By Jonathan Gault
May 4, 2017
At some point this weekend — we still don’t know exactly when — Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese will try to become the first human beings to complete a marathon in under two hours. The attempt, known as Breaking2, has drawn plenty of attention since Nike announced it back in December, and since then we’ve heard all about the course (a Formula One track in Monza, Italy), the shoes (custom-made Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elites) and the strategy of how the “race” will play out. But now that the race is almost upon us, it’s time to ask: do any of them have a prayer of actually breaking 2:00?
Normally when we write a major marathon preview here at LetsRun.com, we’ll run through the entire elite field and analyze who are the best bets to run well based on their recent form. Because this isn’t a normal marathon, this preview will be a little different. We’ll give you the details of the event below and take a look at the “elite field” — in this case, it’s only three guys. But the goal of this race isn’t to win through tactics and pacing; it’s to run under 2:00:00, so we’ll also take a look at how exactly Nike is trying to do that, and whether Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese are up to the task. We also reached out to sports scientists Ross Tucker and Steve Magness, who offered their expert opinions on how much of an impact Nike’s bells and whistles will actually make. Let’s get started.
What: Nike Breaking2 sub-2:00 marathon attempt
When: Saturday, May 6, 5:45 a.m. local time (that’s 11:45 p.m. ET on Friday night in the U.S.)
Where: Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Monza, Italy
Course info: 17.5 laps of a 2.4-kilometer loop. You can view a course camp, as well as an explanation of why Nike chose Monza for the attempt, here.
How to watch: Nike will offer a live stream for audiences around the world. We’ll be embedding the stream on LetesRun.com so you can watch it on our website. The stream will start 15 minutes before the race at 11:30 pm ET. Reminder: Monza is 6 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time.
Eliud Kipchoge — Kenya, 32 years old, 2:03:05 pb (2016 London), 59:17 half
Recent marathons: 1st 2016 London (2:03:03), 1st 2016 Olympics (2:08:44)
Prep race: 59:17 half marathon in Monza at the Breaking2 test event on March 7
If anyone is going to break 2:00 in 2017, it’s Eliud Kipchoge. He’s won his last six marathons, five of them majors, and he’s coming off one of the finest years ever by a marathoner: a 2:03:05 victory in London, which slashed 84 seconds off the course record, and a 2:08:44 victory at the Olympics in Rio, finishing 70 seconds ahead of runner-up Feyisa Lilesa. Those victories, coupled with his career accomplishments in the marathon — seven wins in eight starts, six runs of 2:05:00 or faster — led us to proclaim Kipchoge the greatest marathoner of all time after his Rio victory.
Kipchoge also looked good in the Breaking2 test event on March 7. Despite strong winds, Kipchoge ran 59:17 for the half marathon (he ran all but the final 2.4k loop behind several pacers) and afterward told Runner’s World he was going at “60 percent.” The time represented an eight-second personal best for Kipchoge, but it didn’t prove much. We already knew Kipchoge could run in the low-59:00 range for the half marathon.
The point: Kipchoge is fit. If this race were being run under good conditions in Berlin, he’d have a decent shot to break the world record.
Lelisa Desisa — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:04:45 pb (2013 Dubai), 59:30 half
Recent marathons: 2nd 2016 Boston (2:13:32), DNF 2016 New York
Prep race: 62:55 half marathon in Monza at the Breaking2 test event on March 7
Desisa has been one of the planet’s best marathoners over the past few years, collecting wins in Dubai (2013) and Boston (2013 and 2015) plus top-3 finishes at Worlds (2nd in 2013), New York (2nd in 2014, 3rd in 2015), Dubai (2nd in 2015) and Boston (2nd in 2016). And though he’s run fast in Dubai (2:04:45 in 2013, 2:05:52 in 2015), he generally races championship-style marathons — those two Dubai appearances were the only times he’s run in marathons with pacers. His 2:04:45 pb is only 20th on the all-time list, but considering most of the men above him are either past their prime, not sponsored by Nike or involved in a rival project (Kenenisa Bekele), he’s not a bad #2 option.
