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Great Barrier Reach

The race to run a two-hour marathon

AT THE 2014 Berlin Marathon, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya crossed the finish line in 2:02:57 to set a world record for the 26.2-mile distance. Less than three years later two groups are hoping to cut two minutes and 58 seconds off Kimetto's time and break the two-hour mark. It's ambitious, controversial, intriguing and apparently marketing gold—one group is Nike and the other is Adidas.

In 1991, Dr. Michael Joyner, an expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, wrote in the Journal of Applied Physiology that measures of optimum performance suggest it may be possible for someone to run 1:57:58. Last year he wrote on that he hopes to see sub--two hours in his lifetime. Ed Caesar, who wrote a book about the two-hour marathon, has pointed to a breakthrough date of 2020 or maybe '25. And already, Nike and Adidas have released footwear that they believe will help an athlete dip below the mark.

Nike has an audacious plan in which three of the world's best distance runners, including Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya (2:03:05), will follow pacers over a special course on a Formula 1 track in Monza, Italy, in May, while wearing innovative new shoes. Called Breaking2, Nike's attempt will not be a race but more of a time trial or experiment.

Adidas kicked off its bid in February, when Wilson Kipsang, the previous world-record holder, also from Kenya, attempted to regain the crown at the Tokyo Marathon wearing the company's new shoe. He won, but his time of 2:03:58 came up short. That result and Nike's failed recent attempt at a 60-minute half-marathon showed that Kimetto's record may soon fall, but the exhaustion and psychology that go with breaking the two-hour barrier may be too much for advanced technology and science to overcome.

Successful or not, questions surround Nike's attempt. Will the course be record-eligible? Do the shoes comply with the International Association of Athletics Federations' guidelines? (Nike says yes. The IAAF will soon meet to discuss footwear advances.) Will there be drug testing?

When Roger Bannister became the first person to race a mile in under four minutes, he controlled his training and his tactics and left the rest to nature. If the two-hour threshold is broken, it will be the result of a marketing arms race.


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Polished Shoes

Nike's Zoom Vaporfly Elite

A curved carbon-fiber plate inside the 21-millimeter-thick, lightweight foam sole provides 13% more energy return than in previous models, according to Nike research. The Elite, expected to weigh 6.5 ounces, will only be available to Nike staff runners, but a similar shoe, the Zoom Vaporfly 4%, goes on sale in June.

Adidas's Adios Sub2 Boost

Based on the shoe Dennis Kimetto wore when he set the marathon record, the Sub2 Boost uses lightweight foam pellets as cushioning, while the upper is composed of a single layer of ultralight fabric. The weight hasn't been finalized, but the company's goal is 4.6 ounces. It will be available to the public in the fall.

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