The three best male marathon runners of their generation, racing on the fastest, flattest course in the world, in a faceoff between Nike and Adidas, with the distinct possibility of a huge new world record: the men’s elite race at tomorrow’s Berlin Marathon has much to recommend it.
The likelihood, however, is that most American sports fans will have no idea that the Berlin Marathon is even happening in a few hours’ time, or what is at stake. Professional marathon running is not a popular or well-explained sport. Its greatest exponents are mostly gaunt East Africans with similar-sounding names and taciturn manners. Compared to baseball or tennis or soccer, the prize money is pocket change. But let me convince you to set your alarms for 9:15 Central European Summer Time tomorrow, find a livestream of the race, and watch.
Marathon running is a brutal trade, in which the best athletes only race 26.2 miles twice a year, and for that reason, the most prestigious marathons compete with one other to attract the quickest runners. It’s unusual to have all the best marathoners on the same start line. (The London Marathon, which takes place in April and pays the highest appearance fees, comes closest to achieving this feat: in recent years, it has become the de facto world championship of marathon running.)
It’s even more unusual to have three giants of the sport at Berlin, which has a smaller purse (the winner of the race gets 40,000 euros, or nearly $48,000, with a 50,000 euro bonus if he breaks the world record). But because of its topography, and average late September temperatures, Berlin is also the fastest of all the major marathons, and has been the race where the past six men’s marathon world records have been set. Berlin normally has one or two big names, hoping to break a record, with many others in the pack hoping to take advantage if those stars fail. Tomorrow there are three men hoping not just to break but to smash the 3-year-old world record of 2:02:57: Eliud Kipchoge, Wilson Kipsang, and Kenenisa Bekele.
Kipchoge, who is from Kenya, is the Olympic Champion of the sport and—for the next few hours at least—the undisputed king of the marathon. Kipchoge was the star of Nike’s Breaking2 project , an attempt to break two hours for the marathon in controlled circumstances, which took place on May 6 this year at the Formula 1 racetrack in Monza, Italy. Running behind an arrowhead of interchanging pacemakers (which shielded him from the headwind and was probably worth at least a minute in time savings), Kipchoge broke the tape in Monza in 2:00:25—an astonishing performance, but one that did not count as a world record because of the pace-making strategy. After Monza, Kipchoge told Andy Jones, one of the scientists contracted to Nike for Breaking2, that he would run “two-oh-one” in Berlin. A few days ago, I texted Geoffrey Kamworor, Kipchoge’s training partner, to get an honest appraisal of the shape his friend was in. “2:01 is possible” came the reply.
The only man to have ever beaten Kipchoge in a marathon is Wilson Kipsang, also of Kenya. Indeed, when Kipsang beat Kipchoge at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, he broke the world record, in 2:03:23. Kipsang has since become the only man to have run sub-2:04 for the marathon four times, and his manager, Arien Verkade, tells me that Kipsang’s training for this year’s Berlin race has been excellent.
Then there is Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, most aficionados’ idea of the finest distance athlete of the past decade—the multiple world and Olympic champion at 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters, and the world and Olympic record holder in both events. (A young Kipchoge, missing a tooth because of an accident with a bicycle pump, was one of the only athletes to beat Bekele in a major championship, when he outsprinted him in the final of the 5,000 meters at the 2003 World Championships to win gold.) Bekele’s transition to the marathon distance has not been seamless, but he ran 2:03:03—six seconds outside the world record—in Berlin last year, and has told reporters recently that he can run 2:01:30 in the marathon before he retires. It would be crazy to discount the Ethiopian in this race.
The Road to the Race
For each contender, details matter. For instance, all three stars train with a slightly different mixture of interval work, and longer runs. (Kipchoge posted his training diary for Berlin online; for running nerds, it’s fascinating.) But how they feel on the start line will be significantly determined by a decision they have made about when to taper, or slow down, their training. Training for an endurance sport is, in essence, a balance between gaining fitness and managing fatigue. Phil Skiba, a physiologist and coach who has worked with many top endurance athletes, told me that the goal of the taper is to shed “much of the fatigue, without shedding too much of the fitness,” and that the taper period changes for each athlete. There is no scientific consensus on the ideal length of taper, and the measurement is highly subjective. Some swimmers, for instance, start their taper five weeks before race day. Kipchoge gives himself around six days before a race. In fact, as his online training diary shows, he ran nearly a marathon—cross country, and at high intensity—on Thursday last week. By the time Kipchoge knows if that punishing trail run was the right or wrong decision, it will already be too late to do anything about it. Every marathon is an act of faith.
To add corporate intrigue to tomorrow’s race, there is the rivalry between Nike and Adidas. Nike’s Breaking2 event was as much a chance to test the limits of human performance as it was to show the world its new and futuristic marathon racing shoe—the Vaporfly. The carbon-fiber plate that sits within a wedge of the Vaporfly’s super-responsive foam sole was shown in independent laboratory tests to improve running economy by an average of 4 percent. How much that number means for elite runners is another matter. According to prevailing wisdom, an improvement in running economy should mean an improvement in speed at nearly a corresponding ratio—a 4 percent improvement in economy should translate to around a 3.4 percent increase in marathon speed.