One concern about Desisa is that he hasn’t raced well in almost a year. He was second on a slow day in Boston last year but dropped out of New York in the fall and looked awful at the Breaking2 test event in March, falling off the pace less than halfway through and struggling home in 62:55. It seems impossible that he can go from failing to run 7 miles at 2:00:00 pace to running 26.2 in the span of nine weeks.
Zersenay Tadese — Eritrea, 35 years old, 2:10:41 pb (2012 London), 58:23 half
Recent marathons: DNF 2013 Chicago, DNF 2015 Boston
Prep race: 59:41 half marathon in Monza at the Breaking2 test event on March 7
The idea that Tadese, who has DNF’d half of his four career marathons and hasn’t finished one in over five years, can somehow run under 2:00 this weekend is ludicrous, almost embarrassing. When we spoke to Tadese before his most recent attempt at the distance, at Boston in 2015, his manager had an excuse for Tadese’s problems. Here’s what we wrote at the time:
In his first two marathons (London 2010 and 2012), he had fueling problems as he didn’t take his own drink at the water stops; at his third marathon, he was in bed with a high fever the week before and in his most recent attempt (a DNF in Chicago in 2013), he was bothered with stomach problems because of something he ate the night before. Marathons rarely go perfectly, but assuming Tadese can avoid misfortune in Boston, he’ll have no excuses this time around.
Guess what? A couple days later, Tadese dropped out in Boston as well.
Tadese is a fantastic half marathoner (he owns the two fastest times in history at 58:23 and 58:31), and we understand Nike’s thinking: this guy can run well under 2:00:00 pace for 13.1 miles, so if he figures it out, why couldn’t he run seven seconds per mile slower for 26.2? Well the answer is that a marathon requires additional skills (more endurance, the ability to fuel well), and running 4:34 pace for an entire marathon is incredibly difficult, even for someone who can run 4:27 pace for a half marathon. We should also note that while Tadese has run some quick half marathons in recent years, he’s no longer in his prime as he hasn’t approached a time under 59:00 since 2011.
Magness’s and Tucker’s thoughts:
Ross Tucker, on the chances that either Desisa or Tadese can break 2:00 (we’ll get to his thoughts on Kipchoge later): Zero. I don’t think either has the pedigree. In fact, I’d be surprised if they reach 30km at the pace.
Steve Magness: I think Kipchoge is actually their only chance. Not to put down the other guys, but his resume is the strongest. And then also, if you look at how general marathons work, like London, for example, what generally happens is one guy survives and the rest all kind of blow up. So the chances are high that only one of them will make it a long [way].
For the thoughts from LetsRun.com’s resident running expert, John Kellogg, we have them in their own article. Go here: LRC John Kellogg Dismisses Eliud Kipchoge’s Sub-2 Chances: “Unless he’s got cheater’s shoes….then he’s not doing it…I can’t say anything is impossible but it’s pretty close to impossible.”
Without inside access, we can’t know for sure everything that Nike has been doing, but from what Ed Caesar and Alex Hutchinson (the two reporters to whom Nike has granted behind-the-scenes access) have reported and what Nike has released itself, it doesn’t appear that Nike is trying to drastically alter the way its runners approach the race. During our visit to Kipchoge, his coach told us his training has remained pretty much the same, save for a little extra speed work, and Nike hasn’t tried to radically restructure his diet. Instead, Nike is trying to control as many variables as possible during the race, with the hope that the sum of those gains adds up to about three minutes. A quick rundown of those variables:
- Weather. This is one of the reasons the race is being held in Monza. According to Nike, the average temperature this time of year (53 degrees) is good for marathoning, the skies are typically overcast, wind is generally minimal (though, ironically, it wasn’t for the test event) and it’s not at significant elevation (600 feet above sea level). In addition, by giving themselves a three-day window, Nike gives itself a better chance of running the race in ideal conditions. However, the weather forecast for Monza right now doesn’t look perfect as the low is going to be 53 on Friday and Saturday and 54 on Sunday. We’d think you’d want the race run in the high 40s, low 50s which is going to be hard to achieve given that forecast.
- The course. The course itself is flat (18 feet of elevation change per loop) and is basically an oval, with all the turns gradual (see map here). It’s unclear how much extra time this will be worth, however. The Dubai Marathon is flat, with only four turns on the entire course, yet no one has ever broken 2:04 on it. Each loop is 2,400 meters.
