Jos Hermens had been talking for maybe four minutes, and already I had learned that he sexted his wife (he made a gleeful face and texting motions); that Americans are fucking uptight (also uptight about fucking) and that is the problem with our country; that his people, the Dutch, are so happy because they are free and out there and just have sex; that Hillary Clinton should simply say, “My husband did some foolish things, but I forgive him, and my husband is not running for president” and everyone would vote for her (we were talking before the election); that he is a feminist and thinks Donald Trump is an idiot; and that Dennis Kimetto doped, as evidenced partially by the fact that, “he is running like shit right now.”
I reminded Hermens that he probably shouldn’t say Kimetto had doped because he didn’t have any proof, and that I was writing these things down. “Okay okay, say Kimetto is suspicious,” he said, laughing and waving at my notebook before turning his attention to a mozzarella and pesto sandwich.
Hermens, 66, in a grey suit and pressed white shirt, open at the collar, his hair a ghost of its 1970s free-flying glory, was in the NYC Marathon media center chaperoning his star athlete and eventual race winner, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, to a pre-race press conference. Though he’d only arrived from the Netherlands the night before, he was bright-eyed and energetic, volubly shaking hands. Yvonne van Haperen—Hermens’s capable assistant and minder who manages his schedule and fills in names, dates, and other relevant facts that sometimes get lost in the firehose of Hermens’s conversations—was there too, keeping things on track.
Hermens was a successful distance runner between 1968 and 1978, worked for Nike Europe after a career-ending Achilles tendon tear, and in 1985, started his own athlete management company. Global Sports Communications now represents some of the biggest names in distance running, tand hus many athletes from Ethiopia and Kenya—Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Eliud Kipchoge, Florence Kiplagat, and Almaz Ayana, to name a few.
Hermens makes several trips to East Africa each year, checking in with existing clients and keeping a lookout for up-and-coming talent. Because so many of GSC’s runners train in Africa over the winter and race in Europe during the summer, GSC offers runners training camps in Kenya and Ethiopia staffed with physiotherapists and nutritionists, and a house, training facilities, and physiotherapists in the Netherlands.
Yannis Pitsiladis, a sports physiologist and professor at the University of Brighton, was one of the team members Hermens assembled to prepare his client, Kenenisa Bekele, for the World Championships in 2007 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Back in 1976 Hermens set the world record for the one-hour run, the most distance covered on a track in one hour. He’s still obsessed with pushing the limits of speed and endurance, a passion he shares with Pitsiladis.
“We talked about how the marathon world record is going down down,” Hermens said, and that —consulting van Haperen for the English word “extrapolating”—the incremental progression to the two-hour mark would require 50 years. Two years ago, he and Pitsiladis put on a scientific conference with the purpose of exploring ways to speed up that progression. The conference resulted in the launch of the Sub2 Project, a consortium of scientists, athletes, and “industry partners” who, by applying the latest scientific principles and products, hoped to enable a runner to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon within five years, so by 2019. Without doping. That’s key.
Hermens’s role in the project is talent identification. He’s spent a fair amount of time over the past 30 years standing on some high dusty field in Kenya or Ethiopia watching teenagers in borrowed kits on a dirt track. He’s not just looking at who comes across the line first; he looks for an efficient running style, confidence, intelligence, and competitiveness. Somewhere amongst the flying scrum of bony kids, shouldering and flailing like an Olympic final, is the one who, honed and prehabbed and rehabbed and fed and hydrated and kitted out to the millimeter, will cover 26.2 miles in 1:59:59 or quicker. That’s Hermens’s job—to find the athletes, the human component in the technology-rich Sub2 initiative.
Of the 24,000 or so genes in our genome, Hermens explained, a tiny number are responsible for red blood cell production, which is enormously valuable in distance running because red blood cells carry oxygen. Living and training at altitude produces more red blood cells, but so does the banned substance EPO, and we can’t really tell the difference currently. That’s one of the problems with the biological passport, an attempt to stem doping by tracking certain “biological variables” over time. Right now, it’s difficult to tell if a high red blood cell value is the result of a time spent at altitude or use of EPO.
