`it’s fitting that Yannis Pitsiladis is a man in a hurry. The sports scientist is the leader of an ambitious project whose goal is to propel an athlete to run a sub-two-hour marathon for the first time. It is a quest that involves harnessing the power of science to push the limits of human performance. It is also itself a race — with the glory on offer proving a compelling incentive to athletes, commercial sponsors and sports brands. Like any good race, it is shot through with drama, intrigue and self-belief, and Pitsiladis has staked his reputation and money on winning it. “We have to believe,” he says. “I’m putting everything I own into this.”
There is no inherent reason why the idea of a man covering 26 miles and 385 yards in less than 120 minutes should be so compelling to an audience beyond fans of elite marathon running. The distance itself is a messy construct, based on the (possibly mythical) feat of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who is said to have run from the town of Marathon to Athens (approximately 25 miles) in 490BC to announce the defeat of the Persian army. Today’s distance was established at the 1908 Olympics in London, where the 26-mile route from Windsor Castle to White City stadium was extended by 385 yards in order to finish in front of the Royal Box.
Yet, as author Ed Caesar writes in his book Two Hours, it matters. “We are hardwired to find new ways to test ourselves,” he says. “Everest was unclimbable until somebody climbed it. The four-minute mile was impossible until it wasn’t.” The marathon is more than just a race — it has become a metaphor for the triumph of human effort against seemingly insurmountable odds.
The current world record stands at two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in the Berlin Marathon in 2014. With each new record, talk about breaking the two-hour barrier becomes more urgent. But although the 177 seconds between the existing record and 1:59:59 sounds slight, it is, in marathon terms, chasmic. For perspective, it took 121∏ years before Kimetto took 161 seconds off the existing record. As the physiological demands ramp up, the margins become ever smaller and many believe that, as the record gets quicker, the pace of its reduction will slow.
That’s not to say that the sub-two-hour marathon is impossible. Most experts believe it will be done — in time. In 1991, doctor and physiologist Mike Joyner wrote a paper that argued that, given the best possible values for VO2 Max (the maximum amount of oxygen a human can process), running economy (how efficiently the body uses that oxygen) and lactate threshold (the point during hard running beyond which you begin to produce too much lactic acid for your body to manage and fatigue sets in), the best possible marathon time was 1:57:58. In 2011, he predicted that the record would fall at some point between 2025 and the late 2030s. Even the most optimistic projection, based on the trend line of the world record from the 1960s to the present day, points to a sub-two-hour marathon time no earlier than 2022.
Pitsiladis believes the record can be broken much sooner. In 2014, he launched the Sub2 Project, a consortium of scientists whose goal was to use the latest knowledge and innovation, allied to the talent of East African athletes, to break the two-hour barrier by the end of this decade — to smash the record by a quantum leap rather than inching it down in increments.
“I’ve spent my career trying to work out what makes athletes from East Africa so great and what comes to the fore is the lifestyle, altitude, socioeconomics and cultural reasons,” says Pitsiladis, 48, an anti-doping expert with the International Olympic Committee and Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton. “I thought if you could combine that with cutting-edge technology, what could really happen with regards to the limits of human performance?”
He assembled a team of experts working across the fields of training, nutrition, genetics, physiology, sports medicine and equipment, and began to look at the ways these areas might interact to break the two-hour barrier. His project then set up training bases in Kenya and Ethiopia to try to identify any potential sub-two-hour athletes. Of the 100 fastest marathon runners in history, 59 are from Kenya and 31 are from neighbouring Ethiopia. Both countries are at altitude, meaning those born there produce more endurance-boosting red blood cells to counteract the thinner air.
We are hardwired to find new ways to test ourselves. The four-minute mile was impossible until it wasn't
Genetically there may also be an advantage — having longer legs relative to body height and thinner calves may allow the average Kenyan to expend slightly less energy with each stride while running. Both cultures involve a high level of physical activity in young people (Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, widely considered to be the greatest endurance athlete of all time, grew up on a farm and famously ran the 10km to and from school twice a day). In economic terms, a professional running career offers riches beyond alternative careers, adding a strong external motivation to an already favourable environment for endurance running.
The Sub2 Project’s plan was to find one or more candidates with the right physiological potential at an early age and then work to train them with a sub-two hour record attempt in mind. The training phase would involve advanced biometric tracking (via wearable technology or tiny wireless thermometers that could be swallowed) that could provide instant feedback on heart rate, body temperature and sweat loss, enabling the athletes to train more smartly. The project is also helping to develop a drink that enables the body to ingest high amounts of carbohydrates when running; a prototype solution was used by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele during this year’s Berlin Marathon when he ran the second fastest marathon ever (2:03:03).
Naturally, such a wide-ranging approach requires a lot of money. While the Sub2 Project has an abundance of ambition and expertise, it lacks the finance; Pitsiladis says $30 million is required to achieve the project’s aims, but he’s still searching for the support of a major sponsor. Yet he remains driven and has an urgent, energetic manner about him. He talks quickly, his sentences tumbling over each other.
