Why you should care
Because the sport of the Greeks is racing far beyond its origins.
Last week, Eliud Kipchoge nearly became the first athlete to run a marathon in under two hours. He missed the record by less than 30 seconds. Before him, in 2014, Dennis Kimetto set the all-time world record for the fastest run at two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds.
Now, a global team of scientists, doctors and runners is hot on both those athletes’ heels. At least some of them are placing their bets on 27-year-old Zane Robertson, a New Zealand native and Olympic athlete who’s ready for the challenge.
Robertson, working with physician Yannis Pitsiladis’ interdisciplinary research organization Sub2, is hoping to shave off the final three minutes that separate Kimetto’s record from the goal. (Kipchoge’s time was faster, but because the race used a certain type of pacemaker, Kimetto’s time is still the one to beat.) To break two hours, the runners and scientists in the project will have to achieve a speed that the average recreational runner might struggle to fathom by fiddling with as many variables related to elite athleticism as possible, from shoes to diet. Pitsiladis and his team are working to create a comprehensive environment that is nurturing to runners and provides support across physical health, training, psychology and general wellness. All of this is carefully engineered to help the world’s most elite runners achieve a feat that for many humans would not be possible. “Most people couldn’t get to that speed on a treadmill,” Pitsiladis notes. But Robertson has been inching toward this his whole life. Since his late teens, he has trained in East Africa and become the fourth non-African runner to complete a half-marathon in under an hour. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he broke a national record for the men’s 10,000-meter race.
Robertson and his twin brother, Jake, got their start running in New Zealand, where they were national champions in their age group for middle- and long-distance running. The two ran barefoot until age 14. As they entered high school, the twins skipped the usual teenage antics to focus on running and got serious after watching the 2004 Athens Olympics. They were competitive with one another but both made it to professional-level races in 2005, at just age 16.
When they graduated high school in 2007, they decided to spend four months doing altitude training in Ethiopia. But soon after they arrived, the then-17-year-olds made the decision to extend their four-month stay indefinitely, eventually beginning training in Iten, Kenya. “We decided we liked it so much out here and that we needed to keep pushing forward,” Robertson says. “We needed to see this through to the end.” While what “the end” entailed wasn’t clear at that point, the boys knew they wanted to test their bodies and see how far their natural talent could take them in an environment that had produced some of the world’s best runners.
[They] will be the great evidence of all my career’s work.
Getting settled took time and a lot of grit. After a month in Ethiopia, they relocated to Kenya, where the Robertsons worked hard to establish themselves as part of the storied running community. They had no contacts on the ground (despite telling their parents they did when they initially left New Zealand), only a sense of who the star runners were at the time — mostly Kenyans and other Africans. But soon the twins won the respect of the country’s elite athletes, including Patrick Sang, who took them under his wing. And in Kenya, they met Pitsiladis, who saw in Zane and Jake a rare potential. He decided the brothers had the perfect combination of raw talent, environment and potential that he wanted on the Sub2 project. “As long as I keep them healthy and fit and support them, they can achieve great things. That will be the great evidence of all my career’s work,” Pitsiladis says.
While both brothers have proven themselves on the track, all eyes are on Zane as he prepares to run his first marathon. Though he probably won’t break the record this time, he has, since 2014, routinely placed in the top five in competitions. In Rio, Zane broke New Zealand records during the 10,000-meter race, clocking in at 27 minutes and 33 seconds. In 2015, he became the first non-African runner to break one hour during a half-marathon at Kagawa Marugame, finishing the race in 59 minutes and 47 seconds.
The whole running world seems to want what Pitsiladis does. So naturally, when Pitsiladis invited Zane to be part of the Sub2 project, which he founded in 2014, the young runner was enthusiastic. “This is something I wanted my whole life,” he says. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
But there are those who question the nature of the Sub2 quest. Thayne Munce, director of research and development at Sanford Sports Science Institute, says that although this is about working harder, it’s important to acknowledge the danger of potential doping. “The biggest danger in setting a stage for this is the temptation to cheat,” he told OZY. For Alex Hutchinson, a former professional runner and physicist who currently writes Runner’s World’s “Sweat Science” column, Sub2’s goals of pushing the human body are complicated, and the potential isn’t about the runners themselves. “If running sub-two was simply a matter of squeezing more effort out of the body, somebody would have got there already,” he says. He thinks it’s about small tweaks — the course, weather, shoes, drinks optimized to help. “It’s a lot to come together at the right time,” Munce says.
Pitsiladis and Zane know it might never happen — or that someone else might beat them to it. The speed needed to break two hours — about 13 miles per hour — is impossible for most humans on a treadmill, let alone a track. But, says Zane, “The first marathon is always about testing the water, and after that, you can try to go a little quicker.” And quick he’ll have to be.