A Primer on the Sub-Two-Hour Marathon

Frequently asked questions about the attempt to run 1:59:59 or better.

One of the biggest topics in elite running in recent years has been the quest to break two hours in the marathon. Here’s what you need to know about the chase.

Why is the sub-two-hour marathon a big deal?

As was the case with the sub-four-minute mile [1600m], it’s a symbolic barrier that challenges current conceptions of what’s humanly possible. Also like the sub-four mile, it’s an easily understood quest that the general public, rather than just hardcore running fans, can take interest in.

What’s the current world record in the marathon?

2:02:57, by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya at the Berlin Marathon in September 2014. Here is the progression of the world record and the 10 fastest marathoners and marathon courses in history.

How fast is a sub-two marathon?

Running 1:59:59 for the marathon entails averaging 2:52 per kilometre for 42K. Put another way, that’s almost eight and a half consecutive 5Ks in 14:13 each.

The current world record was run at an average pace of 2:56 min per kilometre. While running four seconds per kilometre faster in a race is often achievable for regular runners, it’s a huge accomplishment for world-class runners.

Another way of considering a sub-two marathon is to compare it to equivalent times at other common distances. According to the Purdy tables, the most respected race-comparison tool, a 1:59:59 marathon is the equivalent of a 12:20 5K, 25:49 10K, and 57:12 half-marathon. The current world records for those distances are 12:37, 26:17, and 58:23, respectively. Those latter marks are roughly in line with the current marathon record. Translation: A sub-two marathon would be a performance far superior to that ever produced in any other endurance event. It’s rare for a world record in one event to be much better qualitatively than other contemporary world records. (That said, one of the exceptions is the women’s marathon world record of 2:15:25, set by Paula Radcliffe in 2003, which remains qualitatively superior to other women’s distance records.)

What are the current organised efforts to break the two-hour barrier?

In late 2014, Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports and exercise science at the University of Brighton in Britain, launched his Sub2Hr Project with an initial goal of breaking the barrier within five years. Pitsiladis has struggled to raise the US$30 million he estimates he’ll need to lead a runner under two hours in his stipulated timeline.

On December 12, Nike announced its Breaking2 project. Its goal is to have at least one of three top distance runners break two hours in the spring of 2017 [autumn 2017 in Australia and New Zealand]. See below for more details about Nike’s project.

Adidas is also reported to be working on a sub-two project. The last four world record holders – Kimetto, Wilson Kipsang, Patrick Makau, and Haile Gebrselassie – have been sponsored by Adidas.

How will the various projects overcome the current barriers to breaking two hours?

Pitsiladis’s project is heavy on science. He has drawn particular attention for suggesting a race could be held below sea level, such as at the Dead Sea, where there’s more oxygen in the air. He has also questioned whether current world-class training methods are based more on tradition than principles of exercise physiology.

Nike is thought to be looking at every possible element known to affect marathon performance, including weather, course, pacing, nutrition, and, of course, shoes and other gear. Nike has filed a patent for a running shoe that would include a spring plate in the sole.

Details about the Adidas project are scant – no timeline has been announced – but the attempt, unlike Nike’s, will reportedly be made on a current marathon course. If that’s the case, the logical choice would be Berlin, where the last six men’s world records have been set. Like Nike, Adidas is reportedly counting on innovations in shoe technology to get to sub-two.

So Nike’s is the only attempt that we know is going to happen soon. When and where will it occur?

That’s not been determined. It will possibly happen in May. It’s probable that Nike will aim for a range of dates, then select the one with the most favourable weather very soon before the attempt. The venue has not been announced.

Will it be at a regular marathon?

No. It will probably be on a closed course designed by Nike. From the details that have been released, the attempt sounds more like a paced time trial under controlled conditions than a traditional race.

Who are the runners Nike picked?

Nike’s Audacious Plan: Break the Two-Hour Marathon Barrier in 2017
The runners Nike picked to break 2:00:00 over 26.2 miles (from left): Lelisa Desisa, Zersenay Tadese, and Eliud Kipchoge. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NIKE / CLAYTON COTTERELL

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, the 2016 Olympic Marathon champion; Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, the 2013 and 2015 Boston Marathon champion; and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, the world record holder in the half-marathon.

Of the three, Kipchoge, 32, is the most likely to go sub-two this spring. His personal best of 2:03:05 makes him the third fastest in history on a record-eligible course. He appears capable of breaking the world record under normal conditions, and has never run a bad marathon in his eight races at the distance.

Desisa, 26, has not been able to sustain the early brilliance he showed as a marathoner. His personal best of 2:04:45 dates from his debut in 2013, and while he won his first two marathons, he’s had only one other victory in the eight he’s run since April 2013. He’s one of the world’s top marathoners, but not someone who looks on the verge of a major breakthrough.

