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Study Shows Vienna Course is Optimal for Kipchoge’s 1:59 Challenge

Eliud Kipchoge has an even better chance to break 2 hours in the marathon, according to scientists.

A team of respected running scientists from Vienna, Boulder, Sacramento and Houston has just released a paper analyzing the marathon course Eliud Kipchoge will run Saturday morning in Vienna in the Ineos 1:59 Marathon Challenge. The paper concludes that the layout is only 4.5 seconds slower than what would be expected from a perfectly straight, perfectly flat course.

“Our simulation indicates that the Vienna course was well chosen for optimizing performance,” said the researchers in a paper entitled: The effects of course design (elevation undulations and curves) on marathon running performance: an a priori study of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in Vienna.

Kipchoge’s manager, Jos Hermens, recently told us that Kipchoge is in better shape than two years ago, and that he learned from the Nike event and will benefit from better handling of the pace car and his sports drinks.

Kipchoge hopes to run 1:59:xx early on Saturday, October 12 in Vienna in an unofficial, non-record-eligible time-trial similar to the Nike Breaking2 event he raced in May, 2017, on an auto track in Monza, Italy. There he hit halfway in 59:59, and snapped the tape in 2:00:25—the fastest running time ever for the 26 mile, 385 yard marathon distance.

Kipchoge’s performance in Monza did not count as an official world record, because he had a pace car, a large, rotating group of pacers, and received help with his drinks, among other violations of official IAAF competition rules. The Vienna race will follow suit in many ways, and likewise not be eligible for world-record status. That doesn’t lessen the excitement and intrigue among running fans.

Eliud Kipchoge 1:59
Eliud Kipchoge Photo: Thomas Lovelock for london marathon events

It’s Not Just About the Course

The just-released INEOS 1:59 research paper notes that shoes and drafting will play a much bigger role in Kipchoge’s effort than cornering and elevation changes. He’ll surely wear a pair of Nike Vaporflys, as he has in all his races since 2016. The shoes are thought to improve marathon times by 2 to 3 percent, and history’s five fastest marathons have all been achieved by runners wearing Vaporflys.

After Monza, much attention was paid to the 6-person pace-triangle that broke the wind for Kipchoge. Air-resistance experts judged that the pacers made a significant contribution. The pace teams in Monza were almost balletic. It’s hard to imagine they could do better in Vienna.

The INEOS 1:59 report comments that the four laps in Prater park “should maximize the positive effect of spectator cheering.” This seemed strangely subjective for a data-driven paper, so I asked senior author CU Boulder Integrative Physiology professor Rodger Kram if he actually believed it.

“Yes, I think the cheering could make a difference,” Kram replied. “Eliud has an amazing physiology, but his mindset may be even more amazing. When you compare running on a closed-off auto track in Monza vs a tree-lined park in Vienna, I know I would be more motivated by the latter.”

Prater Hauptallee Road
Photo: Rene-Vidalli

Cooler, Louder, Straighter

Kipchoge and his INEOS sponsors are hoping that better weather and that loud spectator support will help him in Vienna. In Italy, he ran with temps in the upper 50s, slightly humid. According to weather forecasts, Vienna could be 5 to 10 degrees F cooler, with somewhat lower humidity. Wind was not an issue in Monza, and isn’t expected in Vienna.

The Vienna course begins on the Reichbruecke Bridge (over the Danube River; also the start of the annual Vienna Marathon) and drops 40 feet in the first 1.4K. It then enters Prater Park for four out-and-back 9.625K loops, mostly on the straight-as-an-arrow, pedestrian-only Hauptallee Road, in the shadow of the iconic Prater ferris wheel. This road has small up-and-down undulations of about 8 feet.

Importantly, the straightaways do not reverse direction with abrupt, momentum-killing U-turns. At both ends, Kipchoge and pacers will take longish, gentle “roundabouts.” One is called the Praeterstern and has a circumference of 870 meters. The other, the Lusthaus, has a circumference of 210 meters.

