The science that makes marathon runners move

Joseph Dana considers what world records in marathon running have to do with the average person

Ethiopia running Kenenisa Bekele crosses the finish line during the 43rd BMW Berlin Marathon in September. Ronny Hartmann / Getty Images
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In 1991, a polymatic anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic in the United States named Michael Joyner announced that the fastest time a human being could run a marathon was 01:57:58. In Joyner’s estimation, this time was the physiological limit a person could run 42.2 kilometres. The current fastest marathon time on an internationally recognised course is 02:02:57, run by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto at the Berlin marathon in 2014.

As part of an ambitious new year’s resolution, Nike announced in December that it was assembling a team of athletes and sports scientists to attempt to break the two-hour mark in 2017. Capping a year of doping allegations, from the Russian Olympic team to tennis star Maria Sharapova, the global shoe manufacturer is joining rival shoe companies such as Adidas in throwing money and prestige at the goal of breaking a seemingly impossible sporting barrier.

You might be wondering: What does this have to do with me and my non-existent or scant running life? Not only will Nike’s project, which they are calling Breaking2, have consequences for the global shoe and apparel industry (chances are you own at least one item of active wear), but it could influence how we approach running, training and exercising.

With more than $32 billion (Dh117bn) global revenue in 2015, Nike has a vested interest in maintaining market share and branding the next wonder shoe.

In the mid-2000s, Nike began experimenting with minimal shoe design after significant research was published demonstrating that cushioned shoes were responsible for a great deal of running-related injuries. By this point, long-distance running was the world’s most popular sport, with millions going out for a jog on a daily basis and hundreds of thousands signing up for marathons in the United States alone. With the rise of the sport, Nike and other companies such as Adidas sold heavily cushioned running shoes that forced runners to strike their heel on the ground before any other part of the foot.

Human beings, however, have not evolved to land heel first, rather mid- or forefoot first. Over millions of years, we have transformed into running people thanks to our ability to sweat efficiently, keep our brain cool during exercise and our perfect stride that allows our foot to adapt to terrain in real time. Indeed, paralympic runners’ prosthetic legs don’t have heels.

In the mid-1990s, a savvy American runner ventured into Mexico’s wild Copper Canyon after hearing about a group of Indians known to run for up to four days in continuous stretches. The Tarahumara, as they are called, are now known as the world’s greatest long-distance runners. After they won several 161-kilometre ultra-marathons in record time, the shoe industry began to pay attention to their footwear. The shocking part is they run on nothing more than a piece of leather – or, more recently, old car tyre – strapped to their foot as sandals.

In this way, a couple of forgotten people from a remote part of Mexico were able to start a massive global trend in running footwear. If you walk into any sport shop now, you will probably walk out with a shoe inspired in part by the ancient running traditions of the Tarahumara. This is why Nike’s Breaking2 project impacts people outside of the hardcore running community. But the project is not without its critics.

Nike has assembled a dream team of the world’s greatest distance runners. They have invited Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, the current half-marathon record holder; two-time Boston marathon winner Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia; and Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, the recent Olympic marathon gold medallist to train at Nike headquarters in Oregon.

While the company is reticent to reveal the exact details of the programme, it has said that the athletes will be outfitted with special equipment and run a marathon on a closed course. To give you an idea how much faster a sub two-hour marathon is from the current world record, consider this: If a ghost runner at a sub-two hour pace had been competing against Dennis Kimetto on the streets of Berlin in 2014, he would have won the race by more than a kilometre. A blowout by any standard.

After a year characterised by cheating scandals and doping revelations, Nike’s decision to stage a world record marathon on a closed course has risen eyebrows in the running community. Instead of staging the attempt at an internationally certified marathon (such as the Dubai marathon, which is planned for January 20 and is known as one of the world’s fastest courses), Nike will prepare a special course that can be controlled for climate and wind, and allow for pace runners who can help create the draft effect that allows other runners to move faster.

Some contend that if you were to place a treadmill at the lowest place on Earth with a downwards gradient in a wind tunnel, a runner would be able to achieve much better results than, say, running the New York or London marathons. Regardless of the debate, any record Nike is able to break will not be official because of its decision to run on a closed course.

Around this time of year, many of us are thinking about how to get fit come the new year. We might get a gym membership or even start running outside on a regular basis. Even though world-record marathon attempts might seem to be the furthest thing from our humble fitness pursuits, they actually have a lot of bearing on how we train.

If Nike is able to break the two-hour marathon mark, even under questionable circumstances, it will be a major revolutionary event in human history and will change the way we think about running. We are, after all, born to run.

Joseph Dana ran the 2016 New York City Marathon and will be toeing the line of the Dubai ­Marathon in January

On Twitter: @ibnezra