I was inspired to write this post having got up around 5:30am this morning to watch the 2nd half of the much publicised, Nike-orchestrated attempt to break the 2 hour barrier in the marathon at the Monza race track in Italy.
In some ways I’m a bit surprised that I do feel so motivated to write about this as before it took place I actually felt quite uninspired by all of the hype. I think that’s mainly because the enterprise seemed somehow ‘artificial’ and in many ways wholly incompatible with the ethos and spirit of running as a sport.
It felt a bit like Nike were trying to use their impressive bank balance and virtually limitless resources to ‘steal’ the 2 hour record from a future runner who might otherwise break the mythical barrier in a real race, condemning them forever to be the ‘2nd guy’ to have run sub-2 (even though they’d be pronounced the World Record holder as the Breaking2 event was not run under conditions that would allow an official record to be set).
But I sit here now on the other side of the attempt and I now see it ever so slightly differently, even if I’m still not a complete convert to the whole concept. I think what tipped the balance a bit were 2 main factors…
The first was the sheer drama and human effort on show during the run. It was of course so very, very nail bitingly close in the end with Eluid Kipchoge getting within about 150m of the record, hanging on to the unbelievable target pace of 4 minutes 35 seconds per mile right up until those last 3 miles or so, at which point he just started to drop off from the lead car ever so slightly.
Kipchoge gave very little away in his posture and face during the run (although there was some grimacing near the end) but you could just tell that you were watching someone who was working right on the limiter, holding it there for as long as he could. I’m sure my own heart rate was up close to race pace for some of it as I got so absorbed in the broadcast (despite the slightly irritating and inane commentary that was going on at times).
Anyone who has run long distances and aiming for PBs will know the feeling of absolutely hanging in there when you feel like you’re going to burst blood vessels and feeling as though quick setting concrete is being poured into your legs in the final stages to set a new best time! So watching a guy going through all of that at a pace never seen before was genuinely inspiring to me, it has to be said. If you’re interested in the physiology of what was going on in his body whilst he made those monumental efforts, this blog from Dr Mark Burnley gives a really interesting insight.
The second thing that tipped the balance for me is probably that, despite getting within 26 seconds of success, the attempt just ‘failed’ (if you can call running sub 4:40 miles for 26.2 of them a failure…). And this simple fact means that the 2 hour barrier remains intact, even if it maybe feels like its come in a bit closer. I can therefore sit here feeling safe that Nike haven’t ‘stolen’ the opportunity of some future athlete to take the record in a way that might be deemed more ‘authentic’. For some reason I feel like that matters a lot.
As I was up early having watched the attempt, once it finished I headed off to my local Park Run to stretch my legs over 5km and I have to say I certainly felt the glow of inspiration from Kipchoge’s performance. Even if my actual performance was significantly less awesome. I made a deal with myself on the way to the run that although I wasn't going to be able to get anywhere close to Kipchoge’s speed for 3 miles, I would try to run as hard yet as even paced as I could as a kind of bizarre but ultimately meaningless tribute to what I’d witnessed on the internet that morning.
In the end I managed to run a 17 minute 21 second 5km, with mile splits of 5:39, 5:37 and 5:36, which I thought wasn’t too bad in terms of even pacing and was about as good as I could reasonably hope for on my current haphazard training regime! It blows my mind that the pace Kipchoge held for 2 hours was almost exactly 1 minute per mile faster than that. I’m far from being an elite runner or in great shape at the moment, but I’m certainly no couch potato, it really highlights the gulf that exists between being ‘ok’ at a sport and being truly world class.
When I’d finished my run I looked up all of the results from the Park Runs in the UK on that day to get some further perspective on the speed of the Breaking2 attempt. The fastest winner covered 5km in 14 minutes 55 seconds (nice one Dominic Shaw at the Albert Park Run in Middlesborough) - a very decent run averaging 4:48 per mile. But when you look at Kipchoge’s 5km splits in the marathon, his SLOWEST one was 14 minutes 27 seconds, his fastest was 14 minutes 7 seconds.
On that basis he would have won every Park Run in the whole of the UK - by a big margin - with his slowest 5km split in the Breaking2 marathon, a split that came after 35km of running at a faster pace!
Now, Park Run is far from the most competitive of running events. But there are many thousands of people taking part each week (many of whom are good club athletes) and the fact that none could get close to Kipchoge’s marathon pace over 3 miles is pretty sobering.
Of course, with the Nike Breaking2 project there are now a lot of question marks that will be batted back and forth around what it was that enabled Kipchoge to run 2 minutes and 32 seconds beneath the current official World Record. Was it the special carbon fibre plated shoes? Nike would love us to think that I’m sure. Was it the flat, smooth and flowing race track course? Or the pacing strategy and drafting? Influential Sports Scientist Ross Tuckers seems to think it’s the latter and I’d be inclined to agree with his reasoning. Maybe it was the training the athletes did in the build up, or just a combination of all of the above and probably some other, less easily measurable factors.
Ultimately we probably won’t ever really know; performance at the elite level is a very complex thing to analyse. But, I do have to say that despite harbouring some negativity towards the attempt in the build up, I watched it with fascination in the end and have come out of the other side of it with a slightly more balanced viewpoint.
My main hope now is that having done the experiment we can now park the idea of going for a contrived version of the sub 2 hour marathon and have the patience to wait and - hopefully - see it play out in a real racing scenario in the future…