- Optimal pacing. Nike is pulling out all the stops on this one: Bernard Lagat, Chris Derrick, Sam Chelanga, Andrew Bumbalough and Stephen Sambu are among the 18 pacers they will employ for the event. The details are laid out in the tweet below (click to expand the image).
— Cuan Walker (@runwithcuan) May 1, 2017
- The pacing plan, in case you had trouble reading the chart, is as follows: Nike has 18 pacers, divided into six groups of three. Each three-man group will run two laps in a row (except for the first group which will run just one), and there will be six pacers on the track at all times and each group will overlap with the previous group for one lap. So each group presumably will have one lap to get the pace down before taking over to make things as smooth as possible. Take the purple group, for example. They’ll come in on lap #2 (this is the second full lap; the runners will also run a shortened 1,398-meter first lap to ensure they run the full 26.2 miles), and run lap #2 with the blue group who will be on its second lap. Once they are used to the pace, they’ll take over and presumably lead lap #3, being joined the light purple group, and then sit out the next four laps before returning for laps #8 and #9. Then four more laps of rest and #14 and #15. What that amounts to is a workout of 3 x 3 miles (4,800m is 27m short of 3 miles) in 13:39, or 14:13 5k pace, with a rest of just over 27 minutes (27:18, to be precise) between the sessions. As you may be able to tell by crunching the numbers, Nike plans to run as evenly as possibly, alternating 6:49 laps with 6:50 laps, which is equal to 1:59:59 marathon pace. And because the pacers will be running behind a car informing them of their pace in real time, we shouldn’t have to worry about the pacers going too fast/slow and missing their splits. Per those projected splits, they’ll hit halfway (21,097.5m) at 59:58; the hope is that even pacing will prevent a scenario like the one we saw with Mary Keitany in London, where she ran extremely fast but could have gone faster (theoretically) had she not been so aggressive early in the race. Of course, the use of rotating pacers means that the attempt will not be eligible for any IAAF records as for a performance to be eligible under IAAF rules, the pacers must start with the rest of the field.
- Drafting. In addition to setting the pace, Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese will also be able to cut down on air resistance by drafting off the pacers (six of them were used in the test run). Tucker says that while drafting could provide an advantage, there could be some unwanted side effects.”One of the more fascinating things to me is whether this drafting strategy might challenge heat comfort, in the sense that we rely on the air movement over the skin to cool off,” Tucker says. “And if the drafting is fully effective, then a big part of that is removed…Also, running behind people the whole time is not often psychologically what these athletes want, and that’s not a trivial reality.”
- Fluids. Not only will the athletes be able to drink whenever they want, but the bottles will be shuttled to them on a motorcyle. That saves the athletes from having to divert course to the drinks stations and slow down to pick up their fluids. It is also one of the reasons the attempt won’t count as an official world record.
- The shoes. This one is the greatest unknown as we haven’t seen the Zoom Vaporfly Elites in an actual race. Nike claims that a variation of that shoe, the Zoom Vaporfly 4%, allows a runner to maintain a given pace while using 4% less energy than its previous shoes. The Zoom Vaporfly Elites are similar, though they will be custom-fit to the feet of Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese and have a few other minor differences (custom stiffness of the carbon fiber plate, more dramatic tapering of the shoe in the heel).
So what are those variables worth?
“I think the greatest chance [for improvement] is the shoes, followed by the drafting, then the hydration, weather and course, in that order,” Tucker says. “The reason for the last two is that Berlin comes pretty close to providing the optimal setting already. There are a few places on the Berlin route that you could argue slow them down, but it really is a very small effect. Hydration? I think the mechanical time saving of not having to veer off to get fluid and energy is a saving, but the idea that you’ll run faster just because you can drink whenever you want is trivial.
“Drafting is theoretically a big difference maker, though as I mentioned, I will be interested to know whether this may have some negative unintended consequences for air cooling and the ‘comfort’ of the athlete…Finally, I’d argue that running in a pack up to 30km of most marathons already [includes] part of the benefit of drafting. So I think whatever theoretical projections are made should probably be scaled back. I’ve seen people suggest that drafting might save 1-2%, so I expect it may be worth 0.5% in this situation, for the above mentioned factors.
