20 Mar

Why Breaking2 Feels Like Marathon 2.0

Kichopge et al
While Breaking2 should be applauded for providing the opportunity and means to allow Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese the possibility of running a sub-2 marathon, there is a lasting feeling that the somewhat engineered attempt means losing out on the unpredictability in setting a WR. 

Even prior to the half marathon dress rehearsal, there’s been a considerable amount of attention paid to Nike’s pursuit of recording the first ever sub-2 hour marathon. While doubts remain as to whether this could be achieved – although Kipchoge’s seemingly effortless 59:17 at the warm-up shows that it is feasible – Breaking2 now stands as the most concentrated and calculated pursuit of the feat.

Part of what has allowed the sub-2 prospect to become a possibility is the intense preparation, from optimising conditions to the athletes’ equipment, that has been at the heart of the project.

Monza, the Formula One circuit in northern Italy, has been chosen as the location due to the fact it offers the strongest optimisation of key variables – terrain, surface (asphalt) and elevation (roughly 183 metres above sea level), elevation drop (42 metres), weather, nominal wind resistance, and the minimal number of turns in the course.

What’s more, each runner will be equipped with Nike’s Vaporfly Elite trainer that has been fitted with a curved carbon-fibre plate, specially designed for the individual runner (and the course at Monza) to minimise energy loss and is said to make athletes 4% more efficient than any previous shoe. The remaining kit has also been modified to improve performance: each vest is tailored to suit the runner, while shorts will be discarded for short tights.

Last week’s warm-up not only became an indicator of whether the Breaking2 project could be a success, but also a way of measuring these conditions. Post-event, the team were able to gauge the level the trio of athletes were performing at by assessing ingested core pills, skin-temperature sensors and weight measurements. Brad Wilkins, one of the project’s lead scientists, later commented: “We’re not testing the athletes’ fitness, we’re testing ourselves.”

As much as Nike should be applauded for providing a platform from which these athletes can run to their full potential and exercise their right to historic infamy, there is an underlying sense that Breaking2 has been heavily engineered and has become, to an extent – and as indicated by the quote above – a project driven by scientific measurements.

There is also a residual feeling that this attempt is being ridden of the joy that comes from competitive sport. Joy such as winning for victory, the adulation from the crowd, pushing yourself beyond the limits you believed were possible – and not just by the arbitrary parameters of a time (constantly digitised, for the Breaking2 runners, by a Tesla) that is the sole objective of the day.

Running produces variables – rain, sleet or snow (or even a pony) – that more often than not enhance our retrospective account of the experience, whether it amounts to a PB or not. That is what makes the sport so compelling and unpredictable.  

A recent, and highly informative, article showed how Roger Bannister's iconic sub-4 minute mile was the product of both Bannister’s input into the design of his shoe and the construction of a course that would directly aid his attempts. 

Reading the article, it became clear that the vision we may hold of WRs can be over-romanticised – rarely does an athlete reach these heights without intense preparation, be it highly-tailored training, favourable conditions and the best equipment. That said, when the level of expectation and engineering begins to outweigh the element of surprise a WR or PB incites, we begin to lose the unpredictability and raw excitement the sport brings.