A sub-2 hour marathon in 2017?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

A bit of a different post this month. Earlier this month, Nike announced that they will be fielding an attempt to break 2 hours in the marathon in the spring of 2017. Shortly later, Adidas announced that they had a similar initiative in the works. Both have apparently been working on this for years.

I’ve written about breaking 2 hours in the marathon in the past when the topic has come up. In 2014, I said don’t expect to see a 1:59 in the next decade (by 2024) and I’m not even convinced it would happen in the next 20 years (by 2034). So am I writing this off as something that never will happen? Well, not completely. Here’s why.

There are routes to a faster marathon time. Some are illegal when it comes to record consideration, some are of questionable legality, some are perfectly legal but are not likely to happen in a normal race. I’ll list out an example or two from each category in order to give you an idea of how this might happen. This is not a comprehensive list of what we may see attempted, just a few examples of what we may see.

Course or schedule modifications: The current word is that Nike is not planning a record ineligible course, such as an all downhill course or one that can guarantee a tailwind the whole way. That said, they can do other things. Such as developing a course with few or no sharp turns, which slow down runners at elite paces.

They can also mess with the schedule. They can say something like we’re planning this attempt on Saturday morning but, if the wind is unfavorable or if it’s a bit too warm, we’ll postpone to Sunday. This would make the attempt not record eligible but wouldn’t seem to be all that outrageous.

Shoe modifications: Adidas already has their energy return foam technology, which has been in the shoes of recent marathon world records including the current one. These haven’t been controversy free but have been largely accepted.

What is raising more eyebrows is the fact that Nike recently filed a patent for shoes with spring plates. Springs in shoes are currently in a legal limbo. By the letter of the IAAF law, they are illegal. However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in a ruling related to Oscar Pistorius called that rule into question. I’m not sure what the ruling would be if the ban on springs in shoes was challenged but, if this type of shoe were used, I’d personally have a little trouble swallowing this one and I know I’m not alone.

Logistical modifications (beyond flexible scheduling): What if Nike or Adidas brought in their "second tier" runners, guys who can run sub-2:05 in the marathon, as pacers to take the primary runners through 24 miles? What if the runners are given incentives that encourage them to work together for the fastest time possible instead of a traditional race where the incentives encourage winning over all else? What if fresh pacers were brought in at the halfway point?

The first two would be technically legal for record purposes and seem plausible to do for corporations with big bank accounts. Bring in some incredibly fast runners to serve as pacers and tell them to go as far as possible. A big enough group of pacers would also allow for drafting advantages. The primary runners could be told that there is no financial incentive for "winning" but financial incentives will be shared between the runners based on the "winning" time. This gives them all the reason in the world to work together to ensure the fastest time possible. No tactical racing, just all runners focused on getting to the finish line as fast as possible.

The last would be illegal for record purposes and would make things look a little funny to a lot of people. One simple rule of races: if you’re there, you have to be there from the start. Pacers need to start the race, they can’t jump in mid-race. Obviously, the benefit would be significant as the primary runners would have pacing and likely drafting help the whole way, including through the most difficult last miles when fatigue makes everything harder.

Conclusion?

I’m not sure there is one. The potential to do this, via record eligible and non-record eligible means, is there. Things wouldn’t have to get too crazy for the potential to be there. I saw one statement that a good pack of pacers who also work as a good wind break could be worth over a minute. A course with minimal hard turns could supposedly be worth around another minute over a course like Berlin, the current world record course, with all of its turns. Now, you’re talking about being within a minute. How much would having the runners being incentivized to work together for the fastest possible time rather than going tactical to win be worth? How about a few "bent" rules like flexible scheduling to ensure the best possible weather conditions?

To be clear, I don’t think it’s highly likely that either Nike or Adidas succeed in these goals. In the marathon, it’s always safe to bet on a world record to not happen. For a monumental time like this, it’s even safer to bet it won’t happen. That said, given the possibilities, including possibilities that would make this attempt not eligible to be ratified as a world record, I wouldn’t say 1:59 is impossible.

I won’t editorialize on whether I think these attempts are a good idea beyond this. Initially, I thought these were absolutely ridiculous. I’ve relaxed that line a bit, to the point of saying this isn’t going to excite me but it’s probably not going to leave me feeling like it’s a complete sham.

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