Alex Hutchinson, a columnist for the Globe and Mail and Runner’s World, is one of two journalists (Wired‘s Ed Caesar is the other) granted access to Nike’s Breaking2 project—a high-profile training and engineering effort aimed at achieving a feat that many have thought to be impossible: running a marathon in under two hours. To do so, Nike is working with three of the world’s top marathoners: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. Kipchoge is seen as the best marathoner in the world right now. Tadese is the world record holder for the half marathon, but has never run a full marathon in less than two hours and 10 minutes. Desisa is the young gun, who ran his first-ever marathon in two hours and four minutes.
Nike isn’t the only one attempting to “break two”—there are at least two other organized attempts to realizing a sub-two hour marathon. One is funded by Adidas, which is working with marathoners Wilson Kipsang, Patrick Makau, and current world record holder Dennis Kimetto. The other is the pet project of scientist Yannis Pitsiladis, who is working with Kenenisa Bekele.
The Ryerson Review of Journalism chatted with Hutchinson about running, working with Nike, and reporting from the fringes of human performance.
RRJ: How do you approach writing about fitness and running?
Alex Hutchinson: Probably the main focus of my shtick is that I’m interested in peer-reviewed research. There’s this huge amount of advice, whether it’s health or running performance, which comes from people’s experience, and that’s a very important source of knowledge and advice. But there is also a huge body of research that goes on out there, which I think, maybe less so now than 10 years ago, is really under-communicated. And so that’s what I started blogging 10 years ago: the science of exercise and the science of running and that type of thing. I felt like, okay that’s going to be what I’m going to write about. I’m going to write about the peer-reviewed stuff. I’m going to not write about what I think, even though I have opinions—I’ve been running for 25 years. And I do write about my opinion sometimes—but I’m going to try, to the greatest extent possible, communicate research findings.
RRJ: How does that science-based approach translate into actual stories? How do you balance writing about running as science with running as human story?
Hutchinson: My job as a whole includes different parts, put together in a sort of pyramid. I have a blog, Sweat Science, where typically two to three times a week I’m writing about a new study and that’s it. Basically I’m a news service. I look at what’s been published in journals and in these days I look at what people are talking about on Twitter, what scientists are talking about, and I just try and convey those findings. I don’t even talk to the scientists for the most part—I read the study and I report on it, and that gives me a ton of kindling. But then a few of those stories turn out to be a little more interesting, and so then I will call up the scientists, get the story, and study it a little more. That might become a column in The Globe and Mail, and enough of those build up that I can start to assemble the bigger picture of what the big trends are in this field, what what the deeper stories are, and then turn that into a magazine piece. But that goes with getting another human element. I’m a fan of the sport because it’s human-to-human stories. I think a lot of the best pieces I’ve done take my interest in the sport, bring that scientific perspective that I’ve gotten by reading and writing about all this research, and bring it together.
RRJ: How have you approached covering Breaking2 and navigating Nike’s corporate interests in giving you access?
Hutchinson: This has been a really interesting challenge journalistically, and there’s a lot of different things that make it interesting. There were a lot of problems, frankly, caused by Nike’s desire to sort of dole out the information at its own pace. It left a vacuum open for a lot of speculation. I know that was challenging for me because I had some embargoed access. I could see a lot of the speculation was wrong, and of course my instinct is to try and correct it—but I have to first of all respect the embargo terms I’d agreed to, and second of all try to avoid leaping into every debate as a defender of the entity that I’m reporting on. That’s been a challenge.
RRJ: What about reporting on something that some people think is impossible, or that scientific efforts cheapen the end goal?
Hutchinson: Well two hours isn’t going to naturally evolve to happen next year. And the premise of Nike’s project is that they’re doing some things that are unnatural—and of course that’s equally objectionable to many people [who think] they may violate some of the rules of the sport, such as [whether or not] you’re allowed to have pacers jump in the race halfway. And I understand that.
As more information has come out, I think people who are following this closely now will say, ‘Okay I would still say it’s a long shot but it’s not impossible, it’s not stupid to try.’ So it’s within the realm of possibility, and so then the big shift to well, ‘Should they be doing this? Is it bad for the sport? Is it good for the sport?’ One of the comparisons that I’ve heard a lot is that it makes the sport a mockery and people will think that it’ll cheapen the subsequent accomplishment of other runners. People make the comparison to Justin Gatlin, the American sprinter: He ran something like 9.54 [seconds] over 100 metres on a Japanese game show with a bunch of industrial strength fans positioned along the track. And I guess my response to that is that I’ve never met anybody who watched that race and thinks Justin Gatlin is better than Usain Bolt, right?
