Like Usain Bolt running 100m in under 9.3 seconds

by Michael Reinsch / Articles / September 30th 2016

A scientist and an athlete’s manager want to push the marathon World Record to less than two hours with a lot of crazy ideas.

*This article was written by Michael Reinsch and was  published on 25/09/16 in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and was subsequently translated into English.

Find the original article here: www.faz.net/aktuell/sport/mehr-sport/sportwissenschaft-wissenschaftler-tueftelt-am-marathon-unter-zwei-stunden-14451492.html

There is evidence “I’m not a crazy professor”, says the crazy professor. 

Yannis Pitsiladis, Sport Scientist of the University of Brighton, is pursuing the goal of adjusting all the screws in order to have the first marathon runner to finish in less than two hours soon.

42.195m in less than 120 minutes, means the athlete will have to run every kilometre no slower than 2:51 min.km-1. No one has achieved this yet. The current World Record is 2:02:57, held by Dennis Kimetto set at the Berlin Marathon two years ago. To beat his time by 178 seconds requires a 3.17% improvement. In comparison to sprint events, it is the equivalent of improving Usain Bolt’s 100m World Record from 9.58 seconds to below 9.3 seconds, unthinkable.

“We need crazy people, to create ideas” states the Dutch manager Jos Hermens. He has been chasing the 2 hour goal together with Prof Y. Pitsiladis already for four years. They need $30 million to develop the project with the best scientists and athletes. If the World Record continues to decline as it has in recent years, the two hour barrier may be reached in 30-40 years. 

When Prof Pitsiladis and Hermens announced their plans, they were aiming for 2019. Both will be attending the Berlin Marathon this weekend. Kenenisa Bekele the 3 x Olympic Champion on track, 5 x World Champion and unsurpassed with his World Records of 12:37.35 in 5000 m and 26:17.53 in 10 000 m wants to establish himself at the top of road racing as well. He is therefore supported by Prof Pitsiladis and Mr Hermens.

African runners lose 1% of their energy when wearing shoes compared to running barefoot according to the two experts. Because of this, the Ethiopian is wearing specially modified shoes from his sponsor. Prof Pitsiladis promises that his project will have developed its own shoe by next year.

In addition to that, a prototype sports drink from Sweden is supposed to make Bekele faster too. It overcomes the natural limit of the gastric glucose intake of 8%, by carrying glucose into the intestine encapsulated inside a substance which then dissolves. The intestines can therefore absorb nearly twice as much glucose; the equivalent of pressure fuelling in motorsports. Pitsiladis is guessing that Bekele can run one minute faster if it works out as well in the race as it did during preparation.

Shoes and energy supply are only two out of a dozen fields that the Sub2 project wants to optimize and subsequently improve the performance of long distance runners. It’s all about accumulating “marginal wins”, the smallest gains of time. The most spectacular aspect of this project it the gene analysis.

Prof Pitsiladis is also the leader if the Athlome project, a DNA database of athlete of all events from across the world. Its aim is to identify the inherit preconditions for peak performance in elite sports, similar to a blue-print for talent.

Evidence that Pitsiladis is not crazy is provided by the Olympic Champion in the Marathon, Eliud Kipchoge who will travel to Oregon, the headquarters of his sponsor Nike to undergo thorough assessments. The same place where Coach Alberto Salazar is running the Oregon Project which aims to optimize performance of runners such as Galen Rupp and Mo Farah by applying state of the art science. The Kenyan will have several measurements done and even provide a DNA sample – just what he refused to do with the Project of his manager, Jos Hermens.

But what is Nike’s intention with that sample? For Pitsiladis the answer is obvious; Nike is active in his field as well. “The beautiful thing is: we’ll have a race” he states, “it’s not science fiction, we want to prove that this is not the crazy idea of a crazy professor”.      

Sub2 may not have a sponsor yet, but they do have a famous supporter, WADA. To oversee gene-expression in athletes and to spot any hormonal change does not only mean the optimization of training but to also improve health and prevent injuries. The technology also enables scientists to take complete control of what enters an athletes’ body. WADA are keen to provide one million dollars when Sub2 launch labs in Eldoret in Kenya and Bekoji in Ethiopia. The competition that the professor is so excited about could lead to a surprising consensus. Nothing makes the worlds’ two fastest long-distance runners faster than cooperating with other, extremely fast long-distance runners. Therefore Pitsiladis and Hermens aim to recruit five to ten of the world’s best distance runners to attack to 2 hours barrier – only a matter of appearance fees.

Pitsiladis considers racing at the Dead Sea, where the environment is below seal-level resulting in a 5% increase in oxygen supply potentially providing an additional advantage to the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. But a race course at Pontons would require big walls to provide protection from the desert-winds which may be too difficult to build. Hermens believes that the formula-one course at Monza could provide the required conditions for the record-attempt, “Or maybe an indoor-track with optimized air pressure and using a special floor?”