects are just land speed record attempts over 42,195 meters. They don’t even use the name marathon in their promotions, even though everyone knows that what they are.
Two years in the making under cover until now, the Nike and Adidas projects have something of a prime time quality feel to them. And if Nike isn’t promoting their attempt as record-eligible in the IAAF sporting sense, which is fine, then why not pump it up as a science project/reality show instead? They already have Ed Caesar, author of Two Hours, reporting for Wired magazine and on wired.com, and Alex Hutchinson is on the story for Runners World.
This past Wednesday a long time colleague, TV producer Brian Williams, had a memorable Facebook post about a CBS documentary he produced on Tiger Woods before the 1997 Masters Tournament. In part, Brian wrote:
On this day 20 years ago, December 15, 1996, my career changed forever.
About a month earlier, IMG Founder, the legendary Mark McCormack walked into my office and announced that we would be producing a TV documentary on his newest and most important golf client, Tiger Woods. It would air on CBS as a lead-in to the final round of the 1997 Masters…and it was my assignment…The result was “Son, Hero, and Champion”, the one-hour Emmy nominated show that was the first of the CBS yearly lead-in specials to the final round of the Masters. Along the way, I interviewed everyone from Arnie, Jack, Gary and Lee, to tour players and TV analysts Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara, Ernie Els, Johnny Miller and Curtis Strange, coach Butch Harmon, business leaders and inspirations like Phil Knight, Tim Finchem, Charlie Sifford and Byron Nelson…I made a trip to Thailand to cover (Tiger) in the Asian Classic. When he arrived in Bangkok, BOTH Thai Prime Ministers and half the country greeted him at the airport. And, of course I interviewed Tiger (at least 5 times), Mom Kultida, and Dad Earl…
The documentary was brilliantly directed by Tony Lanni with excellent post-production work by Peter Rogaris. We were certainly in goods hands from a journalistic standpoint with host Jim Nantz and writer Jaime Diaz adding their considerable talents to the production…In all honestly, our production team was concerned that “Son, Hero, and Champion” might have been a bit premature in declaring Tiger’s impending greatness. The 1997 Masters and the next 15 years of his career proved that this documentary may have been a bit “understated”./
Great story, Brian, and relevant for our purposes here, because now that cat’s out of the bag that is the kind of production all the Sub2 projects deserve, and what the attempts (and sport) are crying out for.
Brian Williams has worked in many sporing arenas, but for many years, too, on the Boston, New York, and Chicago Marathon telecasts. He and Tony Lanni are both still working at a high level in the game. Tony produces both the New York City and L.A. Marathon TV coverage to this day.
Does running need a greater emphasis on competition in light of so many failed drug tests that have produced faster and faster times, but more and more skepticism? Certainly. But each of these current sub2 projects aren’t denying the IAAF or any other body that opportunity. And if a flashy record attempt by a deep-pocketed sponsor can bring more attention to the sport, especially if the attempts can be shown to have been conducted under a valid drug protocol, where is the harm?
Perhaps the Abbott World Marathon Majors might look askance, because the Nike project is removing three top players from their 2017 spring lineup. But this sideshow doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The NBA has its Slam Dunk competition, MLB has a Home Run Derby. Why shouldn’t running have something off-the-books and sexy, too (besides a Beer Mile)? I can hear the footfalls growing louder by the second.