Science Or Art? Nike And The War For Racing’s Soul

Nike's quest to break the two-hour marathon mark has sparked a debate on its legitimacy and what running is really about

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 31, 2017 at 1:51 PM ET

Eliud Kipchoge ran the fastest marathon ever recorded on May 6. He clocked an average pace of 4:35 per mile; a full marathon in two hours and twenty-five seconds. But despite running 26.2 miles faster than anyone, anywhere, ever has, the time will always have an asterisk next to it, assuming anyone even bothers to write it down in the first place.

And more than that, the fastest marathon ever recorded was a total failure.

Until recently, a two hour marathon was considered to be impossible. In 1965, the marathon world record for men was held by Morio Shigematsu of Japan at 2:12:00. In the 52 years since, barely a full nine minutes have been shaved off the world record.

While running three percent faster than the previous marathon world record seems a negligible increase in speed, consider that Usain Bolt, the fastest sprinter to ever live, beat the previous record in the 100M by about 1.6 percent. David Rushida broke the previous 800M record by going 0.2 percent faster. Kenenisa Bekele ran 0.3 percent faster than the previous record in the 10K.

More often than not, running isn’t a sport where record are made in leaps and bounds. Running, especially now, is a sport where the records inch faster and faster, if they inch at all.

But, in early 2016, Nike announced the “Breaking 2 Project.” It’s goal was exactly what the name suggests: breaking a two hour marathon. However, instead of waiting decades, Nike wanted to break the two hour marathon in about a year flat.

On their website, Nike described the project as a collaboration between the best minds and the best runners in the world. For the past year, the three runners chosen for the event—Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea—have been monitored and tested; their training has been changed, their diets have been tweaked, their skin temperature and sweat rates were monitored on runs, a precise sugar-water mix was created to stave off dehydration, muscle imaging measured energy use, and, of course, Nike tied the event to the new footwear they’d designed for the runners.

The whole Breaking 2 Project was cloaked in scientific rhetoric and grandiose flourishes, with press releases often quoting Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman saying, “The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.” It was an “experiment,” “an attempt,” and “a collaboration,” but what it wasn’t ever going to be was a world record.

The course for Nike’s sub-2 attempt was optimized for speed. The three runners ran on a Formula One race track and the attempt used pacers, other runners whose sole purpose is to block the wind and maintain a certain speed. All of these factors immediately disqualify the run as an actual marathon according to standards set by the International Association of Athletics Federations. It was, instead, a 26.2 mile run and nothing more.  

But, despite the amount of money Nike put into the attempt, the optimized course, the pacers, and the years of research and development, the two hour barrier still stands. Further, Nike’s failure has left the running community wondering if turning running into a science instead of an art is really the way to go.

Even before Nike’s sub-2 attempt, the running world was already talking about the ways science was influencing the sport. Most notably, System Based Training (SBT) has been taking the middle distance world by storm over the past couple of years. The training requires a series of time trials to be run every couple of months during which your blood is taken and different measurements for it are then put into a proprietary algorithm created by Go! Athletics CEO Shannon Grady. The algorithm then purports to tell coaches and athletes which type of training will be most effective.

“You have different parts that are contributing to your performance,” Grady explained. “And if we’re measuring it we look across all of those parts and say ‘Okay, right now here’s what we have available to adapt. We can adapt this energy here cause it’s what we have available, and that’s going to contribute to your overall output.’

It’s basically eliminating guesswork for the coaches. System Based Training is a tool for coaches… And given a healthy individual it’s basically a predictive response model.”

What she finds most often is that, due to improper training, the energies she measures during SBT are depleted in athletes when she first does the testing. So she recommends slower training, to build back lost energy in order to then train the right ones for the specifics of the race. She also finds that, often, coming in and telling coaches to slow down and train in a way that initially seems counterintuitive can put her at odds with the very people she’s been called in to work with.

“There are some instances where the art of coaching comes in and that’s what their job is,” says Grady. “Training is science, coaching is art. And anybody who says differently is mistaken. There’s no art to science. I’m a big opponent against that. It’s not art, it’s data. I’m not Picasso crafting a masterpiece.”

It’s hard to measure how much SBT has benefitted athletes as the algorithm continuously gets tweaked and improved while Grady expands the dataset, but there have been notable examples of athletes excelling under the system. One of the top middle distance runners in the NCAA uses SBT and programs like Villanova—one of the top running schools in the country—and UConn have their athletes tested by Grady.

While Travis Chewning-Kulick, a member of the West Point marathon team who has run in events like the New York Marathon and the Boston Marathon, doesn’t use SBT, he does believe that the science behind the training is paramount if you’re running competitively.

“I think for competitive runners, all forms of running are a science” said Chewning-Kulick. “For any given day in the next 24 weeks, I can tell you the exact distance, pace, and heart rate I want to achieve on my run.”

