Sustained Assault

Disegno #25 (2019)

Image courtesy of Nike.

I can’t remember at which point in the race I saw the rat, although it must have been close to the start because my face had not yet become a death mask of my own salts.

If I run for any extended distance, the salt in my sweat crystallises into a whorl pattern across my face. By the end of a race I am a salty Pict, tattooed with a tracery of excretion that serves as a history of my own endeavour. To alleviate the exhaustion of long-distance races, I will sometimes nervously run my tongue across this endeavour, lapping like a gnu going at a mineral lick that is also its own body. So given no facial salts, the rat must have been early in the race. It’s difficult
to say for sure though – throughout a marathon, you’re more or less doing
the same thing. You shamble incessantly, surrounded by a rotating cast of largely interchangeable fellow runners. You see the same fluorescent vests and T-shirts; the same cosseting lycra and barely-there shorts; the same high-tech trainers; the same vest-chafed nipples weeping blood like the Madonna; the same looks of elation and pride giving way to yawning horror at the realisation of how much further there is to run on legs that have already flooded themselves with lactic acid. Something like a rat stands out.

I’d likely just come out of the Tiergarten, the central park that makes up the first few kilometres of the Berlin marathon. So I would have been fresh, buoyed from the parkland, when I happened upon the carcass. The rat was right there in the middle of the road, prostrate. Eyes closed and mouth agape, its teeth were bared over wee paws curved like Mr Burns’s hands. Down its belly, the fur had torn apart, leaving a wet opening from which spilled thick, clotted innards.
I like to think it died in service of the marathon – burst, perhaps, under the tread of the eventual winner of the men’s race, Kenyan marathoner Kenenisa Bekele (2:01:41). Bekele finished two seconds slower than the world record, a time set on the same course in 2018 by Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:39). Had Bekele not been slowed by wading through rat offal,1 perhaps he would have broken it.

That rat bothered me for the rest of the marathon. Split open and spilling onto the tarmac, it felt like an omen for my own race. And at this stage in proceedings, barely out of the blocks, I couldn’t even lick my own face for comfort.

This year I have run two marathons – one in Berlin, one in London – both at the invitation of the American sportswear giant Nike. It was a generous, privileged opportunity for an amateur runner, but also daunting. While I enjoy running, I had never covered any distance beyond a half marathon, and never competed in an organised race. “We know you like to run a little, so we wanted to offer you the chance to run the London marathon next year!” came an email from Nike’s PR team in December 2018. Not wanting to look cowardly by admitting that I worried this invitation was basically equivalent to saying “We know you like to cook a little, so we wanted to offer you the chance to cater a banquet for 800 people!”
I signed up.

For both races, Nike provided me with a place on the starting block; kit and shoes; and a regimen of training provided by the fitness coach Luke Worthington.2 I was now a marathoner, part of an exalted lineage stretching back to Pheidippides, the legendary first marathoner, who ran to Athens from the Battle of Marathon in 490BCE to report the city’s victory. “Joy to you, we’ve won,” Pheidippides cried out, before dying from exhaustion in what is undoubtedly the worst foundation myth in all sport. It is akin to learning that the first football match culminated in the players all being kicked to death.

As has been the case since the company’s inception as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964, running is big business for Nike. In 2019, the brand reported wholesale equivalent revenue of $4.488bn from its running division, while recent years have seen the company’s technological developments help to lead a sustained assault upon the long-distance running records overseen by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Within the past 13 months,
the five fastest official men’s marathons of all time have been recorded: two by Kipchoge (his second took place at the 2019 London marathon in a time of 2:02:37); one by Bekele; one by Birhanu Legese (2:02:48; Berlin 2019); and one by Mosinet Geremew (2:02:55; London 2019). Meanwhile, Brigid Kosgei has broken the women’s record, finishing the 2019 Chicago marathon in a time
of 2:14:04. All five of these athletes raced in Nike shoes as per their sponsorship deals. While rivals such as Adidas and Brooks also sponsor athletes, Nike currently has such a stranglehold on the upper echelons of the sport that the top 10 finishers in the men’s race at the 2019 Chicago marathon all wore the company’s shoes. American athlete Jacob Riley finished the race in ninth with a time of 2:10:36. Presently unsponsored, Riley is therefore free to run in whatever brand he chooses. “I bought into the hype,” he said after the race. Riley competed in a pair of Nikes he later compared to “running on trampolines”. I still can’t tell whether this was meant as praise or criticism.

