Inside the Race to Break the Two-Hour Marathon – The New Yorker

Inside the Race to Break the Two-Hour Marathon  The New Yorker


On Saturday, Eliud Kipchoge, the best marathon runner of his generation, will attempt to become the first person to complete twenty-six miles and three hundred and eighty-five yards in less than two hours. The time trial will take place on an avenue in Vienna’s Prater park, which for centuries was a hunting ground for Austrian emperors and princes. Kipchoge, wearing white, will be surrounded by interchanging teams of black-clad pacers, who will run in a counterintuitive open-V-shaped formation, to protect him from the head wind. If nothing else, the event will look beautiful: “Swan Lake” meets “Chariots of Fire.”

Just as the race to break the sub-four-minute mile engrossed the public in the nineteen-fifties, so the sub-two-hour marathon has beguiled contemporary students of running. For most of the history of the sport, the “sub-two” existed in the realm of science fiction. At the first Olympic marathon, in Athens in 1896, only one man broke three hours. And that race was shorter than it is now, at around twenty-five miles. Running a marathon in less than two hours requires an outlandish average speed of a little more than thirteen miles per hour. (Try the pace on a treadmill; if you are very fit, you might last two minutes.) But for at least two decades—as the marathon has professionalized, and the world record dropped to within a few minutes of two hours—there has been a debate about if, or when, the mark could be broken.

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Physiologists have posited that the feat is physically possible. In 1991, in a pithy and now famous paper, a polymathic medical student named Michael Joyner calculated the fastest marathon for the perfect athlete in optimal conditions to be 1:57:58. (Joyner, who is now an anesthesiologist and exercise physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, will be watching the Vienna attempt more closely than most.) Bolstering Joyner’s optimism was the self-evident truth that all athletics records eventually fall. On the other hand, the sub-two has, until recently, been literally unimaginable, perhaps especially to élite runners. Derek Clayton, an Australian who was once the best marathon runner in the world, and whose time of 2:08:33 at the 1969 Antwerp Marathon was not beaten for twelve years, wrote in 1980 that “I might live long enough to see a 2.06 [but] a two hour marathon—4.34 mile pace—definitely not.” Clayton is seventy-six years old and still living in Australia.

This will be Kipchoge’s second and final attempt to break two hours. He is already the official world-record holder in the marathon, with a time of 2:01:39, set in Berlin last year. But to run a hundred seconds quicker, and break two hours, requires a personalized time trial, infused with some minor rule-breaking, which invalidates the attempt as a world record. Kipchoge’s first such attempt, which was organized and sponsored by Nike, and called Breaking2, took place at a Formula 1 racetrack in Monza, Italy, in 2017—and, like in Vienna, used alternating teams of pacesetters. On that occasion, Kipchoge finished in a time of 2:00:25. It was a remarkable achievement, which recalibrated how people in the sport, and Kipchoge himself, thought about what was possible in the marathon. After Monza, Kipchoge told me, “the world is only twenty-five seconds away.” Now he has another chance.

The Monza event provoked controversy, and so has the attempt in Vienna. The most obvious transgression is the use of pacesetters. Some big-city marathons, like Berlin and London, use three élite pacesetters, who start the marathon and then drop out between the halfway and three-quarter marks of the race. In Vienna, five teams of seven pacers, all of them outstanding athletes in their own right—including the five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat, and the three extraordinary Ingebrigtsen brothers, from Norway—will interchange every five kilometres. This tactic breaks the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations. I would bet that an hour-and-fifty-nine-minute marathon set under these circumstances will outrage purists, but that most people will consider the two-hour barrier broken. The first summit of Everest, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, was made using supplementary oxygen, in 1953. It took twenty-seven more years before Reinhold Messner climbed the mountain alone, without bottled oxygen. Although both were remarkable climbs, Messner’s was the purer sporting achievement. It is Hillary and Tenzing whom most people remember best.

The sponsor of the event has also raised eyebrows. Kipchoge’s attempt in Vienna has been funded and organized by Ineos, a British chemicals company, which owns several sports franchises, including a cycling team that competes in the Tour de France. The owner of Ineos, Jim Ratcliffe, is Britain’s richest man, with an estimated fortune of more than twenty billion pounds, and a booster of Brexit. He drew criticism earlier this year when it was reported that he was considering a move to Monaco, for tax reasons. Ineos also plans to frack for natural gas in Britain. His company’s ownership of sports teams has been termed “sportswashing”—reputation laundering, through sports—a charge that Ratcliffe refutes. What is certain is that the Ineos 1:59 Challenge, as it is called, would not be happening were it not for Ratcliffe’s personal enthusiasm.