Pitsiladis has been working on, and succeeding in, identifying which genes are activated by altitude and which are activated by EPO, to make drug testing more effective. Having saved blood samples for years, Pitsiladis can go back and look at exactly which genes were activated, the altitude ones or the EPO ones. Which brings to mind, and discussion, the world record holder in the marathon, Kenyan Dennis Kimetto.
The thing that makes Kimetto suspicious, Hermens said, is that he had few previous races of any kind, no track record. He came out of nowhere, ran a world record (2:02:57) at the 2014 Berlin Marathon, and has been, according to Hermens, “running for shit” since then. So, though he was no doubt tested aggressively after his world record performance, he had little baseline prior to that for comparison. Perhaps his baseline was doped, Hermens suggested— genetic testing may suss that out.
While Hermens has built his business on the ability to spot a champion in the rough, he says genetic testing gives his experience-based soft science added accuracy, and that the results aren’t read-only—they can be manipulated. Here’s how it would work: he would go to some town like Bekoji, a high altitude dot in the central highlands of Ethiopia that has produced an inordinate number of top runners, and organize a race, maybe 30K. Hermens wouldn’t just look at the race winner—when he first spotted Gebrselassie he didn’t win, but Hermens liked his running style and attitude—but do a blood test on the top five.
“I’m not the scientist here,” he said, but apparently Pitsiladis can not only determine which athletes in that top five have genes responsible for high oxygen uptake or great endurance, but also manipulate those genes, “turning up” those that would benefit a long distance runner and “turning down” those responsible for performance limiting factors like lactate production. “Purists will say this is doping,” Hermens said, “but what about altitude tents? It’s a similar thing.”
Ideally, tests would identify a young child with outrageous oxygen uptake and insane endurance, but “we are in a little bit of a hurry,” he said, acknowledging the Sub2 Project’s 2019 deadline. Therefore, potential candidates already would have to have run some very fast 10Ks and half marathons and be ready to run a marathon within the next two years.
“I don’t have a specific age in mind. With Bekele, I think we can get to 2:01-high,” said Hermens. “Maybe we’ll arrange a marathon on a dike at sea level, downhill, with a tailwind. Now runners drink every 5K. Maybe in our time trial, runners will have a straw so they can drink as they run. We don’t care if the first sub-two hour marathon is IAAF record eligible. First, we achieve it. Then we do it record eligible. The problem with scientists before this—they talk and crunch numbers and theorize. But we are the first ones to try to make it happen in the real world, not in a lab.”
Another way the Sub2 people plan to shave seconds off a marathon performance is by designing better footwear. According to Hermens, African runners accustomed to running barefoot are one percent slower over the course of a marathon when they wear shoes. “Our shoes are too soft,” he said. “They’re hobbling. We’re developing some harder shoes, we’re testing them now, so they can gain one percent right there. One-hundred and seventy seven seconds”—the time between the current world record and 1:59:59—“is, what? Three percent?”
The Sub2 Project certainly is awash in measurable-to-the-nanosecond science, but there’s a wild card, an important factor that’s especially resistant to scientific manipulation—the runner’s mind. As the one member of the Sub2 team who doesn’t own a white lab coat, this is Hermens’ bailywick.