Tadese, 34, has had an undeniably disappointing go as a marathoner. His personal best of 2:10:41 is nowhere near the quality of his 10K and half-marathon PBs of 26:37 and 58:23.

The Nike attempt involves only runners sponsored by Nike. Noticeably absent from the contenders, despite his long relationship with Nike, is Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia. In addition to being the world record holder at 5K and 10K, he ran 2:03:03 at Berlin last September to become the second fastest marathoner in history. Bekele is associated with Pitsiladis’s sub-two project, but with Pitsiladis acting as one of Bekele’s advisors more than someone determining his training and racing schedule.

Will the Nike runners be drug tested?

Nike has not announced a plan for drug testing the athletes, but has acknowledged the need to be transparent about its monitoring program. None of the three runners are known to have missed or failed a drug test, and none have been closely associated with known dopers. Independent of the sub-two project, they are potentially subject to out-of-competition testing because of their status in the sport.

If the Nike project succeeds, will the record be ratified?

Given what is currently known about it, most likely not. Nike has strongly indicated that its attempt is focused on producing a sub-two under parameters of its own choosing. One or more aspects of what’s required for a performance to be ratified as a world record are likely to be circumvented.

The company has indicated that the course used for the attempt will be certified in accordance with rules for record eligibility. That means that the distance will be accurately measured, the separation between the start and finish lines will be less than 50 per cent of the race distance, and the net elevation drop will be less than one meter per kilometre. These rules prevent the runners from benefiting from a persistent tailwind or a hugely downhill course. (The Boston Marathon course, laid out long before these standards were established, violates both rules. That’s why the two 2:03s run at the 2011 Boston Marathon aren’t included in official lists of the fastest times in history.)

However, if the runners were to be led the whole way by an ever-changing roster of pacers, or if they drafted off a phalanx of vehicles for 42 kilometres, or if they could receive fluids and other aids on demand, such features would violate current rules of competition.

Would a shoe with a spring in the sole count for record purposes?

The relevant International Association of Athletics Federations rule, #143.2, states:

Athletes may compete barefoot or with footwear on one or both feet. The purpose of shoes for competition is to give protection and stability to the feet and a firm grip on the ground. Such shoes, however, must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance, including by the incorporation of any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage. A shoe strap over the instep is permitted. All types of competition shoes must be approved by IAAF.

The key phrase pertaining to a shoe with a spring is “no unfair additional assistance”. Adidas’s Boost foam, which was in the shoes used to set the current world record, boasts “the highest energy return in the running industry” and has been shown in peer-reviewed studies to boost running economy. Whether Nike’s hypothetical carbon plate would constitute “unfair additional assistance” while Adidas’s Boost foam doesn’t could be a source of great debate.

What has been the reaction to these projects?

Running fans have been simultaneously enthusiastic about the pursuit of a huge barrier and critical of some of the aspects of the planned attempts.

In the case of Pitsiladis’s project, runners and scientists alike have questioned the underlying premise that sub-two is mostly a matter of the correct application of exercise science. Despite –or perhaps because of – the lack of details, the Nike and Adidas projects have been criticised for being more corporate marketing campaigns than genuine athletic competitions.

When is sub-two under record-eligible conditions going to occur?

Most likely not for a long time. Runner’s World US’s data-driven report on the barrier, published in 2014, predicted running fans would first get to celebrate the accomplishment in 2075.

As with any record, the faster the marathon mark becomes, the harder it gets to break. Although it might seem that the marathon record has been in free fall in recent years, that’s not really the case. It took four years, from 1999 to 2003, for the record to go from the 2:05s to the 2:04s. Getting into the 2:03s took until 2008, a span of five years. And moving into the 2:02s, which has happened only once, and just barely, took until 2014, or six years.

Although a sub-two marathon is often likened to the quest for the first sub-four mile, the analogy is far from perfect. When Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4 for the mile in 1954, that performance wasn’t levels of magnitude better than other world records of the time. In contrast, and as noted above, a sub-two marathon would be vastly superior to the current world records for other standard distance races.

Bannister’s sub-four provides helpful context in another way. In his landmark record, Bannister passed halfway in 1:59. The half-mile world record at the time was 1:48. Bannister didn’t have to come anywhere near a world-class time just to reach the halfway mark on pace. That is not currently the case with a sub-two marathon. Running a half-marathon in under an hour is still a world-class performance; Olympic marathon champ Kipchoge’s best at the distance is 59:30. Going sub-two would require the current crop of elite marathoners to run close to an all-out performance for the first half of the race, and then do so again for another 21.1 kilometres.


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