But nobody seriously expects Kipchoge or Bekele, who will be wearing the Vaporfly, to go anywhere close to 3.4 percent faster than their non-Vaporfly personal bests in Berlin, just because of their shoes. Rodger Kram, who conducted the testing of the Vaporfly, tried to explain the seeming disconnect between the proven economic gains of the shoe and the performance of elite athletes while wearing them. “The delivery of oxygen (metabolic energy) and efficiency are the primary determinants of marathon running performance,” he told me. “[But] other factors play a role. The shoes do not affect thermoregulation or hydration or nutrition, and those may be the limiting factors. However, muscle damage over 42 kilometers is surely a factor, and the shoes should help with that. This is why we do experiments, but it is also why we run races.”
In any event, Adidas will be championing its own marquee shoe: the adizero Sub2, which was specifically designed to “take athletes below the two-hour barrier.” The Sub2s weigh around 150 grams—about 100 grams lighter than Adidas’ previous best racing flat, which should translate into a 1 percent increase in running economy. Kipsang wore what Adidas claimed were the world’s only pair of Sub2s when he won Tokyo earlier this year, in 2:03:58, and will wear another pair tomorrow. Whichever athlete wins tomorrow, their shoe sponsor will not keep quiet about it.
Pacing Themselves (And Other Strategies)
The pacing tactics in the race will also be intriguing. Most fast times are set when the pace is steady: an even, fast pace is the best way to set a world record. Most marathons with deep, strong fields tend to be inefficiently paced, because the pace often spikes and troughs as the studs test each other’s fitness. Berlin is a well-organized race, and it has recruited three excellent pacemakers—Gideon Kipketer, Geoffrey Ronoh, and Sammy Kitwara—to guide its lead athletes at least as far as 20 miles. (The pacemakers have been asked to reach halfway in 60 minutes and 45 seconds, which is faster than any marathon in history, would have been unthinkable even a year ago—that is, before Breaking2—and is an indication that the lead athletes think a finish time of 2:01:40 is possible.)
Moreover, all three lead athletes seem committed to running a world record, which means they need to work together at the prescribed pace, for as long as possible. But one can never know what is the mind of a professional runner when his blood is up. Kipsang could make a break at 10 miles and blow the world record attempt to pieces. It might be the best way for him to win the race.
It’s not just the speed of the pacers, but how they run together, that could make the difference. One of Breaking2’s signature innovations was the tight six-man triangle shape that shielded Kipchoge and his competitors. This shape had been tested in a wind tunnel and using computational flow dynamics software, and was proven to offer the most protection of any formation to a runner nestled just behind it. After Breaking2, I wrote that this one innovation could prove an extraordinary benefit to future record-legal marathons. Because of a strange custom with “gold label” races that means only three pacers are allowed for each group, Berlin will not be able to recreate the Monza triangle exactly. But the organizers of Berlin have learned some lessons from Breaking2. After the pre-race technical meeting in Berlin, I was told by one athlete manager that the three lead pacers would run in a line, with the middle runner slightly forward from the others—in other words, in a triangle.
Another lesson from Breaking2, where sports drinks were consumed regularly, Kipchoge has asked the organizers of Berlin to arrange more stations where he can take on a carbohydrate-rich drink, in an effort to slow the depletion of his energy stores. In fact, all three contenders will be using the same mixture—made by a young Swedish company, Maurten—that Kipchoge drank in Monza.
“The shoes should help. This is why we do experiments, but it’s also why we run races.” —Rodger Kram, biomechanist and Nike consultant
The final, uncontrollable factor is the weather. Tomorrow’s race starts at 9:15 am, when the temperature will be around 55 degrees and the humidity more than 90 percent. Those are not ideal conditions for breaking records—45 to 50 degrees, and little humidity would be excellent— but they are also not horrific conditions. Jos Hermens, who manages both Kipchoge and Bekele, believes all three contenders will break the existing world record.
At the athlete’s hotel in Berlin, where I arrived today, the atmosphere is heightened. Kipchoge is, as always, a Zen master: his hangdog looks often giving way to a bright smile, and with occasional Yoda-like gobbets of wisdom to dispense. (His favorite from Monza: “It’s not a chance, it’s a choice.”) Kipsang, who ran for the Kenyan parliament this year, and who is always busy and frequently amused, mixed easily with the other athletes. He told me he had given up politics for good now, and that he feels “very fine”. Bekele talked quietly, seemingly shy of attention. The Ethiopian is apparently unhappy at the 60:45 split that Kipchoge has demanded of the pacemakers, deeming it too fast. (Kipsang, for his part, told me he has no problem with the split. “Oh now, it’s very possible,” he said, grinning.)
If I were betting, which I’m not, I’d wager two men will break the world record, and Kipchoge will win the race. (I’ll be reporting from the race tomorrow.) But I would also not be surprised if nobody ran that fast, and the winner staggered home in a comparatively modest finish time. Trying to run 26.2 miles is a brutal undertaking. Trying to do so at 13 miles per hour is at, or beyond, the limit of even the greatest athletes. As the American running hero of the 1970s, Bill Rodgers, once said: “the marathon can humble you.”