Last week, Olympic champion and world record holder Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya became the first man to run a marathon inside 2 hours, when he achieved the time of 1:59.40 in Vienna.
The quest to run a marathon inside two hours began five years ago when Yannis Pitsiladis – a professor of sport science with the University of Brighton – launched his own sub-2 project. Pitsiladis was present in Vienna when Kipchoge crossed the line. “But in the 20-25,000 people there, I probably was the only one to realise what really was going on,” he says.
In an interview with The Indian Express, Pitsiladis explains why he considers this as a ‘fake sub-2 marathon’ and talks about his plan to achieve the feat within the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules.
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You were there when Eliud crossed the line. What were your emotions at that moment?
I was excited about the fact that people around me were excited. But I was watching the achievement of a “fake” sub-2 marathon. People were cheering along, getting all excited watching something that was fabricated. I am not taking away anything from the athlete. I have known Eliud for many years and this attention could not have happened to a better person. He probably does believe he created history because in and around him, people have been playing that narrative again and again. But he did not break the two-hour marathon barrier – he ran the distance of a marathon in less than two hours under contrived conditions. They [INEOS] kept on comparing his success to Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile but there’s no comparison to that feat. It is the best marketing of a shoe ever done in history and paid by a philanthropist/businessman.
You have been obsessed with the idea of breaking the two-hour barrier for years. Can you talk about your journey and how this project has evolved?
The real story of the two-hour marathon began in 1991 when a scientist named Michael Joyner tried to find out how fast a human could run a marathon. He modelled that if an athlete had the highest ever VO2 max (a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during intense exercise), the best ever recorded running economy and the highest ever recorded anaerobic threshold (the intensity where one can sustain moderate levels of lactate), they could run in approximately 1 hour and 58 minutes. That was in 1991.
Then, nothing happened for a number of years. In 2008, I was providing sport science support to the legendary Haile Gebrselassie supported by his management Global Sports Communication and we set the world record in the Berlin marathon (a time of 2:03:59). During my time in East Africa I had witnessed the lack of any sports science and medicine (athletes were simply left to their own devices) and there was also the doping problem. So, I could not resist imagining, like we had done with Haile and others before that (e.g. Double Gold for Kenenisa Bekele in the Osaka World Championships in 2007 and Beijing Olympics in 2008) how fast could these athletes run if they were supported with the very best sports science and medicine as a legacy and alternative to drugs. I even tried to get Haile to support the project – cost then $1million – he was interested but wanted his manager, Jos Hermens to pay this.
Eventually, in 2014, in discussions with Jos Hermens (Bekele, Haile and Kipchoge’s manager and Founder of Global Sports Communication). I convinced Jos to support me to launch the sub-2 project and in the process, we could try and find the money. That is what we did. In December 2014 we launched the project. In 2015 and 2016, we both toured the globe in search of funding from different companies (e.g., Red Bull, Nike, etc). And in 2016, when we were at the Berlin marathon, at the breakfast table just prior to the race, sitting with Jos and a few others from Global Sports as well as the great Kenenisa Bekele we all read in the German press that Nike and Global Sports were launching the Breaking-2 project. I was shocked and disappointed. After confronting Jos it transpired Nike loved the project but wanted to do it without me. When asked why I was told it was due to the fact that my narrative would detract from the objectives of the new project. We now all know that Breaking2 was a great marketing project for Nike’s new shoe – the 4%. So Breaking-2 and Ineos-2 have nothing to do with the objectives of the original sub-2 marathon idea.
What will an ideal sub-2 marathon be like?
So I got to be careful about what I say to maintain our competitive advantage – I have learnt this the hard way given how many of the innovations we advertised were adopted by Breaking2 and INEOS. So without getting into details (time will reveal all), we would do it within the rules of the sport and respect the rules. This is the primary philosophy of the sub-2 project – this does not exclude possibilities of experiments such as the kind done by Nike and INEOS. A sub-2 attempt will have to be done on a course that is certified by the IAAF. It has to be competitive. It has to have full anti-doping cover. We need to respect as well the issue of pace-making and have great ideas how to deal with this issue, but not by having pacemakers coming in and out of the competition – that would be against the rules. We would also respect the rules on clothing, shoes, etc.
To do that, you would need a few obvious things. One, we would need a fast course – like Berlin, it is an excellent course. But we know how we can make the Berlin course faster; we know how to do that but I am not going to get into the details now. But we will also create our own sub-2 courses and run races around the globe – re-invent the marathon craze of the early 1900s. We also need to incentivise athletes and their managers in a way that is advantageous to a great number of athletes running faster together. Again, I will not get into how we would do that. There are some other innovations, which will allow this to happen within the rules but again best this is kept secret.
Steve Magness, the high-performance coach, said the shoes helped all the runners shave off considerable time. There have been talks about pacemakers as well. What did you make of all the factors that were into play that day?
Steve is absolutely correct. The biggest factor that we saw in Vienna was indeed the shoe. Until they make the shoe available for the scientific community to inspect or they publish their own data (I doubt they will), we won’t know the magnitude of impact of the shoe. Based on the literature that already exists, the previous version of the shoe provided in some individuals up to six percent benefit in running the economy. So given that, and also the fact that the shoe was designed specifically for Eliud, this prototype may be more than that – a performance benefit of 3 or 4 minutes.
Pacemakers made a small impact but probably not more than 90 seconds. I think the pacing aspect was over-emphasised – again we would need to see the data if ever released. If you compare Monza (where a sub-two was first attempted in 2017) and Vienna, Kipchoge would also have benefited about 25-30 second may be more from the fans. Monza had no fans; they learnt lessons from that. When the marathon gets hard, which is about at 35km, the crowd can really make a big difference. At the same time, Eliud was convinced he was making history, the crowd was believing as well, so maybe that got him to drop a minute or so – belief is very powerful. The drink he used also assisted him. The weather was perfect too along with the road surface, which was redone recently by the INEOS team, making it an ideal surface to get the maximum benefit from the shoe.
If they’d run within the rules, what would the projected timings be?
Within the rules of the sport, Eliud would probably run in the region of 2 hours and 3 minutes or just under that maybe. If you take away the Nike shoe and replace it with the Adidas Adizero that Haile (Gebrselassie) used when he broke the world record in Berlin (2008), we could have ended up seeing anywhere between 2:02 and 2:03.
But Eliud has run 2:01 earlier within rules…
He ran 2:01.39 (in 2018) with the previous version of the shoe from the same manufacturer in Berlin, which I thought was a remarkable and great race. In the last 20 km or so, he ran by himself without any pacemakers so he did an incredible job. But what we saw in Vienna, going almost 2 minutes faster, was because of all the other factors we spoke about. So this was not superhuman. I was so convinced it would happen that I had mentioned in the British press that only a meteorite could’ve stopped him from doing it. I don’t wish to take anything away from Eliud. He still had to run for 2 hours the distance of 42.2 km. A remarkable man, a remarkable athlete but he ran under contrived conditions like running downhill. And that’s the point.
There are arguments over Roger Bannister’s shoes as well. But a couple of months after he set the record, it was bettered and since then, it has no longer been a hurdle. Do you think this will have a similar impact?
What I hope is that this fake sub-2 will motivate a true sub-2, as a real sporting spectacle rather than a fake set-up. If the athletes and managers are left to their own devices, without innovations and “out of the box” thinking, I don’t believe I will see a sub-2 within the rules in my lifetime. Will it motivate someone else to attempt another fake sub-2 and make it faster? I don’t think there is any incentive for great athletes to do this “circus act” again. Athletes like Eliud will be more interested to break records that matter and will have real historical value.