After the four loops of the Hauptallee and roundabouts, the course begins a fifth loop. This ends 2.3K later at the finish, which is a net 43 feet below the start.

Photo: INEOS 1:59

The roundabouts are so easy to navigate that the science team estimates Kipchoge will lose only 0.5 seconds (at 4:34/mile pace) due to cornering. At Monza, they estimate he lost 1.5 seconds on the winding course.

They didn’t have enough data from Monza to estimate time lost to the slight ups-and-downs. In Vienna, this should amount to about 4 seconds.

Two weeks ago, a Danish group named Albatros Adventure Marathons tried to scoop the 1:59 effort with its “World’s Fastest Marathon” near Granada Spain. The open race started at 8,546 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and dropped 6358 feet to the city finish. A little-known Kenyan named Antony Karinga Maina passed the halfway point in 59:30, but then slower to a winning 2:09:38. Four months earlier, Maina had run 2:22:38 in the Salzburg Marathon.

In recent years, a number of downhill marathons have appeared to help runners qualify for the Boston Marathon. The Revel marathon series includes a handful of marathons with elevation drops of 2000 to 4000 feet. Physiologists believe that long, steep downhills lead to debilitating quadriceps muscle damage, and that half as much drop might be better.

pacemakers INEOS 1:59 course
Pace makers test the technology during the planning preparations for the INEOS 1.59 Challenge. Photo: Bob Martin/ London Marathon Events

Nike’s Breaking 2 vs. INEOS’ 1:59 Challenge

The Nike attempt was better publicized than the INEOS 1:59, and seemed to involve more scientific preparation. Nike is a dominant player-promoter in worldwide running, of course, and also invited several top running writers to get “inside” its planning and actual race-day logistics. Nike sent top exercise physiologists to study Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese in their training camps, and invited them to Nike’s campus for additional lab testing. Finally, Nike conducted a half-marathon “dress rehearsal” for all players two months before marathon D-day, and ironed out some kinks in the process.

INEOS, one of the world’s largest oil, gas, and chemical producers, is promoting its event with free, worldwide coverage on a YouTube channel that already has several dozen short videos and a 29-minute interview with Kipchoge. INEOS backs other sports projects including “The Daily Mile,” a recreational fitness program for youth, a professional cycling team, and an America’s Cup team.

INEOS has also has gathered a big group of world-class pacers, who assembled several weeks ago for a test run. Kipchoge didn’t come, however, remaining at his training camp in Kenya. Remarkably, he appears not to have run a race since his London Marathon victory last April in 2:02:37. Despite an accumulating wealth, he follows a simple, spartan approach in his training.

Marathon G.O.A.T?

Kipchoge has won 12 of his 13 marathons, finishing second in the 2013 Berlin Marathon to Wilson Kipsang. His victories include the 2016 Rio Olympic Marathon, four Londons, two Berlins, and the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Given the 12 wins, the 2:01:39 world record, and his 2:00:25 unofficial fastest time, he is widely considered the marathon G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time.)

In Vienna, Kipchoge will be attempting to maintain a 4:34 pace over the whole distance. That’s 5.861 meters/second if you’re a scientist or metric nerd, or 13.11 miles per hour if you’d like to hop in your car to see what it feels like.

He arrived in Vienna Tuesday morning via the private jet of INEOS owner Sir James Ratcliffe, a U.K. billionaire. Kipchoge’s longtime coach Patrick Sang told The Olympic Channel: “His belief is no human is limited, and he wants to actualize that belief. He’s done it before, and he is leading us in this again.”

Kipchoge, who has a talent for enigmatic expressions, says: “A rabbit cannot escape for two seasons. It escaped one season in Monza, but it will not escape this season in Vienna.”

If you prefer stats, there’s good reason for optimism. On September 15, Kipchoge’s training partner, Geoffrey Kamworor, broke the half marathon world record by a whopping 17 seconds when he ran 58:01 in Copenhagen.

For updates on the Vienna event, including the exact start time (to be announced Friday), follow @INEOS159 on twitter.