“Yeah, psychology, that’s definitely the hardest part, but you know, way back, I was a teacher. I know what makes an athlete tick. What you do is really very simple—you tell them something, right before the race. Like for example, there was an 800 runner [in the Sydney Olympics] and he’d run the prelims and the semis and he was sort of tired. He was about to go out for the final and I told him, ‘Don’t forget, everybody’s tired.’ And he said he thought of that during the race, and was able to find something extra and he won. A lot of times, it was about the weather; I’d say the weather was perfect for a world record. In Sydney, as Haile [Gebreselassie] was going into the final, he said to me, ‘Jos, I know. It is perfect weather for a world record.’ He was saying, my mind is okay. Before Berlin, I told Kenenisa [Bekele], ‘You’ve got these new shoes—there’s 30 seconds right there. You’ve got the [high-carb] drink—that’s another 30 seconds.’ And yes, the weather was perfect. I explain all the reasons he’s going to run fast. I predicted he would run 2:03 [Bekele ran 2:03:03], but more importantly, he believed it.”
While Ethiopia and Kenya are a wellspring of talent and the areas he knows best, they’re not the only places Hermens has looked for potential Sub2 runners. “China has huge potential but it’s difficult to get in there,” he said. “There are a bunch of Tibetans coming to Ethiopia to train though.” He’s looked at runners from Eritrea and Uganda, who he said had generally lived a tough physical life at altitude and had a good diet without much processed food, similar to Ethiopians and Kenyans.
In particular Hermens mentioned teff, a grain commonly eaten in Ethiopia and Eritrea that is high in iron. “God, I hope they never get a McDonald’s in Addis [capital of Ethiopia],” Hermens said, grabbing his midsection to demonstrate the effects of the golden arches. But while Hermens said the traditional east African diet and lifestyle are perfect for fast marathon running, “African runners are not very good at drinking. They don’t understand the importance of hydration, and they don’t practice it much.”
Which brings up a difficulty of recruiting in countries with well-established running traditions: The training methods they’ve developed have led to near total East African dominance in the marathon. Obviously their system is not broken, so why fix it, especially when the fix comes from a bunch of European scientists saying, “No no, you have to do it our way”? Hermens brushed off skeptics—”Of course, some won’t want to get involved.” The fact that he’s been recruiting and managing runners in Ethiopia for over three decades, including the legendary Gebrselassie and Bekele, he says, gives him credibility and trust. “They know I’ll do right by them. They know I’m not some asshole coming in there who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said.
The runners that show up to these races are “not the lazy ones,” they’re already motivated, he said, and will be on board with the Sub2 Project. “No, Sub2 doesn’t pay them, but I can get them a contract with shoes and equipment and some money.”
Here—apparently provoked by how today’s runners are motivated by money—Hermens veered into politics. Like many long-haired, anti-establishment, free love advocates of the 1960s, Hermens followed his dreams and says he didn’t care about money. He was an anarchist, in a good way—maybe a peaceful anarchist—and thought everyone should do what they want. He likes the ideals of socialism, but said socialism has never worked in practice because a few people in power got greedy and ruined it. Even though he now owns a business, makes money, and wears a suit, he doesn’t feel like a capitalist. “You can write, ‘Hermens, the humanist anarchist, says he will not force Sub2 down anyone’s throat.’ They can do it if they want to, or not. I personally am not in it for the money, although there may be a little bit of money to be made,” he said, gleefully raising his capitalist eyebrows. But then, more seriously, “This Sub2, it’s my dream.”
He was passionate about the project, pink-cheeked and shiny just talking about the possibilities, especially if they had more time and budget. But considering the group has not raised the $30M they’d originally planned on and the clock is ticking, I asked if it might not be expedient to work with runners who were already world-class, like Wilson Kipsang. Or Eliud Kipchoge, who Hermens represents.
At this point he stopped talking, smiled, and looked at me questioningly.
I filled the void by mentioning I’d read an interview with Pitsiladis in which the author said Kipchoge was working with Nike on a similar project, but had refused to work with Sub2. Was that true? “I don’t know. Maybe he is. I can’t speak to that. I mean, he wears Nike shoes…”
Shortly afterwards Van Haperen indicated they had to be back at the hotel, and I indicated that my mind was mush and my hand was cramped. Hermens, the Dutch anarchist humanist wearing a nice suit, was still happy and energetic, if slightly less talkative.