Kenenisa Bekele comes close to the marathon world record. (Photo credit: Ronny Hartman/Getty)

Ethiopian Almaz Ayana set a new world record of 29 minutes 17.45 seconds in the women’s 10,000 meters at the Rio Olympics. About a month later, fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele sped through the streets of Berlin, covering 26.2 miles in 2:03:03. That’s just six seconds shy of the world record, and a two minute improvement on his previous best. A week after that, New Zealander Zane Robertson won the Berlin 10K in a speedy 27:28, a personal best for him and the fourth fastest time ever by a non-African on that course.

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The common thread between these exceptional performances? The Sub2 project has claimed them, as proof that they’re on the right track.

The brainchild of Yannis Pitsiladis—a professor of sports science at the University of Brighton in England—the Sub2 project is attempting to speed up the ever more incremental race to break the two-hour marathon barrier. Extrapolating the arc of the marathon world record, that won’t happen for another 50 years or so. But Pitsiladis and his consortium of scientists claim “this feat can be achieved within five years by applying a dedicated scientific approach.”

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As scientists, the Sub2 website explains, they’re drawn to “pursue excellence, to see if we can make it happen by applying science and medicine in an organised consistent way, to push the boundaries of human performance.” Excellence by this measure is to apply advanced science and medicine to some man such that he runs 26.2 miles 177 seconds faster than current world record holder, Dennis Kimetto, did in September 2014.

Pitsiladis launched the project in 2014, and is forging ahead despite having failed to attract a title sponsor, along with the estimated $30 million needed to fund this science. Details of exactly how Sub2 science made Ayana’s world record and Bekele’s near-historic marathon possible are thin, but timely application of beverages—a recovery drink taken within 20 minutes of Ayana’s 10,000 meter tear, and a carbohydrate fluid Bekele took every 5K during the marathon—were mentioned. Of the 10 “deliverables” listed on the complex Sub2 website, these drinks fall under nutrition, the bailiwick of South African Andrew Bosch, an associate professor of exercise science and sports medicine at the University of Cape Town.

The Sub2 project has a dizzying number of mysterious moving parts and players, but the drink provided a concrete entry point, and Bosch was kind enough to explain some aspects of the project via Skype.

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Deadspin: It seems like most of the science or medicine that’s been applied to running has been in the form of illegal doping. I didn’t even realize there was untrammeled space in exercise science and medicine. Why has no one else thought to use these legal technologies?

Andrew Bosch: I don’t know why nobody has done it. Part of our project is to bring together existing science—others have applied a little of this or that, piecemeal, but not in systematic way, not all at once. We’re also working on new technologies, like the carb drink. Bringing together everything—existing strategies and the new stuff—and applying it to the very best athletes, that hasn’t been done before.

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Well, I think some folks did go to Kenya and apply some chemistry to some top athletes there, and that was a problem.

That’s one of the things underlying what we do. It has got to be done without use of drugs. The legacy we’d like to leave is to show you can break world records with no drugs involved. In the case of Kenenisa Bekele, we’re already showing it can be done.

Bekele’s Berlin performance was a two-minute improvement over his previous best time. How much of that improvement do you credit to the carb drink? I guess part B to that question is, did he employ different training tactics (mileage, pace, training location, tapering strategy, fancy underwater treadmills), different shoes, etc., or was the carb drink the only thing that changed from his previous marathons?

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The carb drink was only one part of the preparation that contributed to the performance improvement. The way we plan on getting runners faster to break the world record and get to two hours is multifaceted. This includes training strategies, monitoring, identification and treatment of problems as they arise, daily diet, pre-race nutrition, in-race nutrition (this is where the carb drink fits in), recovery strategies both nutritional and non-nutritional, etc as described under the work packaged for the project on the Sub2 website. In the case of Bekele in the Berlin Marathon, and Zane Robertson in the 10K, the improvement is due to implementation of some of these strategies. As we don’t yet have a sponsor contributing the money needed to implement everything, we are having to address some of the things that we are able to do.

What is the relationship between Sub2 and Maurten, the Swedish manufacturer of the high carbohydrate drink Bekele used? They had already developed that technology, right?

In this instance, that’s correct. They [Maurten] approached us with what they were working on, this carb delivery system, and what they hoped it would do. It seemed like the thing we needed, so they gave us some to start working with. It’s a powder that’s mixed with water. We used different concentrations of the drink in field trials with a running group in Ethiopia, successively boosting the concentration to see how athletes were tolerating it.

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By tolerating it, you mean not having digestive issues?

Yes, that they didn’t get an upset stomach or feel uncomfortably full.

Who was in this training group?

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We have a couple athletes, but Bekele is our main athlete. In a bigger context, we’re looking around for a young guy who has run a very fast 10K or half marathon and is just moving up to the marathon.

Historically, the idea and the desire to run a world record or break a barrier has originated with the athlete himself, who then recruits others to help him. Breaking the four-minute mile, for example, was Roger Bannister’s goal, and he then went about asking pacers to help him accomplish that goal. It wasn’t an outside group who wanted to break the four-minute mile, and subsequently recruited Bannister to do it. In this case, the Sub2 team authored the goal and the method of accomplishing it, with the exception of one essential element—the athlete who will actually do the running. That seems a precarious position to be in. Is it difficult to have to recruit the key person on the team, to essentially have to “sell” the person who’s actually going to do the running on the idea?