Until as late as December 1967, when Derek Clayton ran the Fukuoka marathon in 2:09:36, Riley’s ninth-place time would have secured the world record. This is not surprising. The marathon has undergone rapid progression in recent years, such that historical finishing times barely stand comparison to those achieved by contemporary athletes. The first marathon run at the event’s current 42.195km distance took place at the 1908 London Olympics, where American athlete Johnny Hayes made it around the course in a winning time of 2:55:18. Pictures of Hayes completing the race are remarkable. Crossing the line in
white gym kit and leather shoes, the 5’4” Hayes looks like the reanimated corpse of a schoolboy cross-country runner, raised from the dead by
a necromantic gym teacher. Exhausted, Hayes had actually entered the final leg of the race (a lap of London’s White City stadium) in second place.

He was more than 10 minutes behind his closest competitor, the Italian Dorando Pietri. “Out of the dark archway there staggered a little man, with red running-drawers, a tiny boy-like creature,” wrote the novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, reporting on Pietri’s race for the Daily Mail. “He reeled as he entered and faced the roar of the applause[...] Suddenly the whole group stopped. There were wild gesticulations. Men stooped and rose again. Good heavens, he has fainted; is it possible that even at this last moment the prize may slip through his fingers?” Pietri was eventually helped over the line by race officials in a time of 2:54:46, for which he was disqualified by race officials on account of having received outside assistance from race officials. Go figure. The record belonged to Hayes, although Pietri nevertheless deserves an honourable mention for having run the entire distance wearing a handkerchief doused in balsamic vinegar from which he occasionally sucked for refreshment.

In the following 111 years, a total of 53 minutes and 5 seconds have been slashed from the men’s marathon, while the women’s record has dropped by 1 hour 26 minutes and 18 seconds, the inaugural time set by Violet Piercy in 1926 (3:40:22) giving way to the current best by Kosgei. There are numerous reasons for this improvement. Nutrition has advanced dramatically,3 such that athletes
are no longer sustained by vinegar kerchiefs; race management is more developed, with modern events typically employing professional pacers to aid athletes; and training has become highly professionalised and specialised, meaning that athletes prepare for and approach races in a radically different fashion from their forebears. This has not necessarily been entirely for the better.

In October 2019, Nike announced that it was closing its Oregon Project, a wildly successful training group founded in 2001 that shook up the sport with its heavy use of technologies such as cryotherapy, underwater treadmills, high-altitude training camps and an “altitude house” whose artificial climate boosted athletes’ haemoglobin levels. The Oregon Project changed the way many athletes trained but ultimately collapsed in scandal. The group’s head coach Alberto Salazar is presently serving a four-year ban from athletics for doping offences, while a former member of the team, the young middle-distance runner Mary Cain, reported how pressure from the group’s all-male staff for her to “get thinner, and thinner, and thinner” led to her period stopping for three years and caused five fractures as a result of osteoporosis. “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” Cain told The New York Times. “Instead I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike[...] I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more, I was trying to survive.”

Cain’s experience is extreme and, one would hope, atypical, but it gestures towards a wider intensification of training methodologies. “First of all, the athletes out-trained the [marathon] distance years ago,” blogs American race commentator Toni Reavis. “No longer a spirit draining test of endurance, today the marathon has been reduced to just another speed event contested over a longish distance.” When Kipchoge broke the record in Berlin, for instance, he ran at an average pace of 13mph, which is the equivalent of completing a 100m race in 17.2 seconds, around 422 times in a row. Alternatively, a quick search
of Wikipedia reveals that it is the equivalent of going toe to toe with a Komodo dragon running at top speed. And Komodo dragons, Wikipedia notes, are “speedy reptiles”. To achieve a result like this, the training (even when removed from the controversies of groups like the Oregon Project) is brutal. In his 2015 book Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, journalist Ed Caesar charts the training regimen of Geoffrey Mutai, who set an unofficial world record of 2:03:02 at the 2011 Boston marathon.4 “In the four or five months of specific training he undertakes before each major marathon, he runs around 125 miles a week,” writes Caesar.

“His total mileage in that period is the equivalent of running in a straight line from New York City to Los Angeles. Moreover, the training is savage
– up and down hills, at altitude, at alternating speeds, on rough roads. Many sessions, he says, are much harder than a race.” Having once spent a significant portion of a 32km training run crying as I stumbled along the hard shoulder of an A-road, unable to find an exit, I can confirm that this is true.

A critical reason for the improvement in marathon times, however, and certainly the driver behind the explosion of records broken in the past two years, is technological. Today’s athletes are better equipped than their predecessors, thereby enabling other improving factors to flower correspondingly. The retired long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie set world records at both the 2007 and 2008 Berlin marathon, and is clear as to what he feels has led progression in the event. “All sport is helped by technology,” Gebrselassie told Caesar. “If someone said to me it’s not technology, it’s the ability of the athletes, no, no[...] I’ve been running the last twenty-two years. I know the shoes in the late eighties, early nineties. Every year, the shoes that we have completely change. And now I’m thinking what will be in the future.”

