Athletes, coaches, and fans all dream of the day when a marathon runner will cross the finish line in less than two hours. And so do the manufacturers of running shoes – because the shoe will play a big part in reaching this milestone. But is it even humanly possible to run a sub-two-hour marathon?
Despite having just turned in a literally breathtaking performance, Eliud Kipchoge still had the energy to leap into the arms of a friend. He’d just run – or should we say, sprinted – a full marathon in just 2:01:39 hours, setting a new world record. The Kenyan ace runner performed this remarkable feat in September at this year’s Berlin Marathon. In the process of writing that mind-blowing finishing time into the record books, he ran every single kilometer of the 42.195 km race in under three minutes.
Until that moment, Dennis Kimetto, also from Kenya, had been the undisputed king of the marathon. After setting a new world record in 2014, also at the Berlin Marathon, which he completed in just 2:02:57, Kimetto held onto the title for an impressive four years. He was the first person to run a full marathon in under two hours and three minutes. For this record-setting victory in 2014, Kimetto wore adidas Adizero adios Boost running shoes with Continental soles that tipped the scales at just 230 grams. The world record entitled both Kimetto and adidas to bragging rights for the next few years. But it also placed them firmly in the sights of competitors who were determined to make their own mark in marathon history.
Nike in particular felt compelled to act. Not only had Kimetto – and adidas – held the world record for four years, but the second-place men's finisher in the famous 2014 race, Emmanuel Mutai, also ran in adidas shoes. So did the first two women across the line, Tirfi Tsegaye and Fayse Tadese. At the same time, the fastest man in the world, superstar sprinter Usain Bolt, was under contract to Puma. When it came to top running accolades, Nike was left empty-handed.
So the stage was set for a major showdown on the racetrack in Monza (Italy) in 2017. Star of the show was Eliud Kipchoge, who had still to deliver his record-breaking performance in Berlin. After months of preparation and – according to media reports – almost 30 million dollars spent, the coaches, physios, and scientists who had been assisting the Kenyan runner came together for what they hoped would be an historic moment. Kipchoge was going to attempt to break the two-hour barrier. The shoe manufacturer had developed shoes that were tailored to the course and custom-crafted for the athlete. As Nike put it, “The shoes are aerodynamically optimized and feature design innovations such as a soft and resilient foam midsole that houses a carbon-infused nylon plate to improve impact protection.” The racetrack in Monza was also selected to tilt the odds in the athlete’s favor; the extremely flat circuit is also known for high speeds among Formula One racecar drivers. To improve the aerodynamics, several pacers would run in arrow formation in front of Kipchoge, providing a windbreak that was further enhanced by a Tesla pace car carrying a big screen. The pacers would change after each 2.4 km lap, while a racing line projected onto the course with lasers indicated the optimal path. In sum, everything was in place to make history. Even before the attempt was made, however, it was clear that the event would not meet the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) standards for an official world record. So an entry in the record books was never actually at stake.
That said, Kipchoge’s determination to attain the holy grail of marathon running was undiminished. And Nike was out to promote its shoe. To reach the sub-two-hour mark, they knew that Kipchoge would have to run each kilometer 4.2 seconds faster than Kimetto’s 2014 world-record pace. At 5:45 a.m. on May 6, 2017, the runners took their marks on the Monza track. The temperature was 12 degrees Celsius and there was not a breath of wind. Kilometer by kilometer, Kipchoge maintained an impressive pace – but still finished outside the two-hour limit by a hair's breadth. At 2:00:25, he was significantly faster than Kimetto had been in 2014, but not inside two hours. Nike had missed out on the chance to launch an advertising campaign with “Breaking2” as its slogan.
Many experts, especially in the field of running shoe development, agree that the less the shoe weighs, the less energy the runner will have to expend. And the major players in the athletic equipment sector have long since concluded that world-record victories aren’t just down to the runners, but to their gear as well. They have hired scientists, biomechanics experts, and product designers to assist in their quest for the perfect shoe. Their ultimate goal? To develop the first shoe that can carry a marathon runner over the finish line in less than two hours. Because after all, what weekend warrior wouldn’t then want to enjoy that world-record feeling as they ran through the local park?
As the theory goes, the better the shoe, the better the runner, but human effort is still the main factor propelling the athlete along the course. In concrete terms, to bring Kimetto’s 2014 record down below two minutes, overall performance will have to be increased by 3.17 percent. And the shoes are not going to run by themselves. But the equipment manufacturers are keen to play their part and claim a share of the glory of having created the shoe that finally broke the two-hour barrier. adidas has dubbed this mission “Sub2”; Nike, “Breaking2.”
Still the question remains: Is it even humanly possible to run a marathon in less than two hours under standard IAAF conditions? Dr. Klaus-Michael Braumann is President of the German Society for Sports Medicine and Prevention (DGSP) and works with Olympic swimming and water polo teams as well as several Bundesliga soccer teams – and he used to run marathons himself. His personal best? 2:40:48. Braumann’s expertise extends across track and field. Besides personally chalking up endless kilometers, he has also helped many athletes deliver top performances. And his answer is, “I can well imagine that even more advanced and customized training methods could make it possible. But there has to be a shift in mindset in high performance athletics, away from the one-size-fits-all, standardized training methods that are unfortunately still the norm in many associations and toward more individual training routines.” In other words, to reach the sub-two-hour milestone, training must be tailored to the individual runner. As Braumann adds, every athlete knows that there are days when the body delivers maximum performance almost automatically, and others when nothing seems to work. You have to be able to work deliberately toward such ideal days and determine exactly when the body is ready for the big race. “Athletes not only have to understand the signals their bodies send them, but act on them,” says Braumann. “If we can achieve that, the goal may be within our reach. But of course there are many factors that have to align perfectly.” That said, in his view, it’s only a matter of time before someone runs that first sub-two-hour marathon.