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Rowbottom: Why Nike’s New Marathon Project Could End Up Breaking More Than 2

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In this May 6, 1954, file photo, British Athlete Roger Bannister breaks the tape to become the first man ever to break the four minute barrier in the mile at Iffly Field in Oxford, England. Photo: AP Photo/File

The two-hour barrier for the marathon race has the same kind of mystique about it as did the four-minute mile before Roger Bannister became the first man to beat the latter landmark on a damp and inauspicious day in Oxford 62 years ago.

This week Nike, the US-based giant of sports shoe and apparel manufacturing, has launched an elaborate project – “Breaking2” – to propel one of three leading runners towards running the first sub two-hour marathon in 2017.

 “To help achieve this feat,” says the Q&A section attached to the press release announcing Nike’s latest pet project, “Nike is working with a diverse team bringing together world class expertise across several fields of science and sport.

“We are taking a holistic approach to athletes, product innovation, environment (so course and conditions), training, nutrition and hydration, to try reduce the existing fastest marathon time by at least 3 percent (1hr 59 mins, 59 secs).”

This latest initiative is described as a “moonshot attempt” at a sub two-hour marathon time. A curious image which brings to mind the US/Soviet race to become the first nation to plant its flag on the little ball of cheese I can see even now if I look out of my window.

Nike does indeed go on to ask itself if its effort is different from the Sub2HR project currently being championed by Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, the charismatic Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton, who is raising funds to try and bring about a sub-two hour marathon by 2019. And has been criticized by many for shooting at the moon…

The company’s answer to itself is: “Breaking2 is an independent effort that Nike is leading to break the two-hour marathon. This is the holy grail of distance running, and we are excited at the possibility of empowering our athletes to achieve this incredible goal, with our expertise and product innovation. In any sport there are a number of players, and we have developed the approach that we’re confident in.”

Lelisa Desisa, Eliud Kipchoge and Zerseney Tedese are all targeting a sub-2 hour marathon. Photo: Nike
Lelisa Desisa, Eliud Kipchoge and Zerseney Tedese are all targeting a sub-2 hour marathon. Photo: Nike

The three athletes – Nike athletes, naturally – who have been chosen to benefit from this corporate brainstorm are Kenya’s Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, Eritrea’s five-times world half marathon champion and record holder Zersenay Tadese and Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa.

So far, so marketable. But while the overall aim of the exercise is clear enough from its title the detail is curiously opaque.

“We are not disclosing the exact timing or location at this stage,” says the Q&A section. “We can say that we are hopeful the attempt will take place in 2017 and that we will announce both the location and timing in due course.”

The three athletes will have to miss competing in any of the traditional spring marathons next year – “the athletes are stepping out of the marathon circuit to train and make this attempt.” This attempt will not take place at “a sanctioned marathon event.”

So what exactly, one wonders, are the top bods at Nike going to have this trio do? Run down one of the mountains of Oregon? (Although that would certainly work headline-wise – “Two hour barrier busted at Bunchgrass Butte”, or maybe “Marathon landmark landed at Three Fingered Jack”).

Or perhaps they are going to do something imaginative in zero gravity at the NASA Space Laboratory? On a historical sporting note, watching Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard drive a golf ball for a mile or two in the reduced-gravity atmosphere of the moon has not prompted lesser earthlings to match his feat on terra firma.

Nike admits that whatever it has in mind to produce this landmark time will not be ratifiable by the International Association of Athletics Federations. “The attempt will be honest and fair, and what we learn will inform generations of runners…the actual attempt will not be an officially sanctioned world record. We believe it will show the potential to break it and enable future official times to fall.”

There is no doubt that there is something to this line of thought.

In the weeks before Bannister – referenced in the Nike promotional material – made his breakthrough his Australian rival John Landy ran three miles in 4min 2sec, commenting afterwards: “Two little seconds are not much, but when you’re on the track those 15 yards seem solid and impenetrable, like a cement wall.”

Ultimately the barrier was a mental rather than a physical one – and once the Oxford medical student had got his head around it his effort was surpassed swiftly and increasingly.

May 6, 1954 was Bannister’s day of days. He was world record holder for only a couple of months before Landy lowered the record from 3min 59.4sec to 3:58.00. And so it began. Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco has held the current record of 3:43.13 since 1999.

As far as the marathon is concerned, Dennis Kimetto’s world record time, set at the 2014 Berlin Marathon, is 2hr 2min 57sec. And so it goes on…

But here’s the thing.

Personally I have always hated prepared Q&A sheets.

The problem I have with them is twofold. Firstly, if the same people are providing questions and answers you often end up with the kind of absurdity that crops up halfway through this earnest Nike effort:

Q: “How much is Nike investing in this?”

A: “We don’t provide financial information for projects like this.”

Secondly, the questions I would want to ask never seem to get asked, never mind answered.

So here is my question for Nike. Taking on board your repeated assurances that all this is not about Nike or marketing or anything remotely like that, what do you think it would do for, or do to, marathon running to have a lab rat run a sub-two hour time?

We don’t know the detail, of course. But it sounds as if the Breaking2 project, if successful, would simply ruin the sense of achievement when a runner finally passes the finish line inside two hours on a bona fide marathon course for a bona fide world record.

By Mike Rowbottom

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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