Friday night on a racetrack in Italy (or Saturday morning there), three distance runners for Nike attempted to achieve a feat many have long thought impossible: the 2-hour marathon.
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya fell 26 seconds short of the 2-hour mark. Kipchoge smashed the official world record by 2 1/2 minutes, but his run will not be on the books.
What Nike is calling the Breaking2 project culminated in Monza, Italy, when Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese ran for it.
Scientists and runners have long questioned whether a 2-hour marathon is within reach — even in near-perfect conditions, which Nike attempted to create in Italy.
For now, that question remains. Though the experiment fell short of its goal, it cracks the door open just a little wider in determining the boundaries of human performance.
The stakes are high — especially for big-time shoe companies in Oregon. As distance running gained mass appeal in the later part of the century, athletic wear companies like Nike and Adidas glommed onto the sport.
As mentioned, many still think the 2-hour marathon is impossible. And sports scientists and athletic wear companies have invested a lot in proving that assumption false.
Any time an athlete breaks a world record, a premier marketing opportunity is born. (Think Michael Johnson and the golden shoes.)
What’s so important about 2 hours?
On May 6, 1954, Sir Roger Bannister of England broke the 4-minute mile, which was at the time seen as running’s pinnacle achievement. But runners soon cracked the 4-minute mark on a relatively regular basis.
Running needed a new goal.
The 2-hour marathon quickly became the sport’s holy grail. The marathon world record fell precipitously from the start of the century and slowed shortly after Bannister’s sub-four mile.
In 1908, the International Association of Athletics Federations (or IAAF) listed the marathon world record at 2:55:18.4. It fell more than 40 minutes in the next 50 years.
In nearly 60 years since then, runners have chipped and scratched just about 12 minutes off the world record. That’s a pretty dramatic slowdown.
But three minutes still doesn’t seem like a lot of time to cut.
True, three minutes doesn’t seem like much. But think of it this way:
Dennis Kimetto of Kenya holds the world record at 2:02:57. Kimetto’s record-setting pace was a blistering 4 minutes, 41 seconds per mile. In order to break two hours, he’d have to shave 7 seconds per mile off his pace.
Try it yourself! Go outside, run a mile and record your time. Then do it again but 7 seconds faster. Seven seconds is a lot of time in distance running.
Two University of Oregon researchers told news wire Reuters they think humans can run 26.2 miles in less than two hours.
But they disagreed on whether a runner will beat the mark Friday. UO Bowerman Sports Science Clinic director Mike Hahn told Reuters he didn’t think Nike would break the barrier this weekend. UO Ph.D. student Evan Day disagreed, predicting a winning time of 1:59:59.
Whoever is the first to run 26.2 miles in fewer than two hours (and whichever company sponsors that athlete) will claim a major victory.
Scientists, engineers and footwear designers — many in Oregon — will keep plugging away until the barrier is broken. Then it’s on to the next so-called impossibility.
There’s a book about all this. Ed Caesar’s “Two Hours” takes a deep dive into running’s relentless quest for the 2-hour marathon.