This weekend will be particularly intriguing for me. I spent several years reporting in Kenya and around the world for my book, “,” which was about the quest to run the first sub-two marathon. In its closing pages, I suggested that the only way to break two hours would be at a special “moonshot” marathon, designed specifically with speed in mind—exactly the kind of event in which Kipchoge will participate this weekend. Whether the attempt is successful or not, it’s hard to see anybody else making such a bid in the near future. Kipchoge is a one-off, and this is his last chance. I will be in Vienna with a ringside seat.

Kipchoge, a wiry Kenyan whose hangdog features frequently break into a bright and toothy smile, has only been defeated once in a marathon, in his second attempt at the distance, in Berlin, in 2013. On that occasion, he was beaten into second place by an elegant and cocksure runner named Wilson Kipsang, who broke the world record. Since that bright fall day in Berlin, nobody has been able to touch Kipchoge over 26.2 miles. He has become an Olympic champion, the world-record holder, and the winner of multiple big-city marathons. It used to be said that professional marathoners, who habitually compete in their brutal and enervating discipline only twice a year, have a short peak. Kipchoge has crushed all comers for five years, and he doesn’t appear to be finished yet.

He is, however, more interesting than his athletic accomplishments. I have spent time with Kipchoge, both at his camp in Kenya and at races in Europe. He is excellent company, prone to ticklish humor and sincere, Yoda-esque aphorisms. (Some of his favorites: “one hundred per cent of me is nothing compared to one per cent of the team”; “only the disciplined are free”; “don’t chase two rabbits at once.”) Although a millionaire many times over, he continues to spend six days a week at his somewhat austere training camp in the forest of Kaptagat, where he swaps domestic chores with fellow-athletes and washes using water from a well.

Kipchoge was born in a village called Kapsisiywa, in Kenya’s elevated Nandi County, and was raised by his mother, a primary-school teacher. He didn’t know his father, who died when he was very young. Kipchoge’s family comes from a tiny subset of the Nandi called the Talai, who are still revered by Kenyans for their wisdom, and who—in the colonial era—stubbornly resisted British rule. They were punished heavily for their insubordination and were forcibly sequestered into the area that Kipchoge’s family now counts as home. Political leaders in Kenya continue to visit Talai elders for blessings and advice. Kipchoge’s mentor and lifelong coach, a University of Texas graduate and former Olympian named Patrick Sang, is also a Talai. Kipchoge’s uncle has driven a campaign for reparations for the Talai from the British authorities. Kipchoge rarely talks about his heritage, but he told me he is fiercely proud of it.

You could know none of this and still love to watch Kipchoge compete. He is a paragon of balance and economy. When he is running smoothly, it looks as if his thumbs are brushing lint from the lapels of his dinner jacket. (His thumbs are the equivalent of a poker “tell”; you know Kipchoge is in trouble when he stops brushing lint.) Even when he is straining at the edge of his physiological capability, he retains his poise. Quite often, when his efforts are truly hurting him, he cracks a flashy grin—a psychological ruse to overcome the pain. For these and many other reasons, Kipchoge is beloved by aficionados of distance running. He is, perhaps, the sport’s Roger Federer.

Like Federer, Kipchoge is approaching the end of his career. His passport says that he is thirty-four, but his friends suggest that he is significantly older than that—perhaps around forty. Such disparities are common among Kenyan runners, who mostly come from poor, subsistence-farming backgrounds, and who spend the first years of their lives without official documents. In any event, next year’s Olympic marathon, in Tokyo, might be Kipchoge’s last race. His thoughts have turned to his legacy.

Very few, if any, of the East African runners who have dominated the professional marathon for the past two decades have made any impact on the world outside of their small and poorly understood discipline. Most have no desire to become famous: they have been happy to run fast, pocket their winnings, give brief and unremarkable comments to journalists, and then retire to a life of relative luxury at home. But Kipchoge makes no secret of his desire to transcend his sport, to use his fame for good. He wants to encourage children to exercise more; he wants to become an ambassador for his brand of no-limits personal growth; he wants to meet Obama. Kipchoge hopes that being the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon would propel him toward an international audience.

Say that Kipchoge is in his best shape this weekend, just as he was when he broke the world record last year, with a time of 2:01:39. How does the Ineos 1:59 team, which includes scientists and coaches, carve an additional hundred seconds off of his best official marathon time?

