Towards the end of 2006, I was in a record store in Bath when a simple cardboard sleeve caught my eye, emblazoned with the words Enter Shikari. The name made me curious, so I bought the single (it was only £2.99), and put it into my CD player. As the first guitar sounds from “Sorry You’re Not a Winner” came out, I was sure I had found my new favourite band. A month later, I saw them live at a bar in Bristol, and they were amazing. I bought everything I could from them (“Mothership” is still my favourite song), and spent all my time listening to them.
And then they got famous. They were everywhere – on the covers of magazines, at festivals. You couldn’t move for people who were Enter Shikari fans. And this annoyed me, because they were MY band. I had discovered them before they were cool and slightly mainstream, and I didn’t like the fact that everyone else had now discovered them for themselves. They were even on Radio One. Never mind that they had been slaving away for years looking for their break.
This bitterness inside of me is difficult to explain; I still really liked Enter Shikari, but I was cynical about everyone else’s motives for liking them. They were just jumping on the bandwagon, surely.
What does this have to do with Nike’s sub-2 hour marathon project? Well, since it’s been announced, there has been a lot of criticism regarding it. And this criticism mainly comes from well established runners and running journalists, who see it as a fake. They feel like it will make a mockery of marathon running. The sub-2 hour project is taking marathon running mainstream, which you can see from the amount of attention given to it in the papers, magazines, and online message boards. To hard core runners, the sub-2 project is bad because it’s taking their secret, something they loved before it was cool, and making it more accessible and interesting.
And it is definitely driving interest. Do you want to know how many marathons I’ve watched in my life? It is precisely zero. Any coverage I have seen of the marathon is the most important bit; the last 100m (because 100m is the only distance that matters) before the runners cross the finish line. And yet since the sub-2 project has been announced, I’ve devoured all the information I can on the subject. I read Ed Caesar’s great book, “Two Hours”. Next up is Phil Maffetone’s “01:59”. I’ve even started to read Tim Noakes’ “The Lore of Running”, which is 952 pages in length.
But that’s not all; I’ve also started to run, admittedly very slowly. Why am I doing this? Because the sub-2h project has captured my imagination. I’ve never cared about VO2max, lactate threshold, or running economy before. Now I’m training to see how these variables are affected by training, to use my own body to improve my knowledge in this area. I’m reading about fatigue, the impact of different pacing strategies on performance, and the psychological constructs that govern endurance performance. I’m curious about heat adaptation (running in the Queensland summer is difficult), and fats versus carbohydrates for fuel. These are all things I’ve only ever had a passing interest in previously, and yet now I’m getting all the information I can, and putting it to use on myself.
So why this sudden change? Because this project is incredibly exciting to me. The athletes and scientists involved are looking to innovate and drive forward performance. The only other time I’ve been excited like this is when, for the first and only time in my life, I watched someone parachute to Earth. The Red Bull Stratos project also gripped me; they wanted someone to jump from what was effectively space, break the sound barrier in freefall, and safely land. The thought of that is mental, and so I had to watch it. I read books about this too, including “Freefall” by a former SAS soldier who had previously tried to break the record. And so, on Sunday 14th October 2012, I watched a balloon travel far up into the atmosphere, transfixed. I watched Felix come back down, and there may even have been a little tear in my eye when he landed. Because life is about pushing the boundaries, and I am in awe of people like that.
The only disappointing thing for me about the Stratos project is that there wasn’t a whole lot of insight into the training and planning that went into the mission. This is where the sub-2h project should be different. Ed Cesar and Alex Hutchinson, two great journalists (check out Alex’s book) are going to be able to take us into the action, and afterwards, hopefully, give us some ideas into the science that went into it all, which will be fascinating.
So, cynics and running hipsters, my question to you is – what’s the worst that can happen? Nike can throw all their effort into this, and fail; in which case you’ll be vindicated and you can act all smug. Or they’ll do it, and even more people will become interested in running. This means better equipment for you, utilising whatever new technologies these projects unearth. It might mean a better understanding of the psychological aspects that impact endurance performance – which will enable you to run faster yourself. I’m struggling to see a downside.
Let’s bring this full circle, and end with Enter Shikari. They came to play a show in Bath a few months later, which had a capacity about 6 times that of the show I had seen previously in Bristol. It sold out; I had a ticket, but I wasn’t sure if I should go – it would be full of people who hadn’t liked the band, MY band, for as long as me; they didn’t appreciate them like I did. Anyway, I went, I met Rory C (I didn’t ask him what his thesis was) and it was far and away the best gig I have ever been too. As a result of their success, they made more money, and more albums, increasing my enjoyment from their music. Their becoming more recognised was a blessing in disguise for me. The sub-2h marathon project might be the same for runners.