Chris Mateer, Front Rush
Athletics have always been rooted in testing the limits of human capabilities. As much as head-to-head competition provides excitement and entertainment, it’s the records and milestones that are remembered. Whether it’s Wilt Chamberlin’s 100-point game, the home run world record and its ensuing steroid controversy, or the 4-minute mile, the world of athletics has always been fascinated by exactly what is humanly possible. The advancement of these milestones has always stemmed out of continual developments in training, conditioning, and strategy, but an undeniable aspect has also been the role of constantly advancing technology and equipment. Nowhere is this intersection of conditioning and technology more clear than in Nike’s coming assault on the 2-hour marathon.
Despite continuous comparisons by both Nike and track fans alike, attacking the sub 2-hour marathon is a feat that exists on a different plane than that of the 4-minute mile. When Roger Bannister broke the world record by 2 seconds in 1954, he lowered the world record by less than 1% (0.8%, specifically). Meanwhile, the goal Nike has set of under 2 hours will lower the existing world record by 3%. Both of those fractions are small on paper, but they become enormous leaps when dealing with the world of human limitations. For reference, the last improvement of the world record for the marathon was only about 0.5% when it was improved from 2:03:23 to 2:02:57. To break 2 hours requires a drop of almost 3 minutes: 6 times greater than that of the last improvement.
This, of course, begs the question of how Nike plans to accomplish a feat of such magnitude. Their first goal was to ensure they have the best athletes, in their possible condition. Per their website, Nike started with a pool of 60 of the best athletes in the world and whittled that group down to 3 individuals. Although none of these individuals currently are in possession of the world record, they contain an Olympic Gold Medalist, the Half Marathon World Record holder, and a Boston Marathon Champion. These athletes have been training together under Nike’s supervision for months.
Furthermore, Nike is precisely engineering every aspect of the record attempt. Nike has chosen a perfectly flat, tree-lined course for the record attempt to reduce any environmental factors and have even left the race date ambiguous. This allows the coordinators to pick the date where the weather will be ideal. The window has been set for early May when temperatures will be cool and prime for fast times. Finally and perhaps unsurprisingly, Nike has made it clear that their shoes will be a part of this record attempt. Since launching the record attempt, Nike has released a new shoe called the Nike Vaporfly 4%. The 4% is included in the name since the shoe has been built and tested to improve running economy by 4% and this number should jump immediately off the page, given the current gap between the existing world record and sub 2 hours. Nike has designed a shoe that, per their claims, should be able to bridge the gap in human capability from where it currently stands to traverse what has now become a near mythical feat in the world of the marathon.
Sometime in early May, the world will see if Nike’s attempt will be successful. If they fall short, the myth of the sub-2-hour marathon may only grow, and Nike’s attempt will be remembered as nothing more than an overly ambitious PR stunt. But, what if they succeed? One of the three athletes will go down in the history books as the first sub-2-hour marathoner, but how much credit goes to Nike? And what will be remembered, the shoe or the athlete?