People are smart enough to understand that if the race was run down a mountain in shoes with wheels in them, it would not be particularly meaningful and no one would pay attention to it. But if it was run under totally normal conditions, no one would break peep. So it’s somewhere between those two extremes. What I’ve been saying all along is, ‘Let’s see what they do and let’s judge what they do based on where they are on that spectrum.’ If they’ve made a few tweaks—like for instance holding the race on a Formula One track instead of through the streets of the city—that seems reasonable. If they do some crazy stuff, then we’ll call them out on it.
RRJ: So how did that come about for you?
Hutchinson: So I don’t know the full story but I know my editor in chief at Runner’s World, David Willey, was in contact with Nike for quite some time, I think, and probably had initial discussions at the Rio Olympics last year. I got the call in November from David saying that we’ve been offered this opportunity and, ‘Would I like to do it; here are the conditions under which we’re going do it.’ Under the circumstances, I thought it was too interesting an opportunity to pass up. David and I and other people at Runner’s World, we’ve had lots of discussions right from the start about how to handle having to make a deal with Nike for access. It’s something that’s definitely challenging, and we can’t eliminate all of the possible challenges, but by being aware of them we can hopefully be as transparent as possible about what we’ve agreed to.
RRJ: I imagine Nike had some pretty specific restrictions.
Hutchinson: Ultimately, the only restrictions we agreed to were timing. They want to not release the location [of the sub-two attempt] until a certain date, and not release certain details until a certain time. So we respected that, but they have no editorial control over what we write. There was nothing like, ‘You can see this but you could never write about it, or you can see this but we have to agree on what you’re going to write about it.’
RRJ: What sort of angles do you take to keep a fairly straightforward story fresh? How do you make this story appealing beyond who is running and how fast?
Hutchinson: I mean in that sense, I guess we’ve been a little bit helped by Nike’s timeline of not revealing everything at once, so we always have new things to write. And there are some really interesting implications in terms of their shoe, which is promising a four percent—seemingly impossible four percent—boost in performance. And so there has been a lot of debate that’s opened up as to how exactly the shoe works, and related to that whether the shoes should be banned.
I think the question is, ‘What happens when a company with a lot of money decides to try everything in its power to make people faster?’
RRJ: It’s a pretty funky looking shoe. It looks incredibly rounded.
Hutchinson: Yeah it is. So the funkiest looking shoe is the one that they’re going to use in this sub-two attempt. And some of that is that doesn’t translate into the consumer version. The consumer version of the shoe will look more normal. So some of the funky stuff is more aesthetic than functional.
In this shoe now it just raises the bigger question of the role of technology in sport—just like the swimsuit issue became an issue some years ago. So there’s a time to write about that in this story, independent of whether Breaking2 happens.
RRJ: And the whole process, whether or not it pans out, is just as much a story as the actual result.
Hutchinson: The result matters for sure. But I think the question is, ‘What happens when a company with a lot of money decides to try everything in its power to make people faster?’ There’s a lot of interest, and a lot of moving parts there. And so there are a lot of things that are interesting to follow, independent of a result—although once the result happens, if they don’t break two, then maybe a lot of these things become less interesting. So that’s kind of one of the reasons that we pushed with a lot of online coverage, in addition to the planned magazine feature: so that we can talk about these things while there’s this tantalizing promise that they might actually break two still out there.
RRJ: How do you approach writing this for Runner’s World, where you’re writing for a range of runners with different skill and interest levels? Do you gear some of this towards the more casual runner who hasn’t quite followed the two-hour marathon story over over the years?
Hutchinson: There’s a pretty big mix [among Runner’s World readers]. There’s a large segment of people who pick up the magazine pretty casually looking for beginner’s advice. For the magazine piece, the challenge is to have something explain enough so that someone who hadn’t even heard that this thing was happening can come up to speed and find it interesting, while also giving enough actual detail and nuance for people who have been following it all along. On the web, you have more flexibility, so some of the pieces can be very big pieces. When the shoe was released we had a straightforward news piece on ‘here’s what the shoe does, here’s what in them, here’s what colour they are and how much they cost.’ And I said, ‘Look: I know there’s a lot of issues raised by these shoes, so I just want to write a commentary with my opinion.’ And so I did that, and it ended up being almost 3,000 words. I wasn’t worried about making this a piece for people who knew nothing about the debate; I was speaking to the people who were already immersed in this debate. In print it’s a little bit more challenging. You have to make sure that it’s a wider net that you’re casting.
RRJ: This might be a side question, but does that affect how you approach your own running?
Hutchinson: Less than you would think. This is actually the sort of constant tension. I’m really interested in the science of performance and of health because of what it tells us about how the human body works and what our limits are. Personally, I have used almost none of the things I’ve written. I’ve never even taken a cup of coffee let alone a caffeine pill before a race, and I don’t use beet juice—even though I’ve written about it probably 40 times, because it’s a really interesting and powerful performance aid. I find it fascinating but that’s not really what I get out of running. It’s more personal. There is a tension between what I find interesting and what I find meaningful in sport.