The Race to Run a Two-Hour Marathon

For decades, the Berlin Marathon has been the place where premier endurance athletes test their limits. With its flat course, temperate late-September weather, and enthusiastic crowds, the German capital has been the site of the last half-dozen men’s world records. This year one of the latest record-breakers will face off against two other top runners to try to set another milestone, possibly even breaching the symbolic two-hour barrier.

The possibility of being associated with such a feat has garnered the attention of corporate backers. Nike Inc., which has watched Adidas-shod runners set the past five records, is sponsoring Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist. Running for Adidas AG is countryman Wilson Kipsang, who in 2013 set a world’s fastest time in Berlin (a record broken a year later). Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who won last year’s Berlin race with the second-fastest time ever, is working with Vodafone Group Plc, which is testing how wearable technology might boost performance. While none of the companies will say how much they’re spending on their efforts, it’s small compared with the payoff if their runner comes in under two hours, says Tom Vriens, European chief of Navigate Research, a sports and entertainment consultant. “The exposure is absolutely tremendous,” he says. “It’s a fantastic storyline for a marketing campaign.”

Completing the marathon’s 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) in less than 120 minutes would echo Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile in 1954 or Carl Lewis’s breaking the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters in 1983. Since 1908, when the International Association of Athletics Federations started keeping track—American Johnny Hayes finished that year’s marathon at the London Olympics in 2:55:18—the record has been broken at least 39 times. The current time of 2:02:57 was set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in 2014 (yes, in Berlin). In recent decades the record has moved in increments of about 30 seconds every few years, so it would be unusual to see a three-minute jump. But Kipchoge in May got to 2:00:25—a time that’s unrecognized because he ran at the Formula One circuit in Monza, Italy, not a sanctioned event. And to keep up his speed, he had pacers who swapped in and out. While pacers are allowed in official races, they can join the course only at the start.

Nike’s effort with Kipchoge, launched in December, has generated more than 8,000 online articles, and a Facebook video of the Monza run has garnered 5.6 million views. “In Monza I was so close to breaking the two-hour barrier,” Kipchoge says in an interview on the Berlin Marathon website. Nike custom-crafted Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes for Kipchoge featuring an inch-thick sole made of a special foam for cushioning, a carbon-fiber plate to increase stiffness and provide propulsion, and an aerodynamic heel to reduce drag. The shoes retail for $250—if you can get them. Nike is keeping a lid on supplies to create buzz for its $5.2 billion-a-year running gear business. Getting below two hours is “the last big, once-in-a-generation barrier,” says Sandy Bodecker, the Nike executive overseeing the effort. He has 1:59:59 tattooed inside his left wrist.

Adidas has been tight-lipped about its project, but the company has a strong history in Berlin, with its runners winning 8 of the last 10 competitions (though 2015 and 2016 went to Nike). This year, Kipsang and a handful of other elite runners will wear a shoe called the Adizero Sub2, which Adidas says has its lightest-ever foam. The upper is made of a single layer of ultrathin mesh fabric, and the outsole uses rubber from tire manufacturer Continental AG to avoid slippage. But don’t expect to see it on any of the 43,000 recreational runners in Berlin. The shoe is available only to top athletes.

Vodafone, meanwhile, is working with Yannis Pitsiladis, a sports professor at Britain’s University of Brighton who in 2014 started planning a project aimed at breaking the two-hour barrier within five years. He estimated the cost at perhaps $30 million and asked Nike and Adidas to back the effort. While both rejected his appeal—and then launched their own programs with the same goal—Pitsiladis has assembled a team of scientists and technology companies to work on improving nutrition and training, using sensors to monitor biomarkers such as heart rate and body temperature. Since Vodafone joined last spring, it’s developed an app for a smartwatch from China’s Huawei Technologies Co. that Bekele wears, sending data to coaches in real time during training runs (in competition, electronic communication with coaches is barred). “We’re using science and technology to provide athletes everything they need to improve their performance,” Pitsiladis says. “It’s very, very different from the two other projects. We understand that a shoe is going to be important. But it’s just a shoe.”

Vodafone’s involvement is similar to its work eight years ago with McLaren Automotive Ltd., says Santiago Tenorio, who’s spearheading the running program. The Formula One effort allowed more timely transmission of data from race cars, Tenorio says, which helped Vodafone improve its network on U.K. highways. Similarly, the running program is expected to help researchers improve location-based services and battery performance of the sports watch, which could spawn applications such as devices that track luggage or transmit data directly from a shoe to an app on your phone. “Trying to break the marathon world record,” Tenorio says, “gives us better information that will pay off for our customers.”

    BOTTOM LINE – Big companies are seeking to win a bit of glory with programs aimed at helping elite runners break the two-hour barrier in the marathon.

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