Of those five fastest official men’s marathons recorded since 2018, as well as
 Kosgei’s 2019 women’s record, all came from athletes wearing a version of the Vaporfly, Nike’s elite marathon shoe. Of these races, Kosgei’s is probably the most significant. Her race in Chicago broke the longest-standing marathon world record – men’s or women’s – in the post-war era: a 2:15:25 time set by Paula Radcliffe at the 2003 London Marathon. “We always knew
the time would come when the record would be broken,” said Radcliffe in the aftermath of Kosgei’s accomplishment, but for many this didn’t capture the magnitude of the race. “I think [the record] will fall at some point, but I think men will break two hours before women break Paula’s time,” said Joan Benoit, the winner of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon, speaking the day after the 2019 Berlin race. “I think I will see two hours broken in my lifetime, but I’m not sure I’ll see two fifteen broken in my lifetime.” Yet less than a month later, Kosgei finished the Chicago course in 2:14:04 – an 81 second improvement on a record that had long seemed unassailable. “I’m happy and I feel good,” said Kosgei afterwards. “I ran here last year so I knew it was a good course.” Well, clearly.

For Kosgei and the men who have clocked up record times in the last two years, technology has been crucial. For much of the 20th century, ideas around the design of marathon shoes hinged upon the reduction of weight. “Weight that is
far out on the limbs is called ‘distal weight,’ and the less of it a distance runner has, the better,” writes David Epstein in his book The Sports Gene, describing an idea that shaped manufacturers’ approach to footwear design. In the mid 2010s, however, this approach collapsed as athletes began to adopt a more aggressive, physically punishing method of tackling the marathon. “Originally, our position was that [athletes] wanted something that’s basically like running barefoot,” Adidas footwear designer Andy Barr told Caesar in Two Hours. “Less than a hundred grams, not a lot of cushioning. And what the athletes [actually] wanted was almost the exact opposite. What the guys said to us was that the way the marathon’s being run now, they need to get to twenty miles with as minimal fatigue as possible. They described to us what they needed: almost like a trainer up until twenty miles, and then when the hammer goes down at twenty, twenty- one, twenty-two miles, they want something that’s a pure racing flat.” Marathon shoes began to get bigger and more cushioned, moving away from the previous design archetype – a timeworn form that the American runner and journalist Amby Burfoot characterised as “thin slabs of rubber”.

First introduced in 2016, the Vaporfly is the most successful of this new breed of racing shoes. It is built around a lightweight midsole foam, Pebax, which is supposed to deliver 30 per cent more energy return than traditional foams – in other words, less energy is wasted each time the foot hits the ground. In addition, the Vaporfly has a carbon-fibre plate in its midsole, which also increases energy return by acting like a spring, as well as bringing stability to the ankle joint, leading to better overall efficiency. It’s been a revolutionary design,5 with Nike’s marketing billing various versions of the shoes as improving a runner’s performance by 4 per cent. This statistic has been codified into the brand’s messaging to the degree that one version of the Vaporfly literally has it printed on its sole: “4%: Measured in the lab. Verified with medals & records.” Nor does this braggadocio seem to be just empty marketing speak. A 2018 study in the peer-reviewed journal Sports Medicine, ‘A Comparison of the Energetic Cost of Running in Marathon Racing Shoes’, subjected the Vaporfly’s claims to scrutiny. “We showed that these newly developed running shoes reduce the energetic cost of running by an average of 4% compared with established marathon racing shoes,” wrote the study’s authors. “We predict that with these shoes, top athletes can run substantially faster and achieve the first sub-2-hour marathon.”6

Then, in autumn 2019, two things happened. On 12 October, Eliud Kipchoge completed the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna’s Prater park, a non-IAAF-sanctioned event dedicated to breaking the two-hour mark for a marathon. Wearing an experimental version of the Vaporfly which looks like something from Barbarella, Kipchoge completed the race in a time of 1:59:40.7 This is comfortably the greatest sporting achievement I have seen – an act of endurance and talent that stands beyond compare. “Today we went to the Moon and came back to earth!” Kipchoge tweeted in the aftermath of his accomplishment. “This shows no-one is limited.” Meanwhile, two weeks earlier and wearing a mass- produced version of that same record-breaking shoe, journalist Oli Stratford made it around the Berlin marathon in a time of 3:25:33, despite stopping mere kilometres from the end for quite an extended wee. “I think I saw a rat!” Stratford explained in the aftermath of his accomplishment.

