Sometime in May, if all goes as planned, three elite runners with sparkling résumés — a two-time Boston Marathon champion, an Olympic gold medalist, and a world record-holder — will toe the starting line of an unconventional road race on an Italian auto racing track, part of a meticulously planned effort by Nike to break one of the more durable barriers in running.
Nike is going to extraordinary lengths to concoct ideal running conditions for a try at a sub-two-hour marathon. The runners will use pacers to keep on time, drafting techniques to reduce wind resistance, and they will wear a prototype shoe that Nike says improves running performance through technology.
Claims that the new racing shoe delivers better running economy — a measure of the energy used in the race — have some experts anticipating that Kenyan marathoner Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57 could be beaten, and maybe the two-hour barrier could fall.
The shoes have also generated questions over whether they comply with the rules of the sport, and, less tangibly, whether techy performance boosters in sports equipment violate the spirit of competition.
“Philosophically, is this the right thing to do?” said Brad Stulberg, a columnist for New York and Outside magazines and a researcher on the science of human performance. “It comes down to that ‘spirit of the sport’ argument, which is hard to define and kind of gray.”
Speed suits that made swimmers faster have been banned, he said. But bike advances that make cyclists faster have been allowed. Major League Baseball says no to aluminum bats. Track and field said yes to replacing slow cinder tracks with faster surfaces.
“What’s really interesting is that this is so arbitrary,” Stulberg said. “It’s such a hodgepodge.”
When some marathoner eventually does crack two hours, he’ll likely be celebrated alongside running’s most famous barrier breaker, Roger Bannister, still revered 63 years after becoming the first person to run a mile in under than four minutes.
And the company that provides the shoe for the first sub-2:00 marathon will enjoy one of the biggest marketing opportunities the sport has ever seen, said Steve Magness, running coach, exercise physiologist and author of “The Science of Running.”
“Running only gets to the masses every once in a while: the Boston Marathon, the Olympic Games,” Magness said. “This would be probably 50 times the exposure because it’s such a big barrier. The marketing [value] would be insane for a shoe company.”
No records in Boston
Matthias Amm, category director for global running at Adidas, said it is “very important” for the shoemaker that the two-hour barrier be broken in Adidas shoes.
“We are a sports company; we’re very competitive,” he said in a phone interview from Germany. “We want to help our athletes win marathons and then also to be the first to achieve” a sub-2:00 marathon.
Adidas debuted a new performance-assisting prototype in February at the Tokyo Marathon. Wearing the Adidas Adizero Sub2, Kenyan superstar Wilson Kipsang won the race in 2:03:58, which is extremely fast though still more than a minute off the world record.
Amm claimed the shoe’s new midsole foam returns more energy — basically adds a bit more spring to their step — and makes a runner more efficient. The shoe is also lighter than earlier shoes, and has special grippy soles designed to reduce slippage.
“Those are the three things that make the shoe special, that will give our athletes a performance benefit to run faster times,” he said.
Nobody will be wearing the shoe in this year’s Boston Marathon, he said. Boston is not eligible for the world record under International Association of Athletics Federations rules because the start and finish are too far apart and the course loses too much elevation.
Amm suggested the shoe will next be seen on the feet of elite runners in the big fall marathons; a good bet would be Berlin in September, a fast course on which the current world record was set in 2014. The shoe will go on sale by the end of the year, he said.
How soon can it happen?
Experts disagree on whether a sub-2:00 marathon is possible in the near term. Trimming about three minutes from the current world record might not sound like much over a 26.2-mile race, but it took 16 years for the record to drop roughly three minutes from 2:06:05 to the current mark, and it only gets more difficult as the record gets lower. A sub-2:00 marathon this year would be astounding.
Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic doctor who studies human performance, said he believes a runner will break 2:02 “in the next few years.”
“And then, as I like to say, the fun begins,” he said.
In 1991, Joyner published a now-famous paper suggesting that the fastest possible marathon would be 1:57:58. Twenty-six years later, he said in an email, “I would stand by my estimate, but the caveat should be that it was a thought exercise to identify new questions for research.”
Back when he wrote his paper, scientists knew more about oxygen transport and metabolism than they did about running economy.
“The shoe companies are clearly focused on the efficiency element of the equation,” said Joyner. “So I guess I nailed where the gaps in knowledge were.”
Magness, the coach and author, believes “we are still a substantial ways away from two hours.” A 1:59:59 marathon represents “a 25- to 30-year jump into the future,” he said.
But Wouter Hoogkamer, a researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has theorized that a two-hour marathon is possible today, if the right techniques are combined under perfect running conditions.
For one, you have to start with the fastest marathoners in the world — men capable of running 2:04 or better under normal conditions. The runners should take turns drafting off each other to reduce wind resistance and save energy, he said.
And then there are the shoes.
Hoogkamer’s lab performed tests for Nike on the company’s new Zoom Vaporfly shoe, and they suggested that the shoes make a runner 4 percent more economical. He said Nike paid for the study, which will be published soon.
The shoe appears to provide the benefits through a new foam and a carbon fiber plate running the length of the shoe. Some experts have questioned whether the carbon plate provides a spring-like effect, and, if so, whether it is legal under IAAF rules. Nike has insisted it is legal. Retail versions of the shoe will be released in June.
Running efficiency is like gas mileage. Being 4 percent more efficient means a runner should have more in the tank to go a little faster.
“Based on the review we wrote, that 4 percent improvement would definitely be enough to get under two hours,” said Hoogkamer, assuming the runner is capable of approaching the current world record in normal shoes.
The Nike lineup
The Nike runners who will push for 2:00 next month are among the best.
Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia has run 2:04:45. He won Boston in 2013 and 2015.
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya has run the third-fastest marathon ever on a qualifying course, at 2:03:05. He won the men’s marathon at the 2016 Olympics.
And Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea is the world record-holder in the half-marathon at 58:23.
Nike has said the race will not meet all the requirements for an official world record, the New York Times has reported.
Hoogkamer is not predicting the 2:00 barrier will fall, but said, “I think it is possible based on the [efficiency] savings we’ve seen in those shoes. They’re going to apply the drafting and have pacemakers.
“They’re using several strategies to come as close as they can. It’s all going to come down to how good of a shape the runners are in that day.
“Theoretically, they have a fair shot.”