“So that leaves shoes, which I think from the announcement of this plan have been the obvious means by which a large difference MIGHT be made. Nobody knows the exact difference, of course, but there’ve been hints at 4%, which I think is unrealistically large. But if the shoes are worth 2%, then the rest could well make up the difference.
“So shoes, for me, are the biggest factor. Then again, there’s a chance that they do nothing. One scientist, who has had opportunity to test the shoes, says that they make no difference to the runner during the run, but that they feel less stiff and sore the next day. That is of course irrelevant to a guy trying to run sub-2.”
Magness agrees that the weather won’t make much of a difference — most previous world records were set in good conditions anyway. But he’s more skeptical than Tucker when it comes to the potential impact of the shoes.
“The shoes, everyone is hyping up,” Magness says. “Those shoes, or a variation of those shoes, have been used in other major marathons. London, they’ve been used, Olympics they’ve been used, and people have run fast but no one has run blazingly fast. Are you gonna tell me that Galen Rupp at Boston would have run three to four minutes slower if he didn’t have those shoes? I don’t believe it. Therefore to me, the shoes, while they might be a slight improvement, aren’t that big of a factor.
“What you get down to is the simple pacing and the course. The course, how much more is it optimized? Well it has less turns so you might get a very small percentage there. But if pacing is controlled by a car, essentially, and it’s for the entire 26.2 miles, I think that’s where you’re going to get your most bang for your buck.”
The Forbidden Variable
Of course, there is one more avenue for improvement, which is the most proven and effective of them all.
“When you’re pushing boundaries, the one thing that works is drugs,” says Magness, a former assistant coach for the Nike Oregon Project who has turned into a whistleblower, alleging that the group violated the sports anti-doping rules. “That’s the one way that we know we can accelerate performance gains.”
Desisa, Kipchoge, and Tadese, by virtue of their previous performances, should be in both the IAAF testing pools (Desisa and Kipchoge should also be receiving additional testing from the World Marathon Majors). But Magness cautions that the drug-testing needs to be impeccable, especially if these sort of attempts are going to become commonplace in future years.
“When journalists have asked Nike, they’ve essentially said, ‘Well these guys are under the IAAF and WADA rules, so they’ll be tested in that.’ And I think that that’s a mistake…it’s something that needs to be considered much more so than saying like, ‘Oh, okay, here, we know these guys are getting tested anyway so we don’t have to worry about it.’ I know the (competing) Sub2HR project have kind of put an emphasis on drug testing and stuff like that, which I think is good…
“If the first person to break 2:00 is then popped for drugs, that just further hurts our sport. Athletes are already willing to risk a lot and take drugs just to win random marathon majors. I imagine the incentive is probably 50-fold for going down in history as first sub-2:00 marathoner because that essentially makes your career for life.”
A cynic might say that it’s possible some of the Breaking2 athletes have already taken advantage of this variable. But Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese have never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. They deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Can They Do It? (Hint: No Way)
So does this thing have any chance of happening? Both Tucker and Magness believe it will be almost impossible for Kipchoge to break 2:00 this weekend.
“I’m leaning towards zero [percent chance],” Tucker says, “but I’m opposed to extreme viewpoints so I’ll call it 0.1%.”
“I would say breaking it this weekend has a very, very minimal chance,” Magness says. “Just based on what they’ve optimized and what they’re banking on to get the extra almost three minutes, I don’t think they’ll get there. I think they have a chance to improve upon the world best — even though it won’t count — but I do not think they’ll get close to two hours.”
Tucker and Magness aren’t alone in their beliefs; neither has spoken to anyone within the running world (outside of Nike) who believes anyone will break 2:00 this weekend. Magness does know of some people tangentially related to the sport who think sub-2:00 is possible but they have not swayed him.
“I think the further knowledge you have in the sport, and the deeper you are into it, the more skeptical you are because you pay attention to how difficult it is to get these breakthroughs,” Magness says.
