This weekend, Nike will stage an intriguing human experiment with the hopes of breaking the two-hour barrier for the marathon. Using a combination of advanced running apparel and an army of pacers on a 2.4-kilometer loop at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex just outside of Milan, Italy, the sportswear giant looks to shave two minutes and 27 seconds off the fastest recorded time ever run by a man.
Dennis Kimetto currently owns the world record with his 2:02:57 victory at the 2014 Berlin Marathon. He is an Adidas athlete and has struggled with injuries in the past two years, so no sub-two hour marathon attempt has been tied to him, but his sponsor is working on its own sub-two shoe after having outfitted the last four world record holders.
Nike has taken the largest step forward in the sub-two arms (and footwear) race by staging the attempt under its own parameters and enlisting Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese tackle one of the biggest queries of elite running.
The athletes have been in Monza since about Monday morning. A photo leaked on Twitter of one of the strategists explaining the pacing plan for 18 runners—which includes Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat and elites from the renowned Nike Bowerman Track Club—and it appears there will be runners alternating segments while remaining six at a time on the course with the three stars.
Social media posts out of Monza have the pacers and their agents targeting the attempt on Saturday, May 6, which would be the 63rd anniversary of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. A window from May 6 to 8 has been set by Nike to select the day with the most favorable weather.
Here’s a look at the résumés and credentials for the three protagonists of the attempt:
Age: 32 Country: Kenya Personal Bests: 2:03:05, 2016 London Marathon Accolades: 2016 Olympic marathon gold medalist, 2008 Olympic 5,000-meter silver medalist, 2004 Olympic 5,000-meter bronze medalist, four-time world championship medalist (includes cross country and indoors), 2014 Chicago Marathon champion, 2015 Berlin Marathon champion, 2015 and 2016 London Marathon champion
Kipchoge enters the attempt as arguably one of the greatest marathoners in history. His personal best of 2:03:05 is the fourth-fastest time over 26.2 in history and the third-fastest over a standard course. By running in Nike’s Breaking2 project, we didn’t get to see Kipchoge try to win is third consecutive London Marathon or a clash between him and 2:03:03 man Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia. Kipchoge has proven he can win so Nike recruited him to go for time while probably also throwing him a large check to pass on appearance fees and potential prize money. Kipchoge was also the first of the three selected runners to receive the Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes that will be worn in the attempt. He’s been instrumental in the company’s tailoring of the footwear to meet his needs and performance.
According to early reports out of Kenya, Kipchoge followed most of his regular training that made him successful in his marathon career thus far. He’s won seven of his eight career marathons and in the one that he didn’t win, he finished second to Kenyan Wilson Kipsang, who won in a then-world record time of 2:03:23.
LetsRun.com paid a visit to Kipchoge and filmed one of his workouts back in March
Kipchoge ran 59:17 in Monza seven weeks ago, when Nike staged an unofficial half-marathon to show off its new shoes. He told Runner’s World that it was about a 60% effort on his part.
Pacing is going to be critical in the attempt and it would be a bad sign for Kipchoge and the leaders to cross the half-marathon mark in over 60 minutes. Kimetto’s world record has an outlier of a 14:09 split at 35-kilometers, which is a large part why he negative split in the race and why attempts to go out hard and hang on haven’t worked as well. Sports scientist Ross Tucker noted on Twitter that 14:13 per 5K is the pace for a sub-two yet a 14:14 has happened only 10 times in fastest 90 marathon winners in history. It’s a tall order for Kipchoge but of the three, he’s the most probably to come the closest to under two-hours— yet that could still be a high-2:01 or low-2:02.
Age: 35 Country: Eritrea Personal Bests: 58:23 for the half marathon (WR), 2:10:41 for the marathon (2012 London Marathon) Accolades: Half marathon world record holder, 2004 10,000-meter Olympic bronze medalist, 2009 10,000-meter World Championship silver medalist, five-time World Half Marathon Championship gold medalist, seven-time World Cross Country Championship medalist
The marathon has not been good for Tadese. Asking him to cut more than 10 minutes off his personal best sounds like a lot even for special shoes. He is probably the most unlikely of the group to be the one to break two-hours for the marathon but could be serving as an unofficial pacer to stick with Kipchoge and Desisa for as long as possible. In his attempt to debut at the 26.2 distance, Tadese dropped out of the 2009 London Marathon at about 35K. He finished the race in 2010 with a disappointing 2:12:03. His personal best remains 2:10:41 from the 2012 London Marathon, which put him at a distant 14th place. His last attempt at 26.2 came in 2014 and was another DNF but this time in Chicago and just after the half. Nike hasn’t affirmed it, but Tadese essentially serves as the best pacer (one with world record credentials) for Kipchoge and Desisa for maybe 25K to 30K. Tadese ran 59:41 behind Kipchoge in the Monza test run.
Age: 27 Country: Ethiopia Personal Best: 2:04:45, 2013 Dubai Marathon Accolades: Three-time Boston Marathon champion, 2013 World Half Marathon Championship silver medalist
Desisa has competed in 11 marathons since he started contesting the 26.2 distance in 2013. His first one at the 2013 Dubai Marathon was a 2:04:45 victory and it remains his fastest. His next-fastest was a 2:05:52 at the 2015 Dubai Marathon, but those are the only two occasions in which he’s run under 2:06. His most recent run resulted in a DNF at the 2016 New York City Marathon and so his other completed marathons have been tactical or unpaced affairs that have resulted in podium finishes or victories on the marathon majors circuit. Desisa struggled in the test run in March and fell off the sub-two pace less than halfway through and finished in 62:55, If he could somehow find that 2013 marathon form, he would hang late into the attempt with Kipchoge and maybe serve as a pacer through 35K. That’s a big “if” though.
Given that we didn’t see any official races from these three runners ahead of the attempt, it’s really hard to assess their fitness and come up with any percentage of a chance. There’s the mental factor that comes with having run 17 laps around the course. There’s also the element of fueling and hydration that takes place within the body. Weather is another uncontrollable variable. Nike got the attention it wanted while also remaining secretive on a lot of details up until the week of the attempt. With millions watching, it’s on three men to deliver in the ultimate race against the clock.