Roughly a week after the action ends at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the world record holder in the marathon – Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge – is scheduled to attempt running the 42.2km distance in less than two hours. No human has yet managed to do a sub two-hour marathon.
The event called `INEOS 1:59 Challenge’ is the second such attempt by Kipchoge. The first was a project by Nike called `Breaking 2,’ held at a race track in Italy in May 2017, when Kipchoge managed a time of 2:00:25. It remains unofficially the fastest time so far for a marathon; it didn’t merit official recognition as world record by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for several reasons including the use of a battery of pacers. Same would be the case with INEOS 1:59. Variables have been weeded out for singular pursuit of timing. A suitable course has been selected in Vienna, Austria and a window of select days – originally October 12-20, 2019 and since narrowed to October 12-14 – shortlisted to stage the attempt when conditions are most favorable.
In his diary entries ahead of the challenge (available on the event website) Kipchoge has acknowledged that while his preparation for the event is similar to his preparation for any marathon, he is new to Vienna and will need “ a day or so’’ to get used to the city. He has seen pictures and videos of the course but will need to jog there once or twice to imprint it in his mind. He says that he didn’t sleep a wink before Breaking 2. This time, he hopes to catch some sleep before embarking on the challenge. But a couple of aspects about INEOS 1:59 make it distinct from previous runs. Usually you know the exact date of a run. Here, you don’t. “ I will need to have a flexible mindset, while also preparing as though I am competing on October 12,’’ Kipchoge says on the website. Further, unlike Breaking 2 where he had two runners – Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia – competing with him, in Vienna, Kipchoge will be competing with himself.
He will have pacers. The list, as available on the event’s website is long: Thomas Ayeko (Uganda), Selemon Barega (Ethiopia), Emmanuel Bett (Kenya), Hillary Bor (USA), Mande Bushendich (Uganda), Matthew Centrowitz (USA), Paul Chelimo (USA), Augustine Choge (Kenya), Victor Chumo (Kenya), the Ingebrigtsen brothers – Filip, Henrik and Jakob (Norway), Philemon Kacheran (Kenya), Stanley Kebenei (USA), Justus Kimutai (Kenya), Shadrack Kichirchir (USA), Noah Kipkemboi (Kenya), Gideon Kipketer (Kenya), Jacob Kiplimo (Uganda), Marius Kipserem (Kenya), Eric Kiptanui (Kenya), Moses Koech (Kenya), Shadrach Koech (Kazakhstan), Micah Kogo (Kenya), Alex Korio (Kenya), Jonathan Korir (Kenya), Ronald Kwemoi (Kenya), Bernard Lagat (USA), Lopez Lomong (USA), Abdallah Mande (Uganda), Stewart Mcsweyn (Australia), Kota Murayama (Japan), Ronald Musagala (Uganda), Kaan Kigen Ozbilen (Turkey), Jack Rayner (Australia), Chala Regasa (Ethiopia), Brett Robinson (Australia), Nicholas Rotich (Kenya), Patrick Tiernan (Australia), Timothy Toroitich (Uganda) and Julien Wanders (Switzerland). Some of these athletes were in action at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha.
During the event, there will be a car in front of Kipchoge setting an accurate pace for the run and maybe (as some reports suggested), providing benefit of draft. Draft or none, the car is critical and its selection provides insight on the battle with variables when a single attribute – in this case 1:59 hours – has to be chased in isolation. The reason the car came in is because the best way to run a fast marathon is to sustain an even pace. Runners including Kipchoge, have the tendency to vary their pace over the duration of a marathon. This must be avoided as far as possible when the quest is sub-two, margin for error is thin and difference by a few seconds can impact final outcome. As they set about looking for the right car, the organizing team discovered that the cruise control systems on cars were not 100 per cent accurate. So specialists were engaged. The eventual choice was an electric vehicle. That was also because it helps the runners run behind without worry of breathing in harmful engine emissions. Finally, for redundancy, a second vehicle will also be on stand-by, the event’s website said.
All this raises the question – if it is so complicated, if so many variables have to be managed, then why have the sub-two attempt at all? Doesn’t it become too synthetic?
The answer to that lay in the sheer magnetic pull of dipping below two hours for a full marathon, something no person has done before. The publicity pitch for the event likens it to man reaching the moon. Not everyone agrees. In August 2019, CNN reported that Professor Ross Tucker of South Africa (he was an expert witness in Caster Semenya’s hearing at the Court of Arbitration of Sports in 2019) found the comparisson contrived. The crux of the argument relates to setting an utterly impartial baseline to decide athletic performance. Within that concern, fingers were pointed at advancements in shoe technology with models like Nike’s Vaporfly four per cent promising a quicker pace to its wearer. They are totally legal. But the shoe featuring carbon fiber plate and special mid-sole foam provides the athlete an element of unnatural advantage.
“ According to Tucker, a runner expelling four percent less oxygen for the same energy output is able to improve on his or her performance by 2.5 percent at the elite level. Over the course of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.2km) – this could translate to as much as two minutes,’’ the CNN article said. However other studies – there was one reported by Runners World in February 2019, involving a team of researchers from University of Colorado Boulder – show that four per cent energy saved with such shoes needn’t necessarily translate into a four per cent faster run. The runner’s height and weight as well the air resistance encountered, matter.
All this technology is construed as altering the baseline for deciding human athletic performance and comparing it. As Tucker argued in the CNN article – to reach the moon, man had an unalterable baseline to surpass; gravity. A controlled run in pursuit of sub-two with technology like the above for company, is akin to claiming a marathon record on Mars.
Notwithstanding such perspective, curiosity for the sub-two marathon will always be there. And along with it, the marketing leverage it provides. As it is, without dipping below two hours and running along with other marathoners at an established event like the Berlin Marathon, the world’s two fastest timings so far in the discipline – 2:01:39 by Kipchoge (Berlin 2018) and 2:01:41 by Ethiopia’s Kenenise Bekele (Berlin 2019) – are in a league by themselves. The pace therein, sustained over 42.2 kilometers, is beyond the reach of most runners.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)