The Science Behind This W/E’s Attempt To Break The 2-Hr Marathon Is Insane

This weekend, three athletes are going to attempt to run a marathon in under two hours. It’s never been done before. The current world record, set by Kenya‘s Dennis Kimetto in 2014, is two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds.

On Saturday, three athletes hand-picked by NikeEliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese (above, left) of Eritrea– are going to attempt to shave three minutes off that time.

The idea of the a two hour marathon has been floating since a paper published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2011 asked: ‘The two-hour marathon: who and when?’. The men’s world record for the marathon has dropped five times since 2003, but as Runners World points out, two minutes and 58 seconds is 2.4 percent away from the barrier, a distance rarely closed in one attempt.

But this Saturday – at precisely 1:45pm AEST – Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese are going to attempt just that.
Here’s the science behind exactly how these humans are going to attempt the inhumane.


After scouring possible sites quite literally around the entire world, the Breaking2 team (yep, that’s what they’re calling it) settled on the Autodromo Nazionale Monza outside Milan, Italy. Normally, the stadium can hold 113,000 people; on race day, there’ll be no one.

Robby Ketchell, a Mathematical Modeling & Environmental Science expert advising Nike, told PEDESTRIAN.TV that out of literally the entire planet, this was the course that hit the sweet spot of mild temperature, overcast weather, minimal air currents, good altitude, vapour pressure, and an asphalt ground surface.

“At base, the location covers off the environmental essentials,” he told us. “The temperature hovers around 12 degrees Celsius and vapour pressure is under 12mmHg. Additionally, skies are typically overcast (minimising heat load on the runners) and air currents don’t exhibit drastic directional shifts — thanks to the course being perfectly situated off shore and amid many trees.”

Additionally, the 2.4km course is ideal for the runners to manage pacing, hydration, nutrition and support team transitions. And you thought the City2Surf was hard.


At this point in their careers, these guys know what works best for them, so their training is mostly an amped up version of their usual workout. By the time Nike announced Breaking2 in December, these guys were already back in their home countries getting on with their training, save for Tadese, who trains in Spain.

According to an in-depth piece published in Runners World, Nike would monitor their training via uploaded GPS and heart-rate data, running it through analytic tools and offering feedback. The level to which these guys drill down to is intense – Runners World author Alex Hutchinson offers the example of telling one runner (he doesn’t specify who) being told to run exactly 32 inches behind their pacer, at an angle of 46 degrees, in order to achieve optimum levels of protection from wind.

Nike + Run Club Coach Matty Abel told us that mid-race kilojoule top-ups are crucial for breaking the two hour mark, with Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese downing a calorie-based drink (made up of carbs and electrolytes, the exact ratio of which has been tested to hell and back) every five to ten minutes throughout the race.

“Generally they would do a marathon pretty much on nothing, because it’s two hours, you can push through, you can survive,” he said. “But one of the big factors in breaking the two hours is nutrition. They have to have that in order to hold the pace, they’re just burning through their stores so quickly.”


Nike has spent the better part of three years perfecting the ideal shoe for the attempt. Their first effort – a stripped back model – might have been lightweight, but was unbearably uncomfortable during a 42km run. The team of scientists eventually created the Nike ZoomX midsole, offering cushioning at a third of the weight of usual models. Each of the runners has been kitted out with an individually tuned pair of Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elites (also specially-designed), with the ZoomX midsole.


If they pull it off, this is huge. Out of a recent panel that included 24 of the biggest names in the running world, only three said they reckoned the athletes would break two hours, and of those, all three reckoned Kipchoge would be the one to do it. So yeah, if they manage it? Friggin’ mind-blowing.
This thing might be spectator-free, but you can watch this blindingly fast attempt on Nike’s socials (Facebook + Twitter).

Photo: Kirby Lee / Contributor.