63 years after Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile barrier, on 6th May 2017 Nike put their corporate neck on the line and put their #breaking2 programme to the test. Two hours and 25 seconds later, the fastest ever recorded marathon was completed and whilst it didn't break two it was certainly a mind-blowing feat of athletic endurance. I'll be honest, I was torn about this event. 50% intrigued and excited and 50% miffed that it was so controlled and brand-specific that it felt a bit sterile. I did however check the result as soon as I woke up on Saturday morning and sat and watched a replay of the it, so I clearly wasn't the ambivalent.
First a recap: The big tick company had announced earlier in the year that they would try to break a two hour marathon by running laps of the F1 Monza race track. Three athletes were in the running - Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese and Lelia Desisa. Special shoes with a carbon fibre plate (which are still under debate by the IAFF) would be worn, packs of pacers would drop in and out and cyclists would provide carefully tuned nutrition along the way. The result would not be an official world record due to the nature of the attempt. Nike were very open about their aims but the actual attempt was only announced a few days before and only two journalists were allowed to attend the event so it was very closely managed.
On the day only one of the athletes came close and for most of us the thought of running at around 13mph for more than a couple of seconds is eyewatering, let alone for 2 hours. So, why should we care? Should we even care?
I would argue that at a time when athletics is in dire need of some good press and something to inspire a generation, this kind of event is not to be dismissed completely. It may be overstating the situation but I wonder whether comparisons can be drawn with international space programmes. In itself space travel is probably a waste of money. It's horrifically expensive, it requires health-threatening sacrifice from those who take it on and most of us will never experience anything even remotely close to it. However, it inspires scientific thought and a go-get-it attitude that ripples down into other areas of life. It makes people question the human species in a way which other programmes don't. Yes #breaking2 was a ridiculously micro-managed event which I suspect was never going to have anything other than a positive spin for its sponsoring company, but it has nonetheless made lots of people in the running community assess what they think is important in the progress of the sport. We may conclude that speed is not what we care about and that we would rather the focus was elsewhere or we may conclude that harnessing technology for everything we can do in order to push boundaries is a wonderful thing. Yes you could argue that the money could have gone to youth programmes rather than what could be seen as a vanity exercise but these three guys have gambled injury and passed-up attempts at officially verified records to shift the perception of limitation in this field and open up a new realm of dreaming.
My main observation of the event itself is that I wish there had been more support for Eliud on the last few laps. Those along side were so focussed on the technical aspects that it felt incredibly muted as he hurtled around with 15 minutes to go. It brought a little bit of welcome emotional engagement when the final group of pacers started offering encouragement in the closing stages, and Kipchoge's trot over to thank them afterwards was heartwarming. I started watching with the corporate goal foremost in my mind but I finished it focussing on a man and his achievement. Science can do a lot, but I suspect the unquantifiable and uncontrollable human heart will eventually have give that final "marginal gain".
Official results from Nike's site:
Kipchoge - 2:00:25, 2:32 faster than the current world record and 2:40 better than his own personal best of 2:03:05.
Tads - 2:06:51, beating his personal best by 3:50.
Desist - 2:14:10.