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Inside Nike’s sub-two hour marathon attempt

Everything you to need to know about Nike's Breaking2 course, pacing strategy, weather window, world record legality, hydration and fluids system, gear, footwear and more.

Around 490 B.C., Pheidippides ran about 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of a Greek victory against the Persians. He died shortly after giving word to the people of Athens. On May 5, 1954 Roger Bannister collapsed into the arms of spectators when he became the first man to break four minutes for the mile.

Nearly 63 years to the day of Bannister’s run, Nike will carry out its audacious plan to break the two-hour marathon barrier. That sub-two mark is equivalent to running under 4:35 minutes per mile, or 14:12 minutes in consecutive 5K’s, over 26.2 miles, a race distance that Pierre de Coubertin and other founders of the Olympic Games created to honor Pheidippides.

Meet the runners competing in Nike's sub-two hour marathon attempt

With the help of advanced footwear, innovative apparel, training advancements and a specially-selected course on a Formula One circuit in Monza, just outside of Milan, Italy, Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese will make the attempt this weekend.

“I think you’re going to have an eruption,” Nike’s lead physiologist Brett Kirby says of watching this weekend’s race. “I think all of the people watching digitally, online or in the area live will see sparks fly. It’s going to be a pretty big and emotional moment.”

The three main athletes arrived in Monza earlier in the week. An army of 18 pacers, including Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat and members of the renowned Nike Bowerman Track club, has been training since Monday to work on the pacing formations and strategies that will be used in the attempt. With a flexible start date, Nike’s team of scientists and researchers have been monitoring the athletes’ taper, hydration strategies and the weather conditions for the optimal attempt.

The course and world record legality

Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese will run run a 2.405-kilometer loop about 17.5 times to cover the 26.2 mile marathon distance. The course follows the criteria set by the International Association of Athletics Federation, track and field’s governing body, with regards to elevation and the starting line and finish line separated by no more than half the total race distance.

Race and course profiles of what has resulted in fast times in races like the Berlin and London Marathons were examined before selecting Monza’s loop. Nike zoned in on the little bumps within courses that force an athlete to change the pace that’s not particularly favorable to the runner. Athletes are already toeing the line of sustaining record-setting paces and body responses to the pace fluctuations.

“With the Monza course, we worked to get very flat with no modulations or little bumps in the course. Berlin has a handful of corners and angles so the athletes end up making turns and that slows them down fractionally,” says Kirby. “For our goal of trying to break two hours, we couldn’t have any regular angles that would slow the athletes down. We worked to have wide sweeping turns on both sides.”

Nike unveils Zoom Vaporfly Elite, Vaporfly 4% for optimistic sub-two hour marathon attempt

The course will not be able to be approved a world record. Although Nike has had regular communication with the IAAF since very early on in the project and two surveyors will be present to put stamp of approval that the course is 26.2 miles, there is ratification needed for a world record. Nike’s Breaking2 project does not meet the criteria. Here’s why:

“Our race will not be ratifiable for a world record but is meeting all other criteria by the IAAF. The primary reason is because of the way we’re going to be using pacers,” says Kirby. “A runner is allowed to enter the race at any point rather than at the start line. That’s the primary and No. 1 reason why.”

As for the lack of a crowd and energy to feed off, the athletes were consulted on whether they needed a boost from cheers and they said it was not something essential. They will have some support from locals and other groups in attendance on one side of the course. On the backside of the course, it will be quiet for them to discuss strategy and how things are shaping out.

Pacing strategy

On Monday, a photo leaked on Twitter that showed 18 pacers that will be hopping in and out of the race at various points. The goal appears to be to have at least six pacers on the course at all times with Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese. In the test event, about 11 fellow East African runners were recruited to work with them.

A traditional pace car will be in front of the runners providing split times. There will be timing mats every 200 meters so the runners will receive pretty rapid feedback on how they’re doing on pacing.

Says Kirby: “In the IAAF guidelines, there’s no mention of how far a car should be from the runners but we felt in our best interest to work within the standard norms. We talked to other races and examined video so we’re going to maintain a certain distance for the athletes. Lights on the car will give them a proximity to the pace car so they have a sense of how they’re managing pace. They’re not going to be right up on it but it gives them an idea that they’re far enough back and maintaining pace OK.”

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Each pack of pacers will, on average, cover two laps before making an exchange and so their respective total distance covered is about 4.8 kilometers. They will exit and enter three at a time. 

How's that look? When it's time to change out the pacers, the lead group will make its way off the course to rest as the the secondary group from behind the three key runners will move into the lead position the fresh set of three pacers will fill in and become the secondary group in the back. 

What will they wear?

The athletes have a varying selection of products to choose from and a lot of it depends on the weather. It would likely be a knit singlet without sleeves that they practiced in back in March’s half marathon attempt. If it’s chilly, they have knit headband and arm warmer options. In the test event and in workouts, Kipchoge was seen wearing half-tights with an aerodynamic pattern. Tadese also wore the tights in the half marathon. Desisa did not and opted for short-shorts, which could have added time in addition to other struggles, as he was the lone runner that did not meet the 60-minute target and ran 62:55.

The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite is one of the key elements. Nike unveiled the shoe in March and it was met with a mix of intrigue and controversy. The Zoom Vaporfly 4% claims it offers a 4% increase in efficiency compared to other Nike marathon shoes. The shoe contains a carbon fiber plate and new foam technology. Several other elite marathoners have won major marathons wearing the Vaporfly 4% but only three versions of the Vaporfly Elite will be made and those are for Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese.