In 1831, the American lawyer Timothy Walker penned ‘Defense of Mechanical Philosophy’, an essay extolling the potentials of mechanisation, and as utopian an account of technology’s capacity to shape society as I have come across. “The horse is to be unharnessed, because he is too weak,” Walker wrote. “Machines are to perform the drudgery of man, while he is to look on in self-complacent ease.” Today, Walker’s unremitting faith in technology is still alive and well within performance wear, an area of design that believes firmly in its capacity to enhance human activity. Vaporfly may not be intended to allow for “self-complacent ease”, but it is premised on the idea that technological supplements are required if athletes are to achieve their full potential. “[Kipchoge] is an otherworldly talent who has beaten the best in the world in last-generation shoes,” Burfoot wrote when Kipchoge completed the Ineos marathon. “There probably isn’t another marathoner who could break two hours in the shoes he wore last weekend.” Perhaps not, but the flip-side of Burfoot’s argument is that Kipchoge himself couldn’t have broken two hours without those same shoes. “Now I’ve done it, I am expecting more people to do it after me,” Kipchoge predicted following the race, but he is also up-front about the role that technology has played in his achievements. The Vaporfly initially grew out of Breaking2, a 2017 Nike research project that culminated in Kipchoge setting an unofficial marathon time of 2:00:25. In the run-up to this race, Kipchoge was asked by Wired about the impact of technology on his sport, and what would represent the “cleanest” possible marathon time, devoid of technological influence. “You ask me, clean?” No technology, no help?” he replied. “That is what Abebe Bikila ran in 1960.” At the Rome Olympics, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the marathon by running barefoot, setting a new world record of 2:15:16. “That was barefoot. The cleanest.”

Bikila’s race was extraordinary, a Boys’ Own adventure into the peaks of what the human body is capable of unaided; it’s hardly surprising that, now, there’s no shortage of interest in seeing what that same body might be able to do aided. In 1991, for instance, the physiologist Michael Joyner published an influential paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Physiology. ‘Modeling: Optimal Marathon Performance on the Basis of Physiological Factors’ examined the limiting physiological factors on human performance. Exploring ideas such as oxygen uptake and lactate thresholds, Joyner concluded that it was “‘physiologically’ possible” that the ideal runner, in ideal circumstances, could complete a marathon in a time of 1:57:58. The point, of course, is that such ideals are not practicable, particularly in a sport like the marathon which takes place on a city’s streets, with all their in-built variability and imperfections. “[If] you really wanted to see what was possible in the marathon,” writes Caesar, “you’d find a way to move the world’s best runners off the asphalt” and onto a purpose-built track “perfectly tuned for marathoners”.

This is where performance wear makes hay. The day before running the Berlin marathon, I took part in a Nike-organised warm-up run around the Tiergarten. One of the trainers ran proceedings enthusiastically, dancing around the group and encouraging runners to participate in a series of exercises like “High knee butt kick!”, which she roared as if it were a finishing move in Mortal Kombat. She concluded the session by leading the group in a chanted mantra: “GO BE- YOND! GO BE-YOND! GO BE-YOND! S-----WOOSH!” That final swoosh, rich in branding, was drawn out into an extended whoop. “Go Beyond Yourself ”, “Go Beyond Limits” – both phrases feature heavily in Nike’s marketing, and both get at the core of the story that performance wear tells about itself. Technology can allow an athlete to accomplish what is physiologically already within their capabilities, but which is not actually possible; a sleight of hand intended to make any resultant success wholly that of the athlete but simultaneously that of the technology too. The fact that it’s true – that Vaporfly actually lives up to its billing – is where things start to become somewhat contentious.

In October 2019, the Italian athletics agent Gianni Demadonna revealed that a group of his predominantly Adidas-sponsored athletes had complained to the IAAF and the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) about the Vaporfly. “Understandably they are troubled by what is happening in their sport because the times being run are so fast,” Demadonna told The Times. In response, the
IAAF released a statement. “Recent advances in technology mean that the concept of ‘assistance’ to athletes[...] has been the subject of much
debate in the athletics world,” it read. “The IAAF has established a working group to consider the issues.” No significant change is expected to come from this group, particularly given that as recently as June 2018 the organisation softened its rules on footwear to remove its ban on “the incorporation of any technology”. At present, the only constraint within the rules is that shoes “must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage”. There is no specific metric as to how you’re meant to interpret or measure this, meaning that it’s about as useful a rule as just stating that “all footwear must not be constructed so as to not be fine.”

