On Saturday, May 6, marathon running history could be made. Three Nike athletes, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, have been chosen to potentially run a sub-2-hour marathon as part of Nike’s highly anticipated Breaking2 Project.
The record attempt will take place this Saturday at 5:45 a.m. CET (11:45 p.m. EST on Friday, May 5) on a 2.4K loop around portions of the Autodromo Nazionale track in Monza, Italy, home to Formula 1’s Italian Grand Prix. Although the event is closed to the public, live coverage will take place on the Breaking2 site, 15 minutes before the race starts, with Sal Masekela hosting the show and Paula Radcliffe, Craig Masback and Kevin Hart providing commentary. A livestream of the attempt can also be viewed on this special Breaking2 Twitter landing page and Nike’s Facebook page.
What will breaking the 2-hour marathon barrier look like, though? For Nike, it’s essentially a science experiment—to test the human potential and see what’s possible. That means controlling every aspect of this race against time—from the choice of athletes, course, location, time of day and gear (all three athletes will be wearing the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite) at the onset, right down to the logistics of on-course fueling and pacing for race day.
Brad Wilkins, director of Nike Explore Team Generation Research, has been leading the research behind the Breaking2 Project. He explained that the Autodromo Nazionale track was chosen because of its flatness and gradual wide turns that will help reduce the amount of energy required to run at the speed needed to break 2 hours.
“It’s nice that it’s a loop course because that allows us to give hydration and nutrition really frequently,” Wilkins says. “So every lap they’re going to have access to fluid and nutrition, and we have a very specific way to hand that off, so they don’t have to look for a hand or a table. We are going to be able to hand these guys their waters and nutrition at speed.”
Not only are the athletes receiving consistent fuel, Wilkins and his team have also calculated precisely how much fluid each athlete is going to lose through sweat every single lap (for 17 and a half laps), and are going to replace exactly what’s been lost with the right amount of nutrition, provided on course.
Several pacers will also be used during the attempt. They will be rotated in and out throughout the race. The three athletes will have people running in front of them, keeping the pace, and even helping them draft a little, at all times.
In order to break 2 hours, though, the work and research needed to make it a success starts with the athletes. Since last November, Wilkins and his team have been working with Desisa, Kipchoge and Tadese and each of their coaches to perfect their racing strategy. Each athlete has a unique training regimen and strategy that needed to be taken into consideration.
“These three guys have very different approaches to their training,” Wilkins explains. “So we’ve just been collecting data and analyzing and giving a lot of feedback on how they’re responding to their specific workouts. And all of them are super mentally prepared for this.”
To be clear, if Breaking2 is successful and a sub-2-hour marathon is actually achieved on Saturday, it will be a record, but not one comparable to Kenyan Dennis Kimetto’s world marathon record time of 2:02:57 that he ran at the 2014 Berlin Marathon.
“Our idea is basically to show that it’s humanly possible and [if it is] then everybody will have this mental barrier removed and they’re willing to go for it in an actual race like Berlin,” Wilkins says when asked how this attempt compares to USATF sanctioned marathons and what the results could mean for the marathon world. He also explains that this could be an opportunity to “disrupt the way that marathon organizers put on their marathons.” Meaning if this is a success, it could change the thinking around when and how traditional marathons are conducted, if the goal is to pursue even more impossible and faster times.
“There are ways you can innovate around how marathons are run,” he adds. And that’s the real message Nike is sending through the Breaking2 attempt—whether or not history is made.