What’s all this silliness about a sub-two-hour marathon?
Yes, I said “silliness,” and what would you call it — this brainchild of Nike Marketing, this effort to stage some sort of time trial that results in a man running the marathon distance in less than two hours? I’ll say more about why I think it’s silly, but first, to review:
Nike put out a press release in December announcing the Breaking2 project, an all-out attempt to have a human being run 26 miles and 385 yards in less than two hours. Nike announced they had recruited three world-class runners, including the best marathon runner on the planet, to attempt the feat in 2017 (the date and location have not yet been announced). They’ve assembled a team of experts in various fields, presumably to invent technology to assist in the effort, as well as establish the optimal conditions, surface, pacing strategy, hydration/fueling, etc. to enable the athletes to transport themselves along the ground for the required duration at the required pace. Maybe it will involve a new type of shoe or a futuristic textile that reduces wind resistance or facilitates cooling. Or maybe it will take place on some ideal surface on a mile-long track. Who knows?
And more important, who cares?
Well, according to Nike’s marketing team, we should all care because undertaking such a project is a “moonshot” that affirms nothing less than the potential of the human race. The press release really lays it on thick. Try standing up and reading the following excerpts (with emphasis mine) out loud in your best arena voice.
“Today… Nike unveils Breaking2, an innovation moonshot designed to unlock human potential.
Like all daring dreams, Breaking2 has an audacious goal: Enable a sub two-hour marathon time…
Many consider this feat impossible…However, that challenge is exactly what drives Nike; the impossible is an opportunity to envision the future of sport…
It is the ultimate embodiment of Nike’s mission: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete on the planet…
At its core, Breaking2 is about more than a marathon. Attempting to break the sub two-hour marathon challenges the perception of what is possible in sport…
The only real failure would be to not attempt such an audacious goal.”
This is silly on so many levels.
Let’s begin with moonshots. The original moonshot involved an actual moon. President John F. Kennedy, caught up in a cold war space race with the USSR, famously announced in 1962 a bold initiative to land a man on the moon (and bring him back!) by the end of the decade. It was an ambitious, multi-year effort to really push the frontiers of space technology in service of a goal that was audacious and visionary AND far beyond what was possible at the time. It was specifically NOT an incremental effort, but a project that defied expectations of what was possible within the lifetime of those who worked on it.
These days, in the high-tech world especially, it’s very trendy to talk of “moonshots,” probably because of X, the Google subsidiary that calls itself the moonshot factory.
X makes a habit of taking on projects that are way beyond what’s currently possible. In fact, they’re quite clear that they aren’t interested in 10% improvements, but in ten-fold improvements, otherwise, they’ll leave it up to more conventional companies.
Now, I realize that, while a 10% improvement in a technology might be considered incremental. a 10% improvement in human performance would be staggering. When Bob Beamon long-jumped 29′ 2.5″ to win the Mexico City Olympic gold medal, he jumped nearly 2 feet further than the existing record, an improvement of about 6.59%. When Ron Clarke took 37 seconds off the world record for 10,000m in 1965, it was an improvement of 2.13%. So, indeed, 10% would be off-the-charts. (FYI, 1:59:59 would be a 2.41% improvement from the current marathon world best).
So is that a moonshot? I don’t think so. First of all, I think that the goal, while daunting, isn’t particularly meaningful to most people, who barely know the difference between a two-hour marathon and a three-hour marathon. In fact, go up to the next person you meet and ask them if they know what the world record for the marathon is currently.
Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Now ask them how they would feel if someone ran three minutes faster. My point is that breaking two is not going to mean much even to most runners, and it’s going to mean nothing to non-runners.
Second of all, even though it’s a huge improvement, I would argue that it’s still “incremental” in the sense that there’s unlikely to be any real breakthrough in one calendar year. I could be wrong, but the only way I see sub-two happening is if a number of tiny things are engineered to give small advantages over the current way people run marathons. If so, that’s cool, but again, I don’t think that’s a moonshot.
“So, Jon, you are skeptical because you don’t think they have a chance?”
No, I’m irritated because the exercise seems arbitrary and contrived. One of the things that makes records fun is that they come out of the blue. Tinkering with everything for the sole purpose of hitting what is, I would argue, an arbitrary time goal, seems to me to take some of the fun out of watching athletes gradually chip away at a record, with occasional breakthroughs that seem to be divinely inspired. This corporate campaign to throw technical resources behind a one-year effort feels like a stunt. It feels like they’re saying, “look at how great we are for believing that this is possible…” but right now that’s just words.
“But Jon, many people don’t believe it’s possible for a human being to run a sub-2:00 marathon, you know, like people didn’t believe a human being could run a mile in under four minutes, and that was really inspiring…”
That’s another thing that annoys me. Ever since Bannister enlisted his friends Brasher and Chataway to pace him to a sub-four mile, every barrier in sport has been compared to that achievement. I’m sure it was tremendously exciting — it still is! — to see someone run sub-four, but I don’t think it’s true that knowledgeable people thought it was impossible. Everyone always brings up Roger Bannister and the importance of breaking through the mental barrier. But I would argue that Bannister KNEW that it was only a matter of time — and a short time at that — before a man ran the mile iun under four minutes. He was very anxious to do it because he knew that if he didn’t do it soon, someone else would beat him to it. It’s still inspiring, and it still illustrates the importance of belief in achieving a goal, but Bannister had very good reason to believe it was possible.
Maybe they’ll do it. Maybe they’ll figure out how to smooth the course, tweak the kit, pace the effort, and fuel/hydrate the athletes, and one of them will actually do it, actually cover the distance in under two hours. And then the anticipation will be gone, and the chance to watch for 20-30 years as generations of athletes brought the record down the old-fashioned way. So much for the mystique of the marathon.
Call me a cynic if you like, but I just think “Breaking2” is all about marketing and Nike’s brand. I don’t wish the runners ill, and I hope they are being paid well for participating and all, but as for me, when the record attempt comes around, I hope to be busy watching something more meaningful, like some kid trying to break 5:00 for the mile, or basically anyone trying to run a PR in anything.
After writing this, I did a little searching and found a blog post by Larry Eder that also takes Nike to task, but seems more cogent than mine. Oh well. If you’ve read this far, I can’t give you those few minutes back, but I can at least point you to his essay.