There is precedent for regulating performance wear in other sports, however, largely based on the idea that advanced apparel may operate as technological doping. “The one thing that has really, really changed over the last few years has been the technology in the sport,” said swimmer Michael Phelps in 2009, speaking after he had lost his 200m freestyle world record to Paul Biedermann. Biedermann had raced in a polyurethane Arena X-Glide suit, part of a generation of “tech-suits” that compressed muscle, tautened the surface of the skin, reduced drag and added buoyancy. These suits were so effective that former Olympian Steve Furniss likened the difference between them and a traditional suit as being akin to that “between a barge and a racing boat”. “It’s changed the sport completely,” lamented Phelps. “Now it’s not swimming. The headlines are always who is wearing what suit.” Phelps was seemingly vindicated when, six months later, swimming’s governing body FINA banned the suits, instituting a rule that any “material used for swimsuits can be only ‘Textile Fabric(s)’.”

Those who have taken umbrage with Vaporfly are calling for similar action. Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Geoffrey T. Burns and Nicholas Tam have suggested “a single standard in competition running shoes: regulate the shoe midsole thickness”. This method, Burns and Tam have argued, “would regulate running shoes on their fundamental mechanical function – as springs” and would thereby “provide a transparent standard that supersedes the band-aid approach of litigating every new development”. It is, they say, the best way to regulate any design that “blurs the line between physiological and technological performance”. Burns and Tam’s suggestion seems a sensible way of introducing clarity to the IAAF’s rules, but whether it will resolve the status of the line between “physiological and technological performance” is debatable – when you get to down to finer margins, there’s no such line to be found. As the authors note, “running shoes are inevitably a blend of materials: midsole foams of different densities, rubber outsoles of varying configurations, and rigid pieces embedded in distinct architectures.” In other words, all athletics shoes are composites of different materials, engineered to function together in ways that support the runner’s endeavour. If that’s not technology, what is? Outside of extreme cases like Bikila – or the yin to Bikila’s yang, Fred Lorz, a marathoner who felt tired during the 1904 St Louis Olympic marathon so asked his trainer to give him a lift in his car for 17.7km of the course’s 39.99km, before eventually reemerging to win8 – examples of clear-cut physiological and clear-cut technological triumphs are hard to find.

Running in the final stretches of the Berlin marathon – once my legs had given way, my spirit had broken, and my face had crusted up like a bust of Lot’s wife – it all seemed so obvious: regardless of how technologically tooled up you are, marathons are fucking awful while you’re running them. Vaporflys are remarkable shoes and a triumph of design. They feel unlike anything I’ve ever run in, with huge soles that scoop upwards in a deep curve to rock you forward and propel you onwards. It is like running in two great soup ladles, forever dipping down for another bowl of soup, which in this case is tarmac because I’ve lost control of the simile. Yet for all this technological power, I still felt dead on my feet for the final miles of the Berlin marathon. While the technology was willing, the physiology was not. Despite the advantages provided by Vaporflys, they’re no cure- all. By the end of the race, I felt as ground into the road as the rat that Kenenisa Bekele killed on his way to victory.9

  1. Allegedly. 

  2. Luke is an elite trainer who works with a number of 
professional athletes. In spite of this, he greeted my inability to do a pull-up with quiet stoicism and bonhomie, and I couldn’t have done it without his support (figuratively – the race; literally – the pull ups). All my race are belong to him. 

  3. The current zenith in in-race nutrition is a gel produced by the Swedish brand Maurten, which contains fructose, glucose and caffeine. Prior to running the Berlin marathon, I was cautioned by two separate doctors specialising in sports medicine that without careful regulation of my internal chemistry, which gels like Maurten purport to provide, I risked shitting myself mid-race. Well, I’m pleased to report that I didn’t take them, and I didn’t shit myself. Not even once!

  4. The reason the record is unofficial is that it was set on the Boston course. The reason the Boston course is ineligible for record consideration is largely technical and somewhat tedious.

  5. And a heavily patented one too – one of the reasons Nike has become so dominant in the sport.

  6. It’s probably worth noting that while most of the study’s authors belonged to the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, two were from the Nike Sport Research Lab. Not being a shoe scientist,
I don’t know whether this information shapes the findings. Let’s just say they’re good shoes and leave it at that. 

  7. The Ineos 1:59 Challenge happened the day before the Chicago marathon and Kosgei’s record-breaking run, so Joan Benoit was technically correct – and in spectacular fashion! She was wrong to think she’d be dead though. 

  8. Lorz got as far as having his winner’s portrait taken with Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then-US President Theodore Roosevelt, before his deception was revealed. He is my favourite marathoner of all time. 

  9. Allegedly.