In this month of October 2019, the marathon world seemed to have turned a corner, or broken a barrier – however you want to put it – with the first sub-2 hour marathon for men in Vienna, Austria and an 81-second world record for the women in Chicago, Illinois.
The first performance was somewhat expected having come on the heels of a very close, but eventually unsuccessful attempt two years ago in Monza, Italy. The successful second assault in Vienna was conducted like clockwork in a tightly controlled setting with pacers behind lasers that didn’t vary by more than four seconds per 5Km split on the repeatable route.
The second headline in Chicago came as something of a shock, considering the record it topped was already thought of as an outlier. But unlike the men’s sub-2 in Austria, the new women’s record in Illinois was run in a competitive setting (though without actual competition) led by two male pacers who went out way too hard yet managed to salvage the record at the end. Which leads one to believe there is more time to scrub from Brigid Kosgei’s 2:14:04 with more consistent pacing, much less other tweaks, official or otherwise. And Kosgei herself has already posited a women’s 2:10 in the future, though for herself she set the limit at 2:12 – 2:13.
What both these performances had in common were the nationality of the two athletes, Kenyan, and the brand and model of shoes that were worn, Nike Vaporfly Next%, or prototypes built specifically for each.
And so after this seismic month of miraculous running, what’s next? Already the IAAF is looking into the legality of the shoes based on a protest lodged by several elite runners accusing the Nike Vaporflys of producing an unfair competitive advantage. Though there is an initial belief that the shoes will be found to be within proscribed limits.
In 1989, American Greg LeMond won the Tour de France by eight seconds over Frenchman Laurent Fignon, the previous two-time Tour winner.
The eight-second margin made it the closest finish in TDF history, as LeMond was trailing Fignon by fifty seconds at the start of the final stage into Paris, and was not expected to be able to make up this deficit. But he completed the 24.5 km time trial at an average speed of 54.545 km/h (33.893 mph), at the time the fastest individual time trial ever ridden in the Tour. Fignon’s time was fifty-eight seconds slower, costing him the victory and giving LeMond his second Tour title by that scant eight second margin.
In that famous time trial, Lemond used aero bars clamped onto his traditional handlebars. The ‘89 TDF marked the first time such aero bars were used in competition. The aerodynamic advance proved to be the difference between first and second place. Now everyone uses aero bars, while overall bike technology has continued to evolve and improve ever since.
In sport, as in society, change remains the only constant. Trying to stem it is an exercise in futility.
Today in long distance running, we have witnessed a similar effect of technology on results with the advent of the Nike Vaporfly line of performance shoes linked to a degree of specificity in preparation that makes it hard to delineate how much time scrubbing from previous marks is attributable to what factors.
So are even better shoes the next shoe to fall in running?
I wrote a story for the Chicago Marathon magazine years ago about what might the sport look like by the 22nd century.
In that article, I suggested – somewhat tongue in cheek – that in the distant future some enterprising event with deep pockets could dome its entire route and thereby dial-in every environmental factor to perfection, including road surface and ambient air. Matter of fact, that seems eerily similar to what the Qataris did for the recent World Championships when they air-conditioned Khalifa Stadium in Doha.
Another futuristic element I posited might be the use of implants in the athletes themselves giving retinal readouts in real time about internal bodily functions which would allow small adjustments that are unavailable to today’s runners.
Today, we still use stopwatches and heart rate monitors and we’ve even experimented with technology whereby athletes wear accelerometers on the laces of their shoes which give real-time information on metrics like ground contact time, foot roll, stride length, and heal lift.
But those data can only be accessed by the athlete after having been downloaded – though coaches can monitor it by computer through cloud technology in real time.
We did this with former marathon world record Patrick Makau back in 2012 as he ran a 25km fartlek session on the Maasai Land Road in Ngong, Kenya outside Nairobi.
Joining those of us in the Landcruiser riding behind Makau were engineers in LA who were viewing the same information as we were via computer from the UCLA Wireless Health Institute.
But what if those same data could be relayed directly to the runner in real time, as well? Knowing that one leg or foot was over-compensating for a small misalignment on the other side, would that information allow he or she to make adjustments on the fly?
Or will it one day be possible to embed computer chips in the shoes which would alter the resilience or energy return, and therefore alter the foot plant enough to offset those tiny imbalances as the computer diagnosed conditions throughout the course of the race? But all done in real time so that the athlete wouldn’t have to consciously adjust? Instead, it just happened automatically. We are talking Jetsons stuff here.
If the question comes down to what is the metabolic cost for a particular pace, then it would be the reduction of metabolic use that we would be after.
The exigent factors involved in performance are equipment, road surface, weather conditions, pacing, fluid replacement and crowd support (which proved to be a major improvement in Vienna over Monza, Italy in helping drive Kipchoge to his sub2 performance).
Of course, metabolic efficiency is the overall goal in advancing any or all of these factors, if the human factor is to remain the primary focus of the competitive enterprise.
How will all these factors be further tweaked in the years to come to produce faster times? That’s what the present asks and what only the future knows. And so for us, now it’s just a matter of time.