(Thew views of LetsRun.com’s resident running expert, John Kellogg, are virtually the same as Tucker’s. He views it as basically impossible: LRC John Kellogg Dismisses Eliud Kipchoge’s Sub-2 Chances: “Unless he’s got cheater’s shoes….then he’s not doing it…I can’t say anything is impossible but it’s pretty close to impossible.”)
Though Tucker and Magness weigh each variable slightly differently, their reasoning for why sub-2:00 won’t happen is essentially the same: even if every variable is optimized for this attempt, Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese are not fast enough to break 2:00.
Consider: the fastest-ever first half marathon split in a marathon is 61:11, from Berlin last year. To run sub-2:00, Kipchoge would have to go out over 70 seconds faster and hold that pace for an additional 13.1 miles. That gap is monumental. For more context, check out the two charts below.
At minimum, running sub-2:00 would require a 2.41% improvement on the previous world best. That is by far the biggest improvement, in terms of percent, over the past 50 years. Only Derek Clayton‘s 2:09:36 in 1967 (lowering the world best from 2:12:00) is even remotely close. But the marathon was in its infancy in 1967. As the marathon has become run more frequently, the improvement rate has never even approached 1%.
|Athlete||Time||Improvement on previous world best|
|Dennis Kimetto, 2014||2:02:57||0.07%|
|Geoffrey Mutai, 2011||2:03:02||0.77%|
|Haile Gebrselassie, 2008||2:03:59||0.36%|
|Haile Gebrselassie, 2007||2:04:26||0.39%|
|Paul Tergat, 2003||2:04:55||0.57%|
|Khalid Khannouchi, 2002||2:05:38||0.05%|
|Khalid Khannouchi, 1999||2:05:42||0.30%|
|Ronaldo da Costa, 1998||2:06:05||0.59%|
|Belayneh Dinsamo, 1988||2:06:50||0.29%|
|Carlos Lopes, 1985||2:07:12||0.69%|
|Steve Jones, 1984||2:08:05||0.17%|
|Robert De Castella, 1981||2:08:18||0.19%|
|Derek Clayton, 1969*||2:08:33||0.81%|
|Derek Clayton, 1967||2:09:36||1.82%|
*some dispute this mark, with the ARRS claiming the course in question was short
The next table shows what the world records would be in other running events if they were to be improved at the same rate (2.41%) as a sub-2:00 marathon would require.
|Event||Current WR||WR with same improvement as sub-2:00|
Given the length of the marathon and the fact that it is run on the roads rather than a standardized 400-meter track, there are more variables to optimize than with the traditional track running events. But framing a sub-2:00 marathon as equivalent to an 18.73 200 or a 25:39 10k gives you a better idea of just how far away we are from it becoming a reality. We think one look at the chart makes it obvious – the sub-2 isn’t happening. Do you really think we are close to seeing a 25:39 10,000?
How Fast Can Kipchoge Run?
So if sub-2:00 is a pipe dream, what can Kipchoge run? Given Kipchoge likely could have broken 2:03 in London last year and granting him a bump for all the other variables (including an assumption that he’s in better shape than last year), sub-2:02 definitely seems possible. I asked Magness and Tucker what they thought Kipchoge would run under perfect conditions. Magness guessed 2:02:30, while Tucker guessed 2:01:30.
But there is a sizeable caveat to those predictions. The saying goes that if you shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. That’s not always the case in marathon running. Take the recent London Marathon. For every Mary Keitany, who goes out in 66:54 and hangs on to run 2:17:01, there’s a bunch of Florence Kiplagats, who go out in 68:17 and blow up to run 2:26:25.
The point? Kipchoge will be going out at a pace that is fundamentally unsustainable. That’s what he has to do if he is going to run sub-2:00, but if he wants to run his fastest possible time, he’d be better served going out slower — if his actual ceiling is 2:02:00, then he should be running 61:00 for the first half. But he’ll be going out faster than his body can ultimately handle, which could have potentially disastrous consequences.
“I think if they go out on 60:00 or thereabouts, he’s gonna blow up,” Magness says. “And just the question is, how much does he blow up by?”
Kipchoge should be able to run the first 13.1 miles at 2:00:00 pace no problem, but at some point, that pace will become unsustainable. And what Kipchoge elects to do at that point will have a large impact on his finishing time.
