As an ever increasing number of people across the world take to running citing benefits varying from the physical to the metaphysical, there is more inspiration coming from the field of long distance running. In an epic run last weekend, the current marathon world champion and world record holder Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier by a handsome 20 seconds. Whilst this wasn’t a regular race and hence the record may not get official recognition, the feat deserves attention as this piece in the NYT highlights that human endeavour combined with science and technology can break barriers hitherto considered unsurpassable.
“…It’s difficult to convey just how fast his time was. Mr. Kipchoge just ran a mile in 4 minutes and 33 seconds — 26 times. He ran at a pace of 13 miles per hour, for two hours in a row. And when it got tough toward the end, he did what he always does: He smiled.
Mr. Kipchoge’s performance has echoes of breaking the 4-minute-mile barrier in the 1950s. It’s not that we didn’t think humans would get here — scientific barriers based on round figures are fundamentally arbitrary after all. It’s that we didn’t realize it would be so soon. At the first Olympic marathon in 1896, on a shorter course than the modern marathon, only the winner finished in under three hours. As recently as last year, one expert predicted the two-hour mark wouldn’t be broken until 2028 or 2029.
So what made it possible? It’s not so different from when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest for the first time in 1953, aided by supplementary oxygen. In both cases, the requirements were extraordinary determination, outstanding physical condition — and a heavy dose of science.
But with science comes controversy. For Mr. Kipchoge, the run involved a few tricks that purists don’t tend to buy — and that violate enough rules to make it ineligible to be considered a “real” world record. (With his time of 2:01:39 at the Berlin Marathon last year, Mr. Kipchoge holds that record anyway.)
He ran with a dream team of 41 pacers from around the world, including the American Olympic medalists Matthew Centrowitz and Bernard Lagat, and the three Ingebrigtsen brothers from Norway. They were deployed by sports scientists who adapted the same technological drafting tricks used by cyclists. Five runners formed a V-shape ahead of Mr. Kipchoge, reducing drag, and two runners followed directly behind to push him forward. There was also a pace car that drove 15 meters in front of everyone, casting a laser line on the road to keep them on track.
To reap the benefits, Mr. Kipchoge had to stay exactly in the center of the formation, to the centimeter. The team traded members off every five kilometers, and he stayed under a two-hour pace for almost the entire time. They gave way for him to pass as he closed in on the finish line, fanning out into a line behind him. And then they started absolutely freaking out.
When he finished, Mr. Kipchoge compared what he’d just accomplished to man walking on the moon. It’s an apt analogy. Rather than showing what humanity is naturally capable of, his performance indicates what we can achieve with a boost from technology. For instance, Mr. Kipchoge wore an unreleased version of Nike’s special, and controversial, speed shoes, which were designed to give a significant edge to anyone racing in them. (Like a lot of runners, I have logged my fastest races in older versions of these shoes.) The shoes have enormous, spongy, springy soles. (Remember “barefoot running”? That era is over). If this performance was like walking on the moon, he was racing in the terrestrial equivalent of moon shoes.”
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