No one, in recorded history, has ever managed to run a marathon in under two hours. The record is currently at 2:02:57, with that 2 minutes and 57 seconds standing between the world’s greatest living endurance runners and the most elusive frontier in athletics since the 4-minute mile was first run in 1954.
As we’ve previously written about on AskMen, Nike’s Breaking2 project is the company’s attempt to help push a marathon runner through the 120-minute barrier. After all, being the shoes that are on the feet of the first sub-2 hour marathon runner in history would mean major kudos for any athletics brand. The running market is now an eagerly contested prize – in contrast to the old days, when your dad ran a marathon in his squash kit and a pair of army issue Hi-Tec Silver Shadows – with research estimating that running shoes now account for 40% of a footwear market projected to be worth $115.6bn by 2023.
While many companies have a deep, longstanding commitment to running (special mentions to Asics, Saucony and New Balance, as well as upstart brands like Switzerland’s On), it’s Nike and their rival Adidas who dominate the market. Nike have recently championed urban running through initiatives like Bridge Runners (city-based running clubs made up of recruits from the creative community) and also tweaked Adidas’ nose over the London 2012 Olympics, where Nike contested Adidas’ official sponsorship with their ‘Greatness doesn’t need a stadium’ campaign and their takeover of the London-wide British 10k road race shortly before the Games began. Meanwhile, Adidas fought back with the launch of the hugely acclaimed Boost running shoe and can now brag that the last four men’s world record marathon times have all been broken in their shoes.
The stakes in this contest have been raised further by the research around the two-hour barrier. Last week, Nike unveiled the Zoom Vaporfly Elite, the shoe that the three elite runners taking part in Breaking2 will wear. Designers have said that the shoe was first conceived a decade ago: “We’re at a point where we now feel that we have the science,” said Matthew Nurse, VP of the Nike Sports Research Lab. The shoe weighs just 7 ounces (the company’s most recent Olympic sprint shoe came in around 9 ounces), with a thick sole crafted from a new foam substance and containing a lightweight, carbon-fibre plate to help propel the runner. A version of this tech is common in sprinting shoes, but has never been used with marathons in mind before.
Adidas’ contribution was released a week earlier, in time for the Tokyo Marathon where Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang ran in the only pair of adizero Sub2 shoes in existence, taking the gold medal with a time of 2:03:58. Adidas’ team worked with Kipsang throughout the development of the Sub2, and Andre Maestrini, the Global General Manager of Adidas Running described the shoe as “a significant milestone…central to the future of Adidas running.” The shoe’s killer feature is its Boost Light sole, the lightest ever foam the company has produced, which boasts “industry leading” levels of energy return (i.e. how much of your impact is soaked up by the road, and how much rebounds to propel you forwards). There is also an ultra-light, one-piece mesh upper and gripping sole.
They’re both unquestionably great looking shoes and the product of years of hard research, but can they actually improve your performance? Advocates of barefoot running claim that most trainer science is marketing spin and, plainly, buying the right shoes is not going to make up for a lack of training, poor diet, or certain mechanical and genetic disadvantages.
However, your shoes do shape your running more than any other item you wear – much of this may be psychological, but the independent research accompanying the Adidas launch claimed that the Boost technology can supply a 1% improvement in running economy, with the overall weight reduction of the shoe giving the same edge again. This doesn’t sound like much – but bear in mind that if a runner is going to go sub-2, they will only need to improve their running economy by 3-5%. Suddenly, those fractional differences sound more alluring.
Whether these new shoes are a natural hardware evolution comparable to when tennis rackets went from wood to carbon, or more like the swimming bodysuits that were eventually ruled to offer an unfair advantage, remains to be seen. As Ross Tucker of the widely read Science of Sport blog sums up, as running shoes break this new physical ground and push at the limits of training science, “It’s quite a fun ethical sports technology area that we’re heading into.”