“What will be interesting is whether he has the appetite to go with the required pace even if it starts to become ‘impossible’ for him,” Tucker says. “By this, I mean, will he keep going at 2:00:00 pace if his brain and body start telling him he needs to slow down? Normally, in a race, that’s what you’d do — back off, drop the pace by a few secs/km, try to recover (as we see in every marathon).
“Imagine being able to read the minds of the three at halfway, or maybe even before? You run, so you know the feeling when you go out too fast in a 10km or half marathon – by about 5km, your brain is talking to you, and you feel this urgent need to slow down, to pace yourself better. It really fascinates me to know what they’ll do when that physiological process inevitably kicks in. Kipchoge especially, might push through halfway, to 25km, and then maybe starts to think ‘I need to slow down.’
“If he does this, and slows a little, then I could see a situation where he gets to say 25km on schedule, but then gradually drops off but still hangs on to finish in a high 2:01, to a low 2:02. It would mean halves of 60:00 and maybe 61:xx (which structurally, is not vastly different from what Keitany and [Tirunesh] Dibaba did in London).
“On the other hand, if he goes for it, and hangs on until about 32km, then I could almost foresee him not finishing at all. In other words, it’s all or nothing. Much depends on mindset, I’d have thought – is he starting this with 1:59:59 or bust in his mind, or is he happy to go at 2:00:00 pace for as long as he can before slowing down and trying to keep it together?”
(LetsRun.com’s John Kellogg agrees again with Tucker. He thinks think an all-out Kipchoge can maybe maintain pace for 20 miles but if he does that, it will be an ugly finish).
In general, the sporting community is in agreement that sub-2:00 probably won’t happen this weekend. And privately, there are probably Nike execs who feel the same way. But one of the greatest joys in sports is watching something that wasn’t supposed to happen. And with that in mind, I spoke to two more experts: Alex Hutchinson, a science journalist who has been documenting Breaking2 for Runner’s World, and Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, an expert in human physiology and exercise. Neither thought the chances were good, but both put them in the “possible, but not probable” range. Hutchinson estimated the probability was between 1% and 10%, while Joyner put the number between 5% and 15%. For reference, ESPN’s win probability model gave the New England Patriots just a 0.2% chance of victory with 6:04 to go in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.
“A lot of things would have to go perfectly for them to do it, and if you have 20 things that have to go perfectly, chances are low it’ll happen on any given day,” Hutchinson says. “To frame it the opposite way, how many experts would be willing to take a $1,000 bet, at 100-1 odds, against a sub-two? If they’re not willing to take that bet, that suggests they also think there’s a 1% chance it will happen.”
Joyner, who in a 1991 paper wrote that the fastest possible marathon time by a human was 1:57:58, believes that the pieces are in place for a sub-2:00 right now and expects to see one within five years. In his paper, he argued that the ideal marathoner would be one who combined exceptional VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy. Joyner hasn’t seen Kipchoge’s individual data, but he says his guess is that Kipchoge is excellent in all three areas. Unlike Tucker and Magness, who believe that the attempt will likely fall short even if the variables swing Nike’s way, Joyner thinks sub-2:00 can be achieved if every variable lines up on the right day — though that could take a while in the marathon.
“There’s a learning curve on these types of effort,” Joyner says. “If they don’t do it over the weekend, [and] if people do [these attempts] repeatedly with a larger pool of athletes, I think there would be a chance of it happening.
“It’s not like a mile where people can run five to 10 competitive races a summer, maybe 100 or more in their career. We’re talking about people who can maybe run two super-competitive races a year for five or 10 years.”
So there you have it. Everything you need to know about Breaking2. And even though sub-2:00 will almost certainly have to wait, you can bet we’ll still be tuning in this weekend to find out exactly what happens.
Talk about the sub-2 exhibition on our fan forum /messageboard: MB: Nike Sub-2 Prediction Thread.
More: LRC John Kellogg Dismisses Eliud Kipchoge’s Sub-2 Chances: “Unless he’s got cheater’s shoes….then he’s not doing it…I can’t say anything is impossible but it’s pretty close to impossible.”