And so the grand experiment has come to a conclusion. And, oh, so close did it come to its vaunted goal, just one second per mile short of history’s first sub-2 hour time for the marathon distance. Not for the marathon, mind you, but for its distance – because a marathon by its historic formulation is a competitive event. What we witnessed yesterday in Monza, Italy was a time trial/lab experiment, not a race. But that is nitpicking, though a significant nit.
Notwithstanding, a huge congratulations go out to Eliud Kipchoge and the entire Nike Breaking2 Project for such a grand experiment in human performance, footwear technology, and scientific experimentation.
But what did we come away with after yesterday’s 2:00:24 performance on the Formula One racetrack in Monza? Certainly, more questions as well as some answers. First of all, we know that the sub-2 is now possible, more likely probable, because he damn near did it! But since he didn’t quite do it, what else needs to be done that this experiment informed us as still being required?
There are so many elements that have to be put together for just a world marathon record, much less a sub-2:00:00.
First, we begin with the athlete and his preparation. A runner of surpassing talent with a flawless build up is a given. Mr. Kipchoge filled that requirement to a T. But at age 32 with now eight career marathons and so many thousands of miles in his legs, might a younger talent be better suited for the task? There are pluses and minuses in the question of experience, yet young athletes foregoing track careers might offer better chances for a breakout performance.
And while the Breaking2 Project hand-picked three athletes from the Nike stable, because after all, when all was said and done this was still at its heart a marketing promotion by a commercial enterprise, what if a huge public prize purse was put up for any athlete or qualified team of athletes to make the attempt? A bigger pool, after all, would increase the odds of success.
What if Keninisa Bekele and Wilson Kipsang were also on hand to compete against Kipchoge in the final 5K where the sub-2 leaked away?
But here’s the kicker. Any group choosing to participate would have to to put up a hefty entry fee ala the World Series of Poker that would be added to the purse, while serving to weed out the fakers and wannabes? Yes, open the field to enhance the chance for success, but screen the candidates with a cover charge.
Certainly the course must be one capable of yielding to a record performance, and the 2.4K racetrack in Monza with its wide bends and lack of 90-degree turns was a well suited venue. In the world of competitive racing the Berlin Marathon has become the route of choice, yielding the last six world records, including the IAAF recognized 2:02:57 by Dennis Kimetto in 2014.
Once the athlete and course have been matched, you will need the true wild card to turn in your favor, the weather. For the top 10 fastest marathons in history, the average start temperature has been 42 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 C). The average finish line temperature has been 51 (10.5 C). The temperature in Monza began around 52F and must have maintained near that mark for the entire two hours, though the temperature and humidity were slightly elevated from the ideal. So the old adage – a day when it’s a little chilly to watch is a perfect day to race – is backed up by the hard evidence.
Next up in world record necessities – pacing. With the electronically controlled Tesla pace car and multiple sets of rabbits, the Breaking2 Project completely fulfilled that requirement, though that was the primary non-compliant element that erased yesterday’s performance from the record book. Also, the clock mounted above the pace car seemed unusually large, serving as much as a wind-break as a timing device.
The issue of re-fueling was also non-compliant, as bottles were hand delivered, but the drink itself offered what was claimed as a faster delivery into the system. That can be transferred to standard courses easily enough.
The footwear was the big story, and true purpose of the Monza experiment. Through its carbon fiber insert the Nike Vapor Fly Elites offered what was claimed to be a 4% increase in response to average running shoes. The Adidas Boost technology claims a 3% better response, so you can’t stop technology, even as an agreed upon norm is required for true record purposes.
Finally, or so I thought, the surge of competitive adrenaline is just the kicker needed. In Chicago 1999 Kenya’s Moses Tanui threw down at 30k, miscalculating thinking it was 35K. But in attacking from so far out Tanui supercharged Khalid Khannouchi. It took Double K until the final mile, but in the end he managed to run down the two-time Boston champion to set the last world marathon record run on U.S. soil. By the way, Khannouchi’s 2:05:42 in Chicago remains the only time in the top 100 performances of all time that still exists from the 20th century.
But with competition as the final spur, Khannouchi was able to notch the first of his two world records. So, too was KK pushed by Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie in his famous 2:05:38 world record in London 2002. And don’t forget how Tergat pushed to the line in Berlin 2003 by Sammy Korir, and Haile had the surprise figure of James Kwambai on his hip at 35K in Berlin `08. And not to forget how Patrick Makau was goosed by the presence of Haile for his 2011 world record 2:03:38 in Berlin. And so it goes.
Though I was only watching the Breaking2 attempt tangentially as I was handling the PA announcing duties at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford (and a wonderful set of races were presented), the one thing I didn’t see in Monza that might have made a difference in the outcome was the adrenaline that only a frenzied crowd can deliver.
When we are talking about margins so close as one second per mile over 26 miles, every little thing can make the difference. And maybe that was enough. Maybe that lack of fan support was the 25 second difference between a 2:00:24 and the 1:59:59 they were hoping for.
But I would suggest that this attempt, though not ultimately successful, was successful enough in its outcome that it may spur more such attempts in the future. Look how successful the marketing was. 4.7 million people world-wide tuned into Nike’s Facebook live stream.
Let’s see what lessons were learned, and what the next offering might produce. As always in this sport the directive is simple and direct. Onward! Perhaps to Berlin this fall where Monza’s sub-60:00 first half might well serve as Eliud Kipchoge’s version of speed work for a low 61 on the way to…?