In his attempt to be the first man to run a marathon in less than two hours, Eliud Kipchoge ran the Breaking2 marathon in 2 hours and 24 seconds.
MONZA, Italy -- The golden rule, well known among runners, is relatively simple — nothing new on race day.
But for a trio of elite marathoners aiming to make history, that axiom provides a complex challenge for Nike’s Breaking2 team.
Early Saturday morning in Italy, conditions permitting, the work of that team will be put to the test as Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa attempt to become the first to break 2 hours in the marathon.
The event will be available to watch on a livestream on Nike's Breaking2 Facebook page.
Supported by a Nike effort that for months has sought to best control the variables that can impact performance, the Breaking2 athletes will make their attempt in 17.5 laps around the Formula One track in Monza, Italy.
“I feel really good about the preparation for going into it with the exposure,” said Brett Kirby, Nike Sport Research Lab researcher and lead physiologist on the Breaking2 team.
“We’ve shown them almost everything, so I think in their minds, it’s nothing new. It’s game day.”
Nike announced the ambitious goal in December, aiming for a time that would reduce the current world record of 2:02:57 set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto by about 2.4 percent.
Step one was testing and selecting the athletes.
Kipchoge is a four-time Olympic medalist, most recently winning gold in the marathon in Rio. The 32-year-old Kenyan ran his best time – 2:03:05 – in winning the London Marathon last year.
Tadese, 35, is a five-time world half-marathon champion, holding a world record of 58:23 in that event. He is a four-time Olympian, with his 10,000-meter bronze in 2004 making him the first Eritrean Olympic medalist.
And Desisa, who is from Ethiopia, is a two-time Boston Marathon champion. At 27, he is the youngest of the Breaking2 athletes, and his personal best is a 2:04:45 marathon in Dubai in 2013.
After selecting the athletes, Nike’s team sought to control as many other variables as it could and simulated how the race would go at a half-marathon test event on the track in March.
In addition to designing a signature shoe, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, and apparel, the Breaking2 team focused on the science.
For the test event, the runners wore skin censors and swallowed a core body temp sensor to provide data. Because heat limits marathon performance, Kirby said the Nike team sought to determine how well the athletes would manage it.
The Monza track was selected for many reasons, including its surface and length, but the location offers good conditions, with typically overcast skies and a targeted temp around 54 degrees.
“One of the cool things is nobody had ever had such information or data on the athletes, so we saw how strong all three of the athletes are at managing their heat,” said Kirby. “They really have a large ability to dissipate that heat.”
That data allowed the Breaking2 team to tinker with their hydration strategy for each athlete, and the event allowed them to configure just how they will get liquids to the runners.
Because grabbing water from a table can cost a half-second or more, the athletes will get their water bottles in an exchange zone via handoff from Breaking2 scientists on a moped.
Most importantly, that test event affirmed the need to have pacers present.
Nike plans to have a six pacers on the track at a time in a triangular formation with the Breaking2 athletes behind them. Those six will come from a pool of 18 pacers, with more reserves if needed, who will cycle in and out three at a time approximately every 5 kilometers.
“The pacers help with motivation. It helps with camaraderie,” said Kirby. “It helps with maintaining steady pace, and it helps with minimizing air resistance as well, what we might call drafting. When the athlete was alone, the athlete has to use more oxygen to maintain the same speed, so in theory it’s just harder for that athlete.”
Because the attempt will rely on pacers, it’s not eligible to be a world record time (should any of the runners top the current mark) but would be a world best.
As the athletes and the Nike team prepared to head to Monza last week, Kirby said they were still figuring out with the runners and their coaches if they would attempt to run a negative split – or faster as the race went on.
It’d only be a difference of about 5 seconds in either direction.
At the test event, Kipchoge (59:17) and Tadese (59:41) ran unofficial times, which were reported by Runner’s World, that put them in good shape for the attempt, while Desisa ran 62:55.
That event was more of a test of the variables the athletes would face on race day rather than a measure of their fitness.
The Breaking2 team knows it will be a challenge, one that requires the athletes to run each mile 7 seconds faster than the current world record pace.
“To us, in some sense, there’s no true failure. The only failure for us would be to not actually try to do it, to not dare it, to not get to the start line,” said Kirby.
“This whole thing is the journey of exploration. All the athletes, including our team, says, we want to explore the unknown. These three athletes have never tried to do this, and they’re equally as excited.”
Nike announced a 5:45 a.m. local (8:45 p.m. PDT) start time. It has a three-day window to adjust if conditions don’t allow the attempt to be run that day.
While the work has been rewarding and challenging – for everyone from the apparel designer to the scientists – it’s an ambitious attempt they were glad to take on.
“Nike is trying to enable them to be the best they can be,” said Kirby. “But the three guys are the guys that will be running it. We just have to remember they’re the guys that are really going to make it happen.”
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