Nike’s Breaking2, Woolworth Plimsolls, And A Banana-Footed Brit
Nike’s Breaking2 project is pure marketing genius. It is an inspiring attempt to break the magical 2-hour marathon barrier by recruiting the best marathoners in Nike’s stable, guiding them through a cutting-edge training program, and most importantly, equipping them with the latest state-of-the-art Nike shoes.
Those shoes are the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, which apparently give runners more than a 4% efficiency boost. Since the Zoom Vaporfly Elite is custom made exclusively for Nike’s world-class athletes, the Beaverton-based company is graciously offering three related models leveraging the new technology for us age-groupers. Not so coincidentally, the event is scheduled for the mid-Spring– the peak buying season for running gear.
Anyway, the current marathon world record is held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya who ran 2:02:57 in Berlin on September 28, 2014. A 1:59:59 marathon—4:35 per mile pace– would be 2.41% faster than Kimetto’s mark.
The new Nike shoes’ efficiency advantage should be more than enough for Kimetto to go sub-2…assuming his old shoes offered no better than 1.39% boost, but alas, Kimetto is an Adidas-sponsored runner, so he won’t be making an attempt in the swoosh-marked super shoes.
The three Nike runners who will are Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersanay Tadese of Eritrea. They have respective marathon PRs of 2:03:05, 2:04:45, and 2:10:41 (but a blazing fast 58:23 world record for the ½ marathon). To go sub-2 in the Breaking2 project, each would need to lower his respective PR by:
So, how realistic are such improvements?
Well, I plotted the marathon world record progression terms of % decrease from the previous world record. Up until the 1950s, there were four performances that lowered the record by at least 2.25%. The biggest trampling came at the feet of Jim Peters of England who obliterated the WR by 4 minutes and 57 seconds (3.40%!) in 1952.
As you can see, it has been 65 years since anyone improved the world record by more than 2.41%. In fact, it has gotten progressively harder to make vast improvements. Since 1969, no one has lowered the record by more than 1%.
So, how did Jim Peters break the world record by so much? Was it his shoes?
His training and racing shoes were an ordinary pair of Woolworth plimsolls which cost “twelve and six”. Twelve and six means twelve shillings and sixpence—or about the same price as a loaf of bread and six eggs in 1950s London.
What’s truly astounding is how Peters described his use of those shoes, “I used to swap feet for a few months, put[ting] the left shoe on my right foot, so they didn’t wear down in the same place and damage my tendons.” Peters then transitions to a discussion of his training regimen, “In my lunch-break, I’d do six miles on the track at 75-seconds-a-lap pace. Then I’d do 10 miles hard when I got home at night. I’d race on a Saturday and have two longer runs on a Sunday, 16 miles in the morning, 12 miles at night – all against the clock.”
Yes, that’s right, Jim Peters extended the life of his rudimentary shoes by going banana-footed. With each shoe on the wrong foot, he ran 80 miles Monday through Friday at faster than Marathon pace, and then he threw in a race on Saturday, and then he “recovered” on Sunday with a fast-paced, two-a-day 28 miles!
So much for technology.
Oh, and by the way, Peters was not a one-hit wonder. He had a string of brilliant performances in the early 1950s lowering the world record several times from 2:25:39 to 2:17:39—an astounding 5.49%. The secret to success clearly wasn’t his shoes, but rather his hellish training program. Peters was doubly gifted with a great motor and the superhuman ability to recover from very high intensity workouts day-after day, month-after-month, year-after-year.
If Nike’s Breaking2 attempt this weekend isn’t a success, perhaps Nike scientists can isolate and bottle Peters’ ‘recoverability’ and inject it into its athletes.
If not, then perhaps Adidas can run past Nike to glory by shoeing Dennis Kimmeto and Wilson Kipsang each in a pair of Adidas Originals Plimsole IIIs and make them train at sub 4:35/mile pace for 120+ miles per week for several months. On race day, they can then switch feet and go after the WR banana-footed. That ought to do it.
Adidas Originals Plimsole III