What Do We Make of 1:59:40?

In 2014 Runner’s World ran a story detailing what it would take to break two hours in a marathon. It listed the factors that would lend itself to such an endeavor and the qualities the runner attempting it would possess. The race would be run on a cold day (check), on a “mind-numbingly boring” course (check), with pacemakers forming a human wall (check). The runner would be 5’6″ and 120 pounds soaking wet (check), possess towering self-confidence (check), and “have access to things we can’t imagine” (big old check – more on this later). The author predicted the barrier would be broken. In 2075.

What the author, sports science writer Alex Hutchinson, did not envision, and probably could not envision at the time, was the clock-like consistency of Eliud Kipchoge. Hutchinson envisioned that the runner who would break two hours would be in his early twenties. Kipchoge broke the barrier at age 34. But the world then had not seen a runner like Kipchoge. At the time Hutchinson wrote the article, Kipchoge was on his way to finishing his fourth marathon, winning three (his one marathon loss was a second-place finish in the 2013 Berlin Marathon, won by Wilson Kipsang in then-world record time). But he was in his late twenties at that time, a peak age for distance runners who quickly stare down the inevitable decline. That he would still be winning marathons, in fact winning every marathon he’s entered since, and getting faster at the same time, would not have been easy to predict.

Now that two hours has been broken, what do we make of it? When I woke up last Saturday to the news, I was not surprised to see my running friends celebrating the accomplishment. But even friends who are not hardcore runners were aware of the accomplishment and celebrating. Much as the four-minute mile captured public attention in the 1950’s, so too was the draw and aura of running 26.2 miles in under an even two hours a cause even those who barely pay attention to running could understand and wonder at.

The press was less effusive in its praise. In his Morning Shakeout newsletter Mario Fraioli described the attempt as “engaging, inspiring, and a genuinely good show” but noted, correctly, that the level of engineering that went into the attempt made it an experiment rather than a race. Hutchinson, now writing for Outside Magazine, noted how unsurprising it felt, a compliment to Kipchoge and his consistency given that just five years ago Hutchinson was speculating that such an attempt was decades away. The Atlantic’s headline was succinct: The Greatest, Fakest World Record.

There is perhaps something lost when crossing the mythical two-hour threshold was accomplished for the first time in engineered conditions. Just as Hutchinson predicted five years ago, a wall of pacers formed a sort of reverse flying V to block the wind. A car maintained the pace and projected a laser grid that Kipchoge and his band of pacers could follow, alleviating the mental energy needed to maintain the barrier-breaking pace. The course was a flat, straight stretch of road that eliminated the concern over losing seconds to tangents. The absence of competition meant that any late drama would be confined to whether or not Kipchoge could maintain his pace during the last several miles.

There would have been a heightened sense of excitement had the barrier been broken in a race. Say Kipchoge had returned to defend his title in Berlin just a few weeks prior, he may have been naturally pushed to two hours by Kenenisa Bekele whose winning time in the race was a mere two seconds off the world record Kipchoge set there last year. But then racing is not always conducive to chasing a particular time. The hard charge down the finishing chute between Kipchoge and Bekele may never have materialized as both, and certainly Kipchoge, would have been inclined to throw in surges to break each other, a tactic that is good for racing but not necessarily good for maintaining the even pacing needed to chase a time goal.

Then there’s the shoes, the latest edition of Nike’s Vaporflys, in which Kipchoge broke the barrier (and, to add fuel to the fire, Brigid Kosgei used to break Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old women’s marathon record the next day). If there has been a consistent discussion point following Kipchoge’s run, it has been what role shoe technology plays in the sport and where the line should be drawn on how much innovation is too much innovation. Des Linden quote tweeted herself noting the lack of discussion about carbon plates in shoes. Ryan Hall added his own criticism of Kipchoge’s shoes later in the week (that he later clarified so as to not seem to knock Kipchoge’s accomplishment while maintaining his criticism of the shoes). Steve Magness wrote an interesting thread on what Vaporflys and carbon plate technology do to decrease marathon times. The attention to the shoes is needed. Linden is right: a sustained discussion about the role of carbon plates in shoes has not been had since they first hit the mainstream when Nike developed the first Vaporflys for Kipchoge’s first attempt at a sub-2 hour marathon three years ago, which they then successfully mass produced to everyday runners. That said, Nike was neither the first, nor the last to utilize the technology. Their innovation was built off of an attempt first made by Adidas. In response to Nike’s successful production, Hoka, Saucony, and Brooks all produced experimental shoes with carbon plates in them. Linden won Boston in Brooks’s prototype.

The consternation about carbon plates in shoes has several different threads. First, non-Nike athletes were reasonably concerned when only Nike athletes had access to the technology, especially technology that has been shown to save up to 4% of the effort needed to run. Were they losing to these runners because they were better or because they were wearing a certain shoe? Second, new iterations of Nike’s Vaporflys are rumored to have added more carbon plates inside an even thicker sole, leading to questions about how springy the shoes are and if they provide even more of an advantage than the first Vaporflys. Calls to ban the shoes have begun.

It is hard to imagine banning the shoe precisely because, as Linden pointed out, a conversation about carbon plates has not occurred. Banning the technology entirely would be a multi-billion dollar decision, at least if the ban extended beyond what elite runners can wear in competition. In addition, what makes this technology the line we decide to take a stand on? Have times decreased with those who are wearing Vaporflys? Yes, but then such improvements are hardly new within sports. Rubber tracks changed track and field. Fiberglass poles changed pole vaulting. Fiberglass shells changed rowing. Today we have better understanding of nutrition, recovery, strength training, all through scientific research and innovation, and competition has improved as a result. Rounding back to Alex Hutchinson, in an article he wrote for Outside Magazine in August in which he broke down newly released data from Nike on Vaporflys, noting:

If it does turn out that the Vaporfly is unusually good at protecting your legs, then it adds a twist to the debate about banning them. A key argument in favor of permitting ever-advancing sports technology is that the benefits eventually accrue to society at large: we get lighter tennis rackets and safer helmets and so on. That’s not always true: when high-tech swimsuits were banned in 2010, one reason I didn’t shed any tears was that it didn’t seem like a great loss. Squeezing into a single-use rubber corset is only worthwhile if you’re trying to win races by a fraction of second. But if the Vaporfly, in addition to boosting efficiency, helps more people run farther in greater comfort, what then?

The unambiguous solution would be to limit sole height which would likely limit the amount of curve of carbon plates in shoes and limit how many of them could be put into one shoe. Will that happen? Nike has a lot of money riding on that question and when money is involved, who knows how regulations will be handled. We may simply be entering a new era of technology in running.

So then how to do view Kipchoge’s 1:59:40? If the engineered nature of the event takes away some of the aura for you, I can understand that. There is a reason we reserve world records for competition. Competition is what brings people to the sport. I love to see the hotly-contested race, one man stretching just a little further to break the tape first, the woman who stares down the pressure and completes her final, and furthest jump to snatch the medal back from the opponent who had just out-jumped her. Yet I still appreciate what Eliud Kipchoge has done, the consistency he has brought to his marathoning. It feels, in some way, like a capstone to an impressive career, that if anyone was going to push us closer to a barrier that felt so far off only a few years ago, it would be him. It also leaves me hoping that someday soon we will get to witness that late-race drama between two men thundering down that final straightaway, chasing that first true racing attempt at breaking two hours.

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