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Marathon Effort Comes with Too Much Help

May 9th, 2017 · No Comments · Rio Olympics

Last week, on the 63rd anniversary of Roger Bannister‘s breakthrough “sub-four-minute mile”, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran the fastest marathon in history.

Kipchoge covered 26.2 miles in two hours, 25 seconds, falling 26 seconds short of cracking the increasingly less awe-inspiring “two-hour barrier”.

The Rio 2016 Olympic gold-medalist’s run came as part of a Nike-sponsored effort to sell more shoes through the attention lavished on its Breaking2 campaign.

(Adidas apparently is working on this, too.)

The time will not stand as a world record, however — Dennis Kimetto’s mark of 2:02:57, set at Berlin in 2014, still stands — for several good reasons.

–Something like 30 pacesetters ran, off and on, serving as a wind break for Kipchoge and the other two runners who were pursuing the sub-two-hour mark. The international governing body for track and field, the IAAF, forbids runners joining (or rejoining) a race after it starts.

–Kipchoge was wearing a new Nike shoe containing a metal plate. The shoe is calculated by Nike to bring a 4 percent advantage to the runner in a long race — and may not be legal to wear, for purposes of IAAF-recognized events.

–Helpers on mopeds brought water/electrolytes to the runners during the race so that they would not have to break stride. Water is available at stations in typical marathons, yes, but those stations do not include delivery service to the runner.

–Out in front of the pacers was a Tesla vehicle with a large clock atop the roof, which offered windbreaking qualities, but also allowed runners to know just how fast they needed to be — averaging 4:34 miles for the 26 miles.

Also, the spirit of the record attempt was marred by Nike’s effort to find or create perfect conditions.

The “junior track”, at Monza, Italy, is known for a flat, smooth surface with gentle turns.

Nike chose the 1.49-mile track because it also offered coolish weather (52 degrees Fahrenheit at the 5:45 a.m. start) that makes for better times.

Monza also presents a more helpful environment because it is, according to the New York Times, surrounded by “trees that shield the wind, consistent asphalt surface … as well as a water vapor pressure that would help cool the runners’ bodies through the evaporation of sweat”.

Anyway, it was getting far too close to a parlor trick. The three runners, led by Kipchoge, were running in something like a vacuum, in ideal conditions, wearing what may not be legal shoes.

It was not a fair, sporting situation, which begs the question: “Does it belong in sports?”

Some people in track seemed excited by the attempt, and Kipchoge’s time — which was more than two-and-a-half minutes faster than Kimetto’s world record.

But was that mostly about him? Or was that about everything else around him, which seemed just short of rocket-powered shoes?

Runners say the Berlin Marathon, known for its flat, even surface, could produce a world record (it often has)– but in a traditional marathon setting, where times are recognized by one and all as legitimate.

The marathon record has been broken seven times already in this century — and those seven runs have taken 2 minutes and 45 seconds off the mark.

The trend already is toward ever faster marathons, even without pacers and perhaps-illegal shoes.

I will wait for a real record before I get excited.


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