The attempt was beautiful to watch, and a thrilling achievement in itself. But, despite the hype, despite the shoes, despite the millions of dollars of investment, despite the rigorous application of the latest scientific thinking and biomechanical analysis, and despite the mammoth effort of Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s best marathon runner, Nike’s much-publicized attempt to break the two-hour marathon mark came up short this morning at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza outside Milan, Italy. It was a close-run thing, but the two-hour marathon remains unbroken, for now, with Kipchoge finishing his marathon in 2 hours and 25 seconds.
The three elite runners chosen for what Nike christened the Breaking2 project — Kipchoge of Kenya, Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia — were set to race 26.2 miles around 17.5 laps of the junior circuit at Monza, all wearing Nike’s controversial and undeniably fast new shoe, the Vaporfly Elite. The race began at 5:45 am local time, in darkness, in front of around 700 spectators and with the runners attended by a pace car, which shot out a green laser line to guide a retinue of all-star pacemakers including Bernard Lagat.
One of the key innovations of the Breaking2 initiative has been its pacing structure, a blockading diamond of six pacers to shield the runner from wind, which has been tested in wind tunnels to be the most advantageous to a following runner. A total of 30 pacers were split into teams of 3 runners, who each were instructed to run 4.8 km at two-hour pace, three times. (There were also pacers held back to help contenders who dropped behind.) These teams of three flowed in and out of a diamond formation in a transition area at the top of the home straightaway. (Because the three elite athletes contesting Breaking2 ran with a roster of interchangeable pacemakers, which violates IAAF regulations, Kipchoge’s run will not become an official world record. The current world record for the marathon still stands at 2.02.57, set in Berlin in 2014, by Dennis Kimetto, also of Kenya.)
The three athletes settled quickly into a reverse diamond behind the pacing pack. It quickly became obvious, however, that Lelisa was struggling to live with the tempo. He dropped out of contention within half an hour of racing, leaving only Tadese and Kipchoge at the front. By halfway, only Kipchoge, decked in bright red, was on pace for two hours.
Until around 20 miles, that’s where he stayed. And people around the track began to believe that he really might run under two hours. But then nature, and the laws of human physiology, took its course. He began to suffer for the electrifying pace of his early miles, as lactic acid began to flood his muscles, and his body burned like an oven. His split times drifted by a second or so a mile. One can only imagine it felt like to be Eliud Kipchoge in those long minutes. Grimaces that looked like smiles started to creep across his usually impassive face, and the speed at which his legs turned over decreased, ever so slightly. It became obvious by the final lap that Kipchoge was not going to break two hours. It was equally obvious that his run was already a triumph.
Everything seemed set fair for the attempt this morning. I witnessed one of Kipchoge’s last training sessions in Kenya in April: a 12 x 1,200-meter speedwork set where he burned a number of seriously talented training partners, including the current world half-marathon and cross-country champion. It reminded me of the stories of Mike Tyson in his prime, knocking out sparring partner after sparring partner. Kipchoge’s twelfth and final rep, on a running track at 7,053 feet of elevation, was significantly faster than two-hour marathon pace.
But there were complicating factors at Monza. The weather — one of the key factors for a successful attempt on any marathon world record — was not quite perfect. Heat matters. The bodies of elite marathon runners get extraordinarily hot. They can sweat up to one or two liters an hour in a race. At the 2007 Berlin Marathon, Haile Gebrselassie lost around ten per cent of his body weight between the start and the end of the race. Running the race at a temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit or lower was going to be paramount. On Saturday morning, it was 53 degrees. (Jos Hermens, Kipchoge’s manager, worried that humidity of more than 70 percent might scupper his star’s chances; humidity was measured at 79 percent.)
It’s worth noting that these are not unusual temperatures for Monza in early May. The team of scientists at Nike deliberated for months about course selection, with no course seemingly offering a perfect combination of factors. Eventually, they chose Monza for a variety of understandable reasons, including its flatness and elevation profile. What the world learned today was that a slightly bumpier or curvier course in slightly cooler temperatures might have suited their purposes better — if such a course exists.
But all of that nearly didn’t matter. In my mind, and in the minds of most people who have worked on and observed this project, there was only ever going to be one runner who could break two hours: Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic champion. And, in the end, he was the only one who came close and the only one who showed that a two-hour marathon is actually possible.
As the finish line approached, Kipchoge somehow found the strength to summon a finishing kick, stopping the clock 25 seconds outside his goal. After halting briefly, he ran toward his coach, Patrick Sang, who embraced him like a son, and then he lay down on the track for a few long seconds, to catch his breath.
Less than five minutes after he finished the race, Kipchoge said, with characteristic understatement, “I was aiming for 1.59, but I’m happy to run two hours in [a] marathon.”
And he is already talking about at his next attempt at two hours.
“The world is only 25 seconds away,” he said.