Well, that’s the phase we’re approaching now. We need to find strong, fast athletes that we can turn into the athlete who can potentially run under two hours for the marathon. Of course, one person can’t do it alone. It must be a group of athletes working together. It’ll have to be orchestrated, where they help each other like in cycling. That’s what we’ve got in the back of our minds—finding four or five guys, all super fast, with the right training, like a time trial, helping each other toward the world record. Unlike what often happens at current marathons, like London—it gets tactical and they’re competitive with each other. In our scenario, it’s a team goal, collaborative.

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Recruiting the most pivotal members of the project, who will have to devote possibly several years of their life to following your training and recovery methods, which may differ from those that have developed organically in Kenya and Ethiopia, to literally walk the Sub2 walk and drink the Sub2 Kool-Aid—that seems like a tall order.

Many won’t want to get involved. Others will see it as a way to maximize their performance. I know some people have been critical of our project, quoting some Ethiopian runners as asking, “Why do you want us to go faster?” and that sub-two hours is too big a jump. They’re not coming at it from a science perspective; they don’t see the possibilities of applying the latest science, medicine and technology to the best athletes.

How is the Sub2 team identifying and recruiting the athletes who will potentially break the two-hour barrier?

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Jos Hermens, the director of Global Sports Communication, works with many of the world’s top athletes. He’s a key source, and is very committed to the project. He’s aware of up-and-coming athletes, and is looking at who’s running fast times over 10K and half marathon. He can identify and contact those athletes.

What about other top marathoners like Wilson Kipsang? He’s run a 2:03 marathon and was only a few seconds back of Bekele in Berlin.

No, he hasn’t been contacted to my knowledge. Kipsang is in Kenya; he’s on his own tack. [Eliud] Kipchoge is doing his own thing, too. I could be moving into territory I don’t know here ... at least to my knowledge, they’re not working with the project.

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[In this article translated from a German newspaper interview with Yannis Pitsiladis, which is posted on the Sub2 website, Pitsiladis said Kipchoge is working on a similar, and competing, scientific program of marginal gains with Nike: “The Kenyan [Kipchoge] will have several measurements done and even provide a DNA sample – just what he refused to do with the Project of his manager, Jos Hermens.” The author of the article also claims that recruiting five to ten of the world’s fastest runners is “only a matter of appearance fees.”]

Back to the portion of the project you’re most involved with, the carbohydrate fluid was used by Almaz Ayana at the Olympics and Bekele in Berlin?

Ayana was using a recovery drink, to help her recover fully and prepare to run the 5,000 a few days later. I don’t think she was using the carb drink. We were still testing that in the field in Ethiopia at that time.

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You wrote, “The unique quality of this carbohydrate product is that it enables the body to tolerate high amounts of carbohydrates, while engaged in sport/ exercise activity. Normally, as soon as the concentration of carbohydrate in a drink is increased, gastric emptying slows down, resulting in less fluid and carbohydrate delivery to the body. Maurten have found a way of getting around this problem.” Describe this normal limit on carbs, and why it’s there.

As you put more concentrated carbs into the stomach, sensors that detect osmolarity sense the body has all the carbs it needs, and it slows the rate at which fluid and carbohydrates leave the stomach. This response limited the concentration of carbohydrates you could put in a drink because higher concentrations would simply sit in the stomach and slosh around.

How did Maurten’s technology circumvent this natural limit safely?

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They developed the technology—hydrogel encapsulation. The gel bonds to carbohydrates. The sensing mechanism in the stomach gets the wrong reading; it doesn’t recognize the large amount of carbohydrate because it’s surrounded by the gel. Therefore the rate of gastric emptying doesn’t slow, and a higher concentration of carbs can exit the stomach and be absorbed for use by the body. The sensing mechanism is there for a reason—under normal circumstances, it would be unwise to release that much carbohydrate into the digestive system. But running at three minutes/kilometer is not a normal situation either. During high intensity exercise like that, the muscles are using carbs very rapidly. The body’s balance is maintained.

You mentioned you kept upping the concentration of carbs. How did you decide what was the right amount?

We started off at lower concentrations; the athletes handled it very well so we increased it bit by bit. We upped it until we thought it was sufficient to fuel a marathon, and still, the athletes tolerated it very well. There was no stomach upset or feeling of fullness. We haven’t done laboratory trials yet so we don’t have the exact rate of oxidation.

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So you were free to customize the drink for the needs of an elite athlete. Will Maurten adjust the formula for the mass market?

Maurten gave us the technology and we took it upon ourselves to boost the concentration to meet our needs. How we used it was pretty much up to us. I expect Maurten will tweak the recipe for mass market, people who are not exercising at three minutes/kilometer.

You said this drink makes more carbohydrates available than other sports drinks. How much more?

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I’d say substantially more than Red Bull.

You mentioned Sub2 was involved in devising a drink strategy for Bekele’s Berlin Marathon—how was that different from what he had been doing, and what other top runners do?

He drank a set volume at every 5K, 150ml every 15 minutes or so. Most top runners are not doing that. Kipsang drank very little, for example.

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Kipsang may not have followed your strategy and didn’t have access to the high-carb drink, but he finished only ten seconds back of Bekele, in 2:03:13, which was also a personal best. Not too shabby for a trial-and-error, low-tech approach.

One of the things I was wondering as I watched was how much better Kipsang could have done if he had been drinking more methodically.