Breaking2: Science or Stunt?

Mark Heinicke is the Associate Editor of Road Race Management and is responsible for most of the statistical surveys that appear in the newsletter. Mark has followed the sport as a participant and a writer for over 40 years. With gimpy knees forcing him on to a bicycle in recent years, he observes running in a frequently more detached but analytical manner, which provides a fresh perspective for those of us who spend most of our waking hours in the trenches.

Nike’s project, Breaking2, to help a man break two hours in the marathon by spring of 2017, has been getting heaps of media attention. And that, I believe is the point of it—since failure of this attempt is virtually guaranteed, the best explanation for the project is that it gets a big media splash, I mean swoosh. Why bother with an extraordinary but vain effort, except for the hoopla?

It is being billed as a science project of sorts—testing the limits of human physiology. That makes sense for a clothing manufacturer, presenting the latest in electronic wearables, as the runners—for scientific purposes—will have their vital signs and other key stats monitored, and where else to have monitoring gadgets but embedded in Nike plumage?

Adidas has its own two-hour project under way and under wraps. They announced it to the Wall Street Journal four days after Nike’s announcement, but released no details. One wonders how much Adidas rues letting Nike upstage them. Or how much they might chortle with glee if and when Breaking2 breaks bad.

Nike’s project has been described as “bold,” “audacious,” “wildly ambitious,” and “a moon shot.” Nike executives are eating up this rhetoric like holiday candy.

OK, you think I’m deriding Nike for sensationalism on the basis of the near-impossibility of breaking two hours in the next six months. What’s my reasoning?

Is breaking two hours possible? Sure, sometime. Physiologists have calculated it’s doable, eventually. Definitely if we were to breed runners like racehorses, which might be not so farfetched. By the end of this century, if we haven’t destroyed civilization, a physical specimen will come along who will be to marathoning as Secretariat was to horse racing, and could even get under 1:58:00.

Then again, by that time there may be competitors so augmented by genetic engineering as to make records meaningless. (At least, meaningless to us living in the Dark Ages of high-tech. With disruptive technologies jabbing the body politic on a daily basis, by the year 2100 norms, standards, and values may have evolved into forms unrecognizable to us.)

Back to Breaking2. Is success possible for the spring of 2017? Well, it depends.  As experts have been pointing out, it will depend a LOT on the conditions in which it is run. Optimizing it for temperature, humidity, road surface, and minimal and soft turns, all seem fair (although who knows what psychological effect it might have on runners to be waiting around for that Perfect Day). But, if the course has an elevation drop or start-finish separation outside of IAAF rules for records, it won’t go in the record books. It will look like the science project that Nike is advertising—oh no, it was never about the time, it was about discovery. Once the result gets run through the Nike spin machine, it’s a triumph either way.

But, say the course falls within the IAAF rules for records, and the athletes are not chased by a pack of wolves, what’s the chance of success?

Just about zero. Here’s why:

Consider first, how much the world 1500 meter record on the track has changed since 1998, the 5000 record since 2004, the 10,000 since 2005. In each case, not. Those records delineate the near-limits of the possible. It’s the area of diminishing returns, a few seconds gained from years of advances in training and equipment. The records will be broken, but not by much, and they will come slowly, barring the arrival of a superman.

During that same period, the marathon record has dropped six times, from 2:05:08 in 2002, to 2:02:57 in 2014, sometimes by increments of 20-30 seconds. Striking! Makes you think 2:00:00 is nearly within our grasp. But where does that trajectory actually take us? There’s a cool graph in Runner’s World online that gives you an idea at: http://www.runnersworld.com/marathon/nikes-audacious-plan-break-the-2-hour-marathon-barrier-in-2017

Runner’s World’s graph implies that, even if the record continued to drop in a straight line, it won’t hit 2:00:00 until around 2030. But the advances won’t continue in a straight line, because the athletes are entering a phase where the line begins to flatten out toward an asymptote, just as has happened with the shorter distances on the track.

Instead of looking at the world record progression starting in 2002, let’s look at the stats in another way. Fourteen marathons have been run under 2:04:00. The fastest, 2:02:57 in 2014, is separated from the fourteenth, 2:03:59 in 2008, by 62 seconds. Sixty-two seconds in six years = 10.3 seconds per year.  Also, seven of those fourteen performances belong to just three guys: Wilson Kiprotich Kipsang with three, and two each for Emmanuel Mutai and Dennis Kimetto (WR holder). You can look it up at marathonguide.com: http://www.marathonguide.com/history/records/alltimelist.cfm?Gen=m&Sort=Time

Add to this picture the fact that there’s been no progress in the last two years, and you get a sense of diminishing returns as runners gasp in the rarefied atmosphere beyond two hours, three minutes. Which makes the idea of a three minute gain in six months on a record-eligible course kind of outlandish.

Of the three runners picked by Nike—Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese—only Kipchoge (2:03:05) has come close to the current WR.  It was razor close, indeed, eight seconds off in London this year. Tadese did run a WR 58:23 half marathon, but that was back in 2010.

From all appearances, Kipchoge is the Chosen One, to be spurred on by the other two. He won London last spring, was untouchable in Rio, and he’s won seven of the eight marathons he’s run, the exception being second in Berlin 2013. He’s mentally tough as nails, having won Berlin 2015 in 2:04:00, even though his shoes (made by guess-who) were coming apart. See (with a photo) at Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/kenyan-marathoner-falls-short-of-record-after-nike-shoes-fail-1443375160

Perhaps it’s on the basis of that performance that Nike has chosen Kipchoge as its Two Hour standard bearer. (They ought to make sure he gets a better pair of shoes for that attempt.)

At age 32, Kipchoge’s at the zenith of his career. Another of his strengths is his comfort with running alone, as Rio attested to. He’ll have to do a lot of running alone to break two hours.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s