Eliud Kipchoge applies science to his pursuit of two-hour marathon milestone | Sean Ingle

The Kenyan is foregoing the London Marathon to focus on an audacious Nike-backed unofficial world record attempt, with the two-hour barrier the target

In any other year, Eliud Kipchoge would be lining up in this Sunday’s London marathon not only as a scalding-hot favourite for a third successive victory but also with a dead eye on Dennis Kimetto’s world record of two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds. Instead the Kenyan is two weeks’ away from attempting something so extraordinary, so fantastical – so ridiculous, in fact – that it hardly seems to make sense: running 26.2 miles in under two hours.

To put that in context, that would mean running each mile in an average of four minutes and 34 seconds – seven seconds a mile quicker than Kimetto managed at Berlin in 2014. It would also be a 2.5% reduction on the current world record, and the last time that big a chunk was taken in a men’s distance race was when Ron Clarke set a world-best 10,000m in 1965.

Yet on 6 May, on the Monza Formula One track in Italy, Kipchoge is convinced that with the help of his sponsor Nike and its Breaking2 project, he can permanently ink his name into history. The date, incidentally, is significant. It was also on 6 May that Sir Roger Bannister became the first man to shatter the four-minute mile barrier. And witnesses to Kichoge’s recent training sessions at altitude – some, previously confirmed sceptics – have told the Guardian they are starting to believe he might do something extraordinary too.

However this will not qualify as an official world record approved by athletics’ governing body, the IAAF, because rules are being twisted here and there to get a faster time. There will be a small legion of pacemakers who will step in and out when required to help Kipchoge and his fellow runners, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese, draft more efficiently, thereby conserving their energy.

And rather than having to zig and zag around corners, as athletes often have to do in an inner-city marathon like London, the Monza course will offer a smoother course and better surface.

But the biggest advantage will come from Nike’s controversial Vaporfly Elite shoes, which look like a pair of foam slippers and use a special carbon fibre plate in the soles to make runners 4% more efficient than Nike’s previous fastest marathon shoe. As Dr Michael Joyner, a world-renowned exercise physiologist who works at the Mayo Clinic in the US, explains: “It is complicated but there is an energy-return element in running and if the mid-soles of the shoes are optimised they will return more energy and less will be lost in shock absorption. This then operates in concert with the leg as a sort of spring while running to improve economy. Does a 4% improvement in the lab equal 4% on the road? I’m not sure. But it can’t hurt.”

There is, however, a fierce debate over whether the Vaporfly Elites should be legal. According to the IAAF, shoes must not offer “any unfair additional assistance, including by the incorporation of any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage”. The trouble is, that definition is so woolly it is almost enforceable. How, for instance, do you define unfair? How do you define unfair?

Could these combined advantages help Kipchoge somehow shave two minutes and 58 seconds off the current marathon best? Joyner, who in 1991 wrote a paper suggesting that the limit of human performance in the marathon was probably around one hour 57 minutes, does not rule it out. “If the right person has the right day and if the drafting gets 1% and the shoes get 1% then perhaps all of these other things might get people the additional tiny bit,” he says. “However, parsing it out is tough and that they are doing a multi-faceted approach is the way to go.”

Others are less convinced. As Bedan Karoki, who recently ran 59.10 for a half-marathon, told the Guardian. “For me breaking two hours is not possible. Running a half marathon in under an hour is hard enough – after I do it I am sick – so to run the same again for me is much too difficult.”

With Adidas also funding its own sub-two-hour project there are understandable worries over where this might all lead. As the renowned sports scientist Ross Tucker, who has written extensively about the two-hour marathon, puts it: “If you start the physiological equivalent of an arms race, then people will eventually find the heavy weaponry. It’s human nature.”

Yet if anyone can do it, it is Kipchoge – an athlete who was good enough as an 18-year-old to beat Kenenisa Bekele and Hicham El Guerrouj to win a world 5,000m title in 2003 and has won seven of the eight marathons he has entered.


Even those who are sceptical of Nike’s motives admit that they will watch the Breaking2 attempt with interest. As Tucker explains: “Nike want to sell shoes – they are not in the business of donating money to research without that ulterior motive. But the means by which they achieve their intention does involve the application of some really interesting concepts.

“There’s such a clear hypothesis – faster running because of X, Y and Z. The only pity is that we will never get to see X, Y and Z in action separately, they’re all being mixed together at once. So that makes for ‘bad science’ in a sense, like trying three drugs at once to treat cancer. Which worked?

“But at a higher level, it is very interesting because it allows us to see the limit of human physiological performance in the most optimised conditions possible, and then we can compare that to what happens when those conditions are not optimised. Their hypothesis is that it is worth 2.5%. I say much less.”

Whatever happens, it certainly will not be for the want of trying. Nike has not only invested millions in sports science and technology but also paid Kipchoge lucratively too. If the Kenyan had run in London this year he would have had a six-figure appearance fee as well as a high chance of winning a $250,000 bonus from the world marathon majors. Some well-placed sources suspect he will get more than £1m for the attempt.

It is all a far cry from Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile attempt. On that day in 1954 he spent the morning doing his usual rounds at Paddington hospital before sharpening his spikes on a grindstone in a laboratory, and travelling to Oxford by train. Even then he only decided to make his attempt 30 minutes beforehand, when the wind died down. Kipchoge and Nike have had months to fine-tune their assault on what appears another impossible milestone – 63 years on, they will hope to bask inseek similar glories.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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