The setting for Nike’s two-hour marathon attempt will be the Formula One circuit in Monza, Italy, northeast of Milan. Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese, along with a phalanx of pacesetters, will run a half marathon dress rehearsal on the loop today as part of their preparation for the sub-two attempt in the spring.
Nike’s Breaking2 team considered locations around the globe while trying to optimize a variety of often-conflicting parameters: climate, terrain, elevation above sea level, surface, and so on. Monza, in the end, isn’t perfect, but it offers the best combination of parameters, the scientific team behind the attempt believes.
The sub-two attempt will be run around what is known as the “junior course,” a 2.405-kilometer (1.5-mile) loop of mostly flat asphalt—a fast if relatively hard and unforgiving surface—that only partly overlaps with the full 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) loop. This means the runners will complete about 17.5 loops around the course to cover the full marathon distance. Today’s half marathon simulation, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. Eastern time and will aim for a time of 60:00, will cover between eight and nine full loops.
Given that Nike announced that its course would be consistent with IAAF rules (though the overall race may not be), the route has to meet certain criteria: a start and finish separated by no more than half the total race distance, and a loss of elevation of no more than one meter per kilometer. Both of those are satisfied by the loop course; in fact, the design means the runners won’t be taking advantage of the maximum allowed elevation drop of 42 meters (138 feet).
The Autodromo Nazionale Monza is located about 183 meters (600 feet) above sea level, which is low enough that lack of oxygen shouldn’t be a factor. Previous studies have found reductions in VO2 max once above an elevation of 580 meters (about 1,900 feet); Nike’s scientific team was aiming for a location at less than 300 meters above sea level.
The loop itself is nearly, though not perfectly, flat. It has one gradual uphill (and, correspondingly, one gradual downhill) per loop, rising a total of 5.35 meters (18 feet) from bottom to top. Of course, the runners will have to climb that “hill” 17 times during the marathon.
In comparison, the Berlin marathon course, where Dennis Kimetto’scurrent world record of 2:02:57 was set, rises a total of more than 20 meters (65 feet) from its lowest point early in the race to its highest point in the 18th mile. Although the Berlin course has a few dips and rises along the way, most of the elevation gain comes between the 12th and 18th mile—and the runners have to climb it only once.
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Turns are another important consideration. By our count, Berlin has 17 turns that are 90 degrees or sharper. The Monza course will have none, though it will have two gradual 180-degree turns per loop, for a total of 34 or 35 over 26.2 miles. The much larger turning radius compared to a street course, or even to a standard 400-meter track, should enable the runners to maintain their pace without additional effort.
Aside from the course details, the other crucial component of the location is its weather. During the planning process, Nike’s scientific team said they were looking for a location that would allow them to run the race in temperatures of 7 to 12 degrees Celsius (45 to 54 Fahrenheit).
During the period when Nike hopes to stage its attempt, Monza’s average daily low temperature over the past 10 years has been 12.0 °C, and its average daily high has been 22.5 °C. In the last five years, it has been a little warmer: an average low of 12.8 °C. That’s surprisingly warm, in my opinion, given that they’ll ideally be looking to find a two-hour window with cool temperatures, presumably not in the middle of the night.
(I don’t know exactly where the Monza weather station is situated, but the track is elevated on a hill outside town, so it’s possible temperatures are slightly cooler there.)
The track has some wind shelter from buildings and trees, though it’s hard to know how much from pictures. Over the last 10 years, maximum wind speeds at the weather station have typically hovered at or below 10 miles per hour. That’s still substantial, but the Nike team’s analysis suggests that winds at track level seldom exceed five miles per hour.
Monza also ticks a few other weather-related boxes. It’s typically overcast, which reduces the heating effect of solar radiation; and the vapor pressure, a measure of how much moisture is in the air, is also generally low.
The 2.4-kilometer loop means that the runners will pass a fluid station on the backstretch roughly every seven minutes—about twice as often as the fluid stations in normal races, which are typically situated every 5K. The fluids will be delivered on a moped, so that the runners won’t have to slow down to grab their bottles from a table.
There are still lots of race details that remain to be clarified, including some (like the pacing plan) that will likely depend in part on how today’s half marathon simulation goes. To help gather data, the athletes will swallow thermometer pills to wirelessly measure their core temperature and wear muscle-oxygen and skin temperature sensors taped to their skin. I’ll have a full report on that test run later today.