The IAAF also planned to meet and discuss whether the shoes will be considered legal because rules contain a vague mention against “any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage.”  In response to conversations about the legality of the shoe, a Nike spokeswoman said, "The VaporFly 4% meets all IAAF product requirements and does not require any special inspection or approval. The IAAF has offered public support of the innovation."

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In April, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who owns the second-fastest marathon time of all-time, failed to win the London Marathon and failed to meet his goal of potentially breaking the world record. He complained about the Nike shoes he was wearing and cited blistering that caused him to change his running style and pace. Nike released a statement saying they were the same shoes that he ran 2:03:03 at the 2016 Berlin Marathon and were looking into the issue.

Kirby says that the athletes in the Breaking2 project have been working since the fall with various versions of the Vaporfly Elites that they will race in.

“We’ve had an exploration,” Kirby says. “Each of the three athletes were given the shoe and we started tailoring it specifically to them in the fall. We brought them in, played around with the plate stiffness, got them familiar with the foam and they took a bunch of pairs home for them to give us feedback about the traction quality, on how they like the upper portion, what do they think of the plate. Little-by-little we would modify.”

“I’m certain that they’ve had their pairs for a while now and that they’ve had familiarization with that specific pair,” he added.

Hydration and fluids

In any major marathon, athletes have to pull over to the side while running and snag a bottle from a designated table. Nike believes that also adds fractions of time. There will be three different zones for the athletes on the backside of the course that are spaced about 200 meters apart. This allows for an athlete like Eliud Kipchoge to get a bottle. Someone will also be on a moped that is available to hand over a bottle if that’s preferred in the moment. If there is a separation and three athletes can’t be managed at the same time, there will be someone else to hand them a bottle.

This drink hopes to propel elite marathoners to the sub-two hour mark

Frequent drinking will be common in the attempt to try to intake different carbohydrates. For Desisa, for example, he wasn’t as familiar with this amount of fueling so it was a change that came with the attempt. The three athletes have been working for several months with the solutions that they will be taking in the race. Nike would not specify on the products. Maurten, a drink from a Swedish-based startup, has been taken by several of the recent marathon major winners and is publicly available for the likes of Kipchoge.

“I don’t think that’s an avenue that we needed to pursue,” Kirby says. “The guys have had a good tolerance level to what we offered. What we’ve been offering has done a good job of maintaining the sugar levels in the muscle.”

The weather forecast will also play a role in the intake.

Weather window

The perfect conditions would be 45 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Monza is located in the northeast section of Milan. It is about 600 feet above sea level and features low humidity at this time of the year. As of Wednesday afternoon, the two-hour attempt calls for a chance of rain on Saturday with a high of 69 degrees on the day. The high for Sunday is 74 degrees with some cloud cover.

Drug testing

Stories of corruption and doping have clouded the sport for years. Last month, Kenya's Jemima Sumgong tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition test just months after she won a gold medal in the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. When Nike announced the Breaking2 project, questions regarding how much drug testing the athletes would undergo were asked. Nike

"Nike does not condone the use of performance enhancing drugs in any manner," a spokeswoman told SI. "In addition, we will be working with the Italian Athletics Federation to manage event-day testing protocols, utilizing a process similar to what is followed in all major marathons."

No specific number of drug tests for Desisa, Kipchoge and Tadese were disclosed by Nike. 

The sportswear company noted that the athletes "are tested regularly as part of standard IAAF protocol. The IAAF protocol is confidential and handled directly by their organization. Nike is not informed when this testing is done."

The Sub2 Project, an independently science-focused attempt to break the two-hour marathon barrier, is headed by University of Brighton in England sports scientist and professor Yannis Pitsiladis. His team has a section on their website dedicated to anti-doping that states their athletes will comply by national governing body and IAAF doping regulations as well as a statement that says, "In order to prevent any doubts on the performances of the athletes involved, an anti-doping program will be established that complements and strengthens the existing frameworks."

More transparency from Nike would be beneficial to spectators. The niche sport of running doesn't need to deal with the crisis of the first man to break two hours for the marathon later getting popped for doping. 

When and how can I watch?

The Breaking2 attempt is scheduled for Saturday, May 6, at 5:45 a.m. Milan time, or11:45 p.m. ET on Friday night. Nike is providing a live stream on its website. The Nike social media channels on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube will also be streaming the event.

The back-up plan

When asked about falling short or opting to just break Kimetto’s world record as a fallback option, Kirby elected to focus on the main goal of the day.

“Our primary objective is to go after the two-hour mark. The guys and all of us will be targeting that regardless. If the pace ends up slowing, we’ll have the guys keep on truckin’ to try to do it,” Kirby says. “If for whatever reason an athlete is slowing or going through a bad patch but would like to re-pick up the pace to try and catch up on lost time, we will allow for that scenario to happen. We’re going to play it as it comes and go for the primary goal.”

What it will take to run a sub-two-hour marathon

Dr. Michael Joyner, an exercise physiology and human performance expert at the Mayo Clinic, puts the possibility of someone breaking two-hours anywhere between 5% and 15% depending on the weather. In 1992, Joyner, estimated that the physiological limit for a man in the marathon was 1:57:58 but later told SI that he was just hoping to see it in his lifetime.

“I would put the over-under at 2:01:30, that’s my best guess. You know, maybe 2:01:20,” says Joyner. “And then I think there’s a 5 or 10%, maybe a 15% chance, that they break 2:00:00.

“But then again what were the odds that Donald Trump was going to win? What were the odds that Brexit was going to win? And what were the odds with 15 minutes to go in the Super Bowl that the New England Patriots were going to win?”