Neil Featherby: Man or machine behind the man?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst I always have plenty to say when it comes to running, there is only one subject and two people who I can talk about for my column this week and that is the marathon world best times of Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei who between them turned the marathon running world upside down within the space of just over 24 hours last weekend with their amazing performances of 1:59:40 in Vienna and 2:14:04 in the Chicago marathon.

Like so many others, I was up bright and early on Saturday morning to get a run in before settling down to watch the sub two hour challenge which was being screened live on Youtube only to realise half way through that I had a flu jab appointment booked at my doctors for 9:11am which was going to clash with what would be the finish of one of athletics greatest all time feats.

I looked at my other half, Steph, and said: "Can you believe it? History in the making and I will be having a flu injection."

As per usual, she calmed things down when saying "watch it on your mobile phone" which of course I hadn't thought of.

Needless to say and typically of me, I left it to the very last moment before leaving home only to discover that my battery was almost flat.

Eliud Kipchoge became the first man to break two hours in a marathon in Vienna. Picture: PA

I was willing it to stay on whilst glued to it right to the point of sitting down in the surgery while the nurse gave me my yearly inoculation and then just as I was walking out at 1 hour 57mins and 50secs into the run, the battery died.

I was swearing my head off all the way back to the car shouting to Steph to quickly get it on her phone.

This she did with the race clock saying 1:59::00 enabling us to see his finishing effort as he waved to the crowds prior to crossing the finish line with 19 secs still to spare.

Even though this will not count as an official time, the fact being is that someone has now managed to run a marathon under two hours.

However and whilst it took one man to actually complete this challenge, there were indeed so many other people involved who were all part and parcel to what was perfect organisation of a perfect run and with this in mind, I suppose you have to say that it all starts with those people in the background who enable such projects to take place.

In other words, those who provide the funding and scientific back up so as to also make for the perfect team when it comes to the crossing of every t and the dotting of every i while also considering every single variable.

Then of course all the 41 pacemakers who were involved at various points during the 26.2 miles who not only paced the run to perfection, but positioned themselves in a V formation so as to cut down on wind resistance as they followed the lead car directly in front of them which further buffered any wind and controlled pace with a projected laser which sent a beam of light on to the road for them to follow.

Needless to say his diet was also very carefully monitored to ensure that he was eating all the right foods to meet energy requirements going into the run along with a special carbohydrate based drink being handed out to him at regular intervals so as to keep a supply of fuel going into his body to help reduce the risk of any drop off through glycogen depletion during the latter stages of the marathon.

As for the weather, which of course and as yet, the scientists cannot control, needless to say they had done enough research to suggest that come the day of the run, the conditions in Vienna, would be perfect for such an attempt. They got this spot on of course too.

From the purists point of view, there will always be those who say this is not a true reflection of what a world record really stands for, which I can go along with myself. But whatever way you look at it, he and they have proved it can be done which will no doubt now open it up for others to try and follow suit.

Leaving perhaps the most controversial aspect of the run to last and that being the on-going discussions which now encompasses his footwear which apparently is still surrounded in a degree of secrecy.

Without going into too much technical detail, the shoes he wore for this run were an upgrade of an already existing model which were designed for his first attempt of breaking the sub 2 hour barrier in 2017, which allegedly gives an advantage of between 4 and 5 percent.

These shoes are constructed with reactionary plates (probably carbon), special foam and fluid filled air pods in the forefoot so as to provide impact dispersion, energy return and propulsion.

With all this secrecy and so called investigations surrounding what in truth is just an update of a previous model, I am more than sure that the shoe manufacturer will be loving all the hype and may even be manufacturing it (the hype) themselves.

Nevertheless, I do honestly believe that on this occasion these shoes will have definitely provided a further benefit to this awesome run and before anyone says anything, no we don't sell them at Sportlink.

As it happens, carbon fibre plates are in fact nothing new and I can remember other manufacturers using them as far back as in the very early 1990s before moving on to something else.

Whilst I am also sure that people will spend their money on them in the hope that they really do give an increase in performance as stated on the tin, or perhaps better put on the box, all the other brands will also produce very quickly their own version such is the competition between the manufacturers never mind the athletes.

Technology and science has most certainly gone to some amazing lengths to help improve standards at the sharp end and will of course continue to do so.

However, I cannot help, but wonder if all the technology and backing which went into the sub 2 hour project had have existed back in the day of some of the truly marathon greats of the past, just how quick they may have been too.

For instance and using two examples such as Ron Hill who ran 2:09 in 1970 which was considered by many as a true world best at the time and Steve Jones who ran 2:07 in 1985, apart from being very talented and pushing themselves to their very limits in training and racing, I think the nearest they got to any science was through occasional periods of altitude training and the consumption of a high level of carbohydrates in their diet three days prior to a marathon. Also known as the carbohydrate loading diet. Ron Hill was also an innovator when it came to experimenting with specialised run wear clothing for which I am sure he would have been in his element if competing nowadays.

I know it is all hypothetical, but when weighing up the supposed advantage from the shoes and all the science of today, it does make you think just how much further it can all go to the point where you may have to ask the question, is it the man or the machine behind the man?

If the sub 2 hour marathon was not enough excitement for one weekend, Brigid Kosgei's, ladies, world marathon best time run in the Chicago Marathon, the following day has to be just as mind blowing. Whereas Eluid's average pace per mile worked out at 4 mins 34 secs, her average minute per mile pace was just under 5 mins and 7 secs. She also took over four minutes off her previous best time of 2:18:20, when running in this year's London marathon on April 28th. Ironically she also wore a pair of the same specialist shoes for her record run, albeit perhaps not quite as bespoke as built for Kipchoge.

Up until June 1964, she would have held the men's world record with that time and whereas it has taken 55 years from that date for a man to go under two hours, I am a making prediction here and now that what with all the modern day science and financial support from big businesses, it will be less than 25 years before a woman also does the same.

EDP October 18th 2019: Neil Featherby

Mark Armstrongmark.armstrong@archant.co.uk@markarmy