The Sub2 Project is his life’s work and he has invested everything into it. “I’m not a businessman,” he says. “I’ve been trying to do everything at the same time — being in a lab, being in the field and presenting the project to companies such as Nike and Red Bull, with very limited success so far. I’m using my children’s funds for their university education on this project.”
For him, the stakes could not be higher. This was made even more acute recently with a discovery that threatens to change everything. “Nike are going to attempt 1:59:59 next year,” he says. “I’m not even meant to know they are doing it.” If what Pitsiladis believes proves to be true, it is not just finance that the Sub2 Project lacks, but time. A rival bid sets up the intriguing prospect of the equivalent of a space race for the sub-two-hour marathon.
At the time of writing, Nike had not made any public statements regarding such an attempt and did not respond to a request for comment for this piece. But as Caesar says: “The premium for the shoe that crosses the line in two hours is huge. It would be the biggest chance to sell running shoes that anyone’s ever going to have.”
Pitsiladis believes Nike is also funding its attempt to the tune of $30 million — coincidentally or not. “What I do know is that it will be on a bespoke course they are going to design,” he claims. He had been exploring the possibility of staging an attempt in the Dead Sea in Israel — at 400 metres below sea level, it’s the lowest place on earth and has nearly 5% more oxygen to breathe. In theory, if you built a flat course there, with few or no turns and ran in still, cool conditions, you would give a highly trained athlete the best possible chance of success. “But that’s all gone out of the window now,” Pitsiladis says. “We don’t have the funds to do that in six months.”
In fact, the emergence of a rival bid has changed the whole timeframe of the Sub2 Project. “We are now working to try to condense five years of a project into five months,” says Pitsiladis. Some of the longer-term elements — such as the talent identification process — have been put on hold and all of its efforts will be focused on current athletes working to break the record in a recognised marathon race (the most favourable ones being in Dubai, Tokyo and Berlin). The original goal of 2019 has also moved forward to next year.
Of the 100 fastest marathon runners in history, 59 are from Kenya and 31 are from neighbouring Ethiopia
Pitsiladis professes to being conflicted about a rival bid. On the downside, the imminence of that attempt has driven a coach and horses through his team’s five-year plan. He had also been working with Nike on the development of a sub-two shoe and fears that it might now withhold its shoe technology from his team and reserve it exclusively for its own bid.
On the other hand, Nike’s interest is also a validation of Pitsiladis’ long-held, but sometimes ridiculed, belief that, with the right approach, the sub-two barrier can be broken in the next few years. He also welcomes the competition because of the stimulus it will provide to the sub-two quest as a whole: “If you look back in history, when there was some kind of race, whether it was the race to go to the moon or to build a supersonic jet, humans can do remarkable things.” However, he betrays a note of frustration that the rival bid has not yet gone public: “Why aren’t they launching? Why don’t they just declare it?” he says. “That’ll be really great because instead of lots of journalists calling me, I’ll get some of the big companies calling me.”
It has also meant that the Sub2 Project, which was founded on principles of openness, has become guarded. “Part of the original project was that we would be sharing all our innovations — now we’ve changed our approach,” says Pitsiladis. “Basically we can’t share this any longer.” He is also cryptic about the details he has learned concerning the Nike bid. “They will succeed, but it won’t be within the rules. If they try and do things within the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), it will fail. That’s not a possibility within six months. So then it’s more of a publicity stunt.”
This leads to all sorts of possibilities — such as running on a specially built track that’s less tiring than asphalt, perhaps indoors in a temperature-controlled environment with oxygenated air. Such an attempt would break the current IAAF rules, which state that marathon records need to be set on roads, on measured courses with a decline of less than one metre per kilometre, with the start and finish points not more than 13.1 miles apart, so as to counteract the potential advantages of a tailwind. Pitsiladis is keen to emphasise that his project’s attempt will be within those rules: “With the knowledge we have, if we were to implement it, we could actually break the two-hour barrier now.”
It’s true there are immediate, legal measures you could take to seriously attack the mark. “You’ve got a lot of athletes clustering around the 2:03 mark and they have never been in the same race,” says Andrew Jones, Professor of Applied Physiology at the University of Exeter, who has previously worked with women’s marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe. “If you could get them all together at the same time, in optimal conditions, you could get much closer to two hours.”
The athletes could work together rather than race each other, systematically rotating the lead and slipstreaming off each other to conserve energy and cut down on wind resistance. By doing so, says Jones, “you could reduce the energy costs by 6-8%. You could take a minute or two off from that alone.” Significant prize money to be shared equally within this group of elite athletes would be a key requirement.
While this scenario is possible, it remains unlikely in the absence of the huge financial backing and multi-party support that would be required. In that context, Pitsiladis’ unlikely claim has the ring of the showman about it, trying to drum up interest from potential investors and sponsors. But one thing is certain — the presence of competing bids and ever-closer record attempts will ensure that this race continues to fascinate us. And whenever that finish line is reached in less than two hours, after such a sustained personal effort and with so much at stake, it’s a race Yannis Pitsiladis dare not lose.