But simultaneously, hundreds of athletes and coaches thrive without blood tests and algorithms. John Hohenkamp, a coach for the New York Road Runners and an elite runner in his own right, uses New Jersey-New York Track Club’s coach, Frank Gagliano, as an example of a coach that has years of success and has coached hundreds of elite runners and dozens of Olympians despite saying in a profile in Runner’s World that he doesn’t “know the difference between aerobic and anaerobic.”

“I come from the school of thought where there wasn’t a lot of science,” said Hohenkamp. “I had great coaches who were great motivators for their athletes. Like, Frank Gagliano was one of my coaches… This was in the 90’s, the early 2000’s. He was one of the least scientific coaches I know. His kids would run through a wall for him whether because they idolized him or they respected him or a combination.

I heard him say one practice, he was talking to one of our teammates who was going to go vegetarian, and Gags was like ‘What do you mean you’re not going to eat meat? You have to eat meat!’”

Although most coaches believe in a bit more science than Gagliano, training is often still a matter of trial and error. What works well for some athletes doesn’t always work the best for others, even if, in theory, the science should pan out.

There are so many approaches to training… which works for any given athlete is initially a crap shoot,” said Elliott Blount, a sub-four minute mile runner and head cross country coach at Troy University. “I find the best and fastest way to figure out which works best is through open honest communication. The relationship between athlete and coach should be transparent so trust on both ends it gained. Through this trust I feel you’ll get honest feedback from the athlete.”

SBT also brings to mind the question of accessibility, something Grady says she is currently working on as the testing required is invasive and time-consuming. In a sport that lacks funding when compared to football or baseball, not all runners have the time or money for the science of SBT or the Breaking 2 Project. And if science based training is inherently better, what does this mean for those who can’t access it?

Breaking the two hour marathon barrier is most often likened to Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile in 1954. Before Bannister ran a 3:59, some people thought a human’s heart would literally explode if they went that fast, for that length of time, although those in the running community thought it was inevitable. And while there was the same kind of hype around the event, there was barely any science.

In the end, Bannister only held the world record for 46 days, one of the shortest ever since the IAAF started ratifying records. But, the Bannister run opened the floodgates for breaking the four minute mile and now the world record stands at a 3:43.13, held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

What’s so different about the Nike attempt to break the two hour marathon is that, most likely, it won’t open any floodgates. With such artificial circumstances, it wouldn’t suddenly cause the winning time at a the Berlin Marathon to drop from 2:03:03 to 1:59:59. Real marathons are road races, they have a designated amount of hills, the shortest distance between the start and finish lines has to be at least 13.1 miles, and there’s no pacers.

“If [a sub two hour marathon] occurs during a time trial,” said Chewning-Kulick, “Where there is a pace car, multiple rabbits [pacers], aerodynamic running formations, and on a race car track with painting lines where to run, there will be an asterisk in the minds of many diehard runners. Proving that the body can run sub-two is one thing; actually doing it in a race is a whole different animal.”

There has to be a difference between a stunt and a race. And while there is a place for boundary breaking in the sport of running, there’s also a heart to the sport that turning record attempts into time trials on race tracks doesn’t exactly capture. A great race isn’t always the fastest race; it can be a strategic one, it can be a weirdly slow one, it can be one where the favorite is disqualified, or, as happened in the 10k in the last Olympics, it can be one where Mo Farah falls but still ends up winning.

In a real race, anything can happen. That’s part of the beauty of running.

But that beauty is one that Americans really only care about once every four years. While the Breaking 2 Project is a sanitized version of what track is, it’s a way to get a casual American fan to think about track beyond the Olympics. Viewers and fans are something that the track community desperately needs.

I never understood the concern or worry surrounding ‘the sport turning time trial,’” said Blount. “In the greatest event in track, the Olympics, you still have to compete–can’t time trial. Those races can be tactical and true fans appreciate it. Time trial racing is more appealing to the layman though can anger some of the sports truest enthusiasts. All press is good press in my opinion”

Perhaps, in some ways, something like the Breaking Two Project helps the sport of running simply by bringing more people into the fold. “[Track meets] aren’t like your normal two hour soccer game or football or even less, basketball game,” said Hohenkamp. “It isn’t this winner or loser. It’s an all-day affair…I’m trying to crack the code of keeping it interesting to the true fan and then also tracking a new audience. The Nike marketing thing was kind of this scientific thing, but I’m hoping that more people got interested in knowing more about the marathon and knowing what the world record was or what are the limitations.”

While the version of distance running put forward by Nike—as well as the version we can expect to see from Adidas’s attempt at a sub-2 marathon and the attempt by a group of researchers calling themselves SUB 2—is sanitized and noncompetitive, for the running community, the acknowledgement of track more than once every four years is preferable to the United States’ general apathy towards the sport.

Regardless, breaking a 2-hour marathon under optimized conditions is, of course, a feat of human endurance. It’s also a small beacon of hope for a community that currently has nothing comparable to Europe’s Diamond League races. Perhaps a taste of track, even if it’s a bit inauthentic, will bring an audience to a sport that’s desperate to have one when the Olympics aren’t dominating the front page.