One of the most significant savings may have already been made for his team by Kipchoge’s shoe sponsor, Nike. For his world-record attempt, Kipchoge wore a sleek sneaker stuffed with a spongy but responsive foam and a carbon-fibre plate, called the Vaporfly 4%, which laboratory testing suggested could increase efficiency by four per cent over the next best Nike racing shoe. In Vienna, Kipchoge will wear an improved version of the Vaporfly, the Next%, with more of the magic foam inside. Who knows how much time the new shoe is worth, compared to the slightly older one. Certainly it’s a few seconds. The course in Vienna—which is within three time zones of Kenya, to minimize jet lag—was also painstakingly selected. It is a flat track, up and down a rail-straight avenue, with a circle at each end to turn. (I ran the course on Friday in weak dawn sunshine; in terms of speed, it is close to ideal.) The event was scheduled with a window of eight days, in case the weather wasn’t perfect on October 12th—relatively cool, in the fifties, with low humidity—which it seems it will be. Kipchoge also had one more requirement. He wanted noise. At Breaking2, Kipchoge ran a mile-and-a-half circuit seventeen and a half times, in the very early morning. For most of each circuit, there were no crowds cheering him on. Kipchoge thrives off of support, and he felt its absence on that occasion. He wanted this attempt to attract spectators. Ineos has marketed the event heavily, and installed “fan zones” along the route; the company hopes that twenty thousand spectators will watch on Saturday.

Kipchoge has also worked with a nutritionist in the lead-up to the attempt. Élite runners devour carbs. At Breaking2, despite the Nike team’s best efforts, Kipchoge found it difficult to drink enough of his preferred carbohydrate-rich solution, which is made by a small Swedish firm named Maurten. Kipchoge had been right on sub-two-hour pace for most of the event, but he faded a little toward the end. After the attempt, I spoke to one of the scientists on the project, Andy Jones, a professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter, who believed that Kipchoge had possibly run out of fuel. “If we could find some way to consume more carbohydrates during the event,” Jones had told me, “he might sustain that speed a little longer.” In training, Kipchoge has experimented with digesting more carbohydrates in liquid or gel form, and in Vienna his used bottles will be sent to a nutritionist for in-race analysis. If Kipchoge needs more fuel, he will get it.

Perhaps most important is the new pacesetter formation. Robby Ketchell, a sports scientist and an expert in aerodynamics, who also consulted on Breaking2, told me that he decided to completely rethink how best to shield Kipchoge from the head wind created by running at thirteen miles per hour. Using software for computational flow dynamics, and his experience of working with the Ineos cycling team, he experimented with hundreds of different scenarios. Eventually, he hit on what he believes is the best design. “When you see how they’re going to run, you’d wonder how that would even work,” Ketchell told me this week. In brief, the idea is that the front V shape of five runners will create a wash of air that will flow around Kipchoge, and therefore reduce the drag on him. Two runners behind Kipchoge will provide what Ketchell calls “static pressure,” to push Kipchoge along; they will also help create the “optimal flow” around him. (Most interestingly, Ketchell says that the pace car, which will drive fifteen meters in front of the lead pacesetters, and will emit a laser line on the road to keep the runners on schedule, will detract from this aerodynamic planning; if it were entirely up to him, he would have no car.)

The formation relies on precision. If Kipchoge moves twelve centimetres to his right or left, he will be much less protected. The choreography is everything. Ketchell estimates that this formation, if everyone did their jobs perfectly, would save Kipchoge a minute and fifty-two seconds, compared with Kipchoge running alone. In reality, Kipchoge won’t receive that benefit. It takes ten seconds each time the pacers swap in and out, every three miles. Also, there are parts of the course, like the turns, where the formation will splinter somewhat. Still, if the V shape works, it might be this project’s masterstroke innovation—its Fosbury Flop.

Finally, there is Eliud Kipchoge’s head to consider. His longtime manager, an affable Dutchman named Valentijn Trouw, said there has been a sea change in Kipchoge’s thinking since his first attempt at a sub-two-hour marathon, in 2017. Before then, Kipchoge’s personal best was 2:03:05. He was being asked to run more than three minutes faster than he had ever done, and it was a nerve-racking proposition. Kipchoge hardly sleeps the night before a race. Before Monza, he was even more anxious than normal. “In Breaking2, everything was new to him, and this time he knows what he can expect,” Trouw told me. “This time, from the start of his training, he was confident. That’s the biggest change. He knows he can do it.”

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