This Saturday the world may wake up to a new marathon record. And not just new — previously unthinkable.
At 5:45 a.m. at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza race track just outside of Monza, Italy, three Nike athletes — Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea — will attempt to break two hours in a marathon. Success would mean obliterating the current world record of 2:02:57 seconds, and accomplishing a feat most running experts predicted couldn't be done for another 50-plus years.
To run 26.2 miles in under two hours, the athletes would need to shave an average of seven seconds off each mile from the current fastest marathon time. That may not sound like a lot. But when they're holding 13.1 miles per hour (that's a pace of 4:33 per mile), going even one second faster is a vast effort. "Breaking2," as Nike has dubbed the project, means going about three percent faster than the fastest a man has ever run a marathon — and as Alex Hutchinson writes in his definitive Runner's World story on the attempt, even Usain Bolt has only lowered the 100-meter record by 1.6 percent. Nike didn't call it a "moonshot" effort for nothing.
The runners will be given every possible advantage along the way.
First, the location: Nike's team of more than 20 scientists, researchers, and coaches picked Monza for its perfect weather conditions — a cool 54 degrees with only a 2.5 mph wind speed, and at a mere 600 feet of elevation. When they compared the weather conditions during the fastest marathons in history to a six-year weather analysis of the town, they further confirmed that the climate should be choice (if the predicted weather conditions for Saturday morning were to change, Nike says they'll postpone the race for Sunday or Monday). The team selected the 2.4-kilometer (1.5 mile) Formula 1 track for its white asphalt — an ideal surface that has good traction and, importantly, doesn’t get as hot as regular asphalt — and its consistent pitch with just 18 feet of elevation change, no banks, and clear visibility throughout the loop. The track is flatter than any other major marathon course, but it also meets all requirements from The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). That includes a rule that a course can not have a continuous straight line distance of more than 50 percent of the total course distance — which is why Nike didn't have the athletes run the 26.2 from a straight point A to point B.
The 1.5-mile loop will also make it easy for Nike to provide support and fuel to the runners, something that nutrition scientists at the company say will be key. In an interview for Nike News, Brett Kirby, researcher and lead physiologist of the Nike Sport Research Lab, said they'd "created a custom carbohydrate mixture for each athlete based on data we’ve gathered over the training program that indicates how much fluid they lose while running and how much their guts can absorb." By Nike's calculations, that should mean ingesting the mix at every loop, “so about every seven minutes the athletes will intake their specific mixture that keeps them hydrated and energized,” Kirby told the site. It also means fueling about twice as often as the athletes have usually done during marathons.
Then, of course, there are the shoes. Desisa, Kipchoge, and Tadese are expected to run in a custom-built version of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite; during a half-marathon dress rehearsal in early March, the sneaker helped propel Kipchoge and Tadese to 59:17 and 59:41 finishing times, respectively, with Desisa coming in at 62:55. If the recent Boston marathon is any indication, the shoe can go the full distance, too: The top three finishers for both men and women were Nike athletes running in a version of the Zoom Vaporfly Elite.
So, can three of the world's most talented runners and its most powerful sports brand make the impossible possible? We'll be reporting live from Italy to find out. Check back on mensjournal.com and follow the MJ Instagram and Facebook pages for live updates from the race track (which means tuning in before 11:45 p.m. EST on Friday night).