BESIDE THE DEAD SEA, Israel — At sunrise, the sky and the water seemed metallic, silver-blue, the color of speed. A sign along Highway 90 said, “Lowest Place on Earth.”
Yannis Pitsiladis, scientist and provocateur, had come here for the same reason that pilgrims wheezing with bronchitis and emphysema have headed to this low-altitude divide between Israel and Jordan. He had come for the oxygen.
A quarter-mile below sea level at the Dead Sea, where the barometric pressure is high, there is about 5 percent more oxygen to breathe. The naturally enriched air had been shown to increase exercise capacity in those with chronic lung disease. Would it do the same, Pitsiladis wondered, for the world’s fastest distance runners?
Carrying a hand-held barometer and mapping elevation shifts in the terrain with his smartphone, he had arrived on a scouting mission for a quixotic project. He wanted to redefine the limits of human endurance by training a man to run a marathon in less than two hours without the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The Sub2 Project, as it is called, is an attempt at the extraordinary — to reduce by nearly three minutes the world record of 2 hours 2 minutes 57 seconds, set at the 2014 Berlin Marathon by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. A marathoner breaking the two-hour barrier would finish more than six-tenths of a mile ahead of Kimetto, a veritable eternity in distance running.
“What excites me is understanding the limits of human performance,” said Pitsiladis, whose Sub2 Project aims to reduce the marathon world record by nearly three minutes. “What can man do?”CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
Some consider the goal impossible. Many are suspicious because of widespread doping in track and field, and almost no one considers the feat achievable anytime soon.
In some ways, a goal of two hours is as arbitrary as the distance of the marathon itself: 26 miles 385 yards, established at the 1908 London Olympics, in part to accommodate viewing by the British royal family. But round numbers lend clarity to accomplishment. To run under two hours without the use of banned drugs would be to set a record that would stand with the four-minute mile as an ultimate test of human stamina.
A 1:59:59 marathon would require a searing pace of 4 minutes 34 seconds per mile, seven seconds faster than the pace of the current world record. It would require 85 to 90 percent of a runner’s maximum aerobic capacity — twice the capacity of an average man — and a sustained heart rate of about 160 to 170 beats per minute. (The typical resting rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute.)
“What excites me is understanding the limits of human performance,” said Pitsiladis, 48, a leading antidoping expert with the International Olympic Committee and a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Brighton in England. “What can man do?”
Pitsiladis had flown overnight to Israel from Ethiopia, taking his usual window seat and feeling somewhat less panicked with a place near the wing and a view of the jet’s engine. He was terrified of flying even though he had often traveled more than 200 days a year. His sleep mask remained perched on his forehead after takeoff, his breathing growing heavy and nervous.
“The only way I can get on a plane is a bottle of wine,” Pitsiladis said half-jokingly after another flight. “I think I’m going to die throughout.”
On this early morning in February, he was safely on the ground again, riding in a rental car, fueled with coffee and certainty in the face of skepticism and indifference.
Corporate sponsors had so far been reluctant to commit anything near the $30 million that Pitsiladis figured the Sub2 Project would cost.
“Sponsors are telling me it’s too good to be true,” he said. “Like man going to Mars.”
The disbelief did not make him waver. Unlike many sports scientists, Pitsiladis sees value, not risk, in throwing out provocative ideas, even if they turn out to be incorrect.
“Science is a process of doubting and experimentation,” said Peter Weyand of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who is the biomechanics expert for the Sub2 Project.
“It’s a process of disproving,” Weyand said. “Yannis is a good example of someone willing to take a leap of faith and put out hypotheses that challenge conventional wisdom and doing it in a way that, ‘I’m not going to be shy about the potential backlash; I’m not going to feel like a failure as a scientist.’ That’s important. It’s partly how science moves forward.”
With times becoming faster and faster, most sports scientists believe a two-hour marathon is a matter of when, not if. Since 1998, the world record in the marathon has dropped by a precipitous 3 minutes 8 seconds.
Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, predicted in 1991 that it was possible to finish in 1:57:58. But numerous experts predicted that two hours would not be breached until 2028 or 2035 or even 2041.
Pitsiladis considered these forecasts to be overly conservative. He started his Sub2 Project in late 2014 with a website, fund-raising and the recruitment of scientists. He believed his goal could be achieved by the end of 2019 — years earlier than commonly thought possible.
His consortium of scientists would use the latest knowledge — and develop cutting-edge approaches — in nutrition, biomechanics, genetics, running efficiency, training, race strategy and sports medicine to deliver a sub-two-hour marathon. Incremental gains here and there, the scientists believed, could add up to a startling accomplishment. And perhaps new technology and knowledge would emerge for broader benefits, as when man raced toward the moon.
The Sub2 experts would use data to confront habit, tradition, consensus. They would tailor training programs to individuals, employing science to help runners from Ethiopia and Kenya and elsewhere who had had fantastic performances using little science. They would challenge everything people thought they knew about distance running — how to train and even whether to wear shoes.
“We know nothing about the science of training,” Pitsiladis said. “I really mean nothing. When I say that, people get really upset.”
“Lots of energy” was the way fellow scientists invariably described Pitsiladis. He is youthful, handsome, outspoken, viewed as charming by supporters and arrogant by some detractors. He dresses casually, in jeans and running tights, and is sometimes scattered as he juggles academic projects.
Blood samples kept at minus-112 degrees at Pitsiladis’s laboratory at the University of Brighton in England, where he is a professor of sport and exercise science. He is also an antidoping expert with the International Olympic Committee. CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
He has about him a sense of the dramatic, the frenetic. His words sprint forth with a fast-twitch urgency. Ideas foam as if from a chemistry-class volcano.
At a TEDx talk in Cyprus in November about the future, Pitsiladis cornered a London designer, Ryan Genz, who specializes in wearable technology. Genz had made a dress that accepted SIM cards and allowed users to make and receive calls, as well as a dress that could display Twitter messages.
Pitsiladis said he wanted to develop intelligent clothing for running that would provide information in real time: sweat composition, heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature. This data could be flashed on television screens as if the runners were Formula One racecars. Perhaps nanotechnology embedded in the clothing could also cool or warm the body as necessary.
“We want to bring the race into the living room and have the garments contribute to the outcomes we get,” Pitsiladis said.
Over all, Pitsiladis’s research is meant to explore and possibly buck the received wisdom of the running world.
Many elite marathoners, for instance, run about 120 miles a week in training. But there was little science to support that regimen, Pitsiladis said. Perhaps 75 miles a week would work just as well for many runners — or maybe any reasonable training program would.
A popular training method is known as “live high, train low.” By living at a higher altitude, athletes stimulate the production of red blood cells to compensate for the lower level of oxygen in the air. By training at or near sea level, they are able to maintain the intensity of their workouts because more oxygen is available.
Live high, train low is supported by some evidence. But Pitsiladis is not fully convinced of its efficacy, saying, “I would bet you it’s wrong and that what’s better is live high and train higher,” as perhaps the two greatest distance runners in history — Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia — often did.
“It may not work, but let’s try it and see what happens,” Pitsiladis added.
Pitsiladis wanted to explore training at various altitudes, from the oxygen-enriched Dead Sea to 5,500 feet to 11,500 feet or even 13,000 feet. He could provide supplemental oxygen during training if needed. Perhaps the body would be stimulated to produce even more red blood cells at the higher altitudes. And the brain might adapt to those enervating and hypoxic workouts, producing faster race results at sea level.
“We know nothing about the science of training,” said Pitsiladis, working at a hotel in Ethiopia where he travels to study runners. “I really mean nothing. When I say that, people get really upset.”CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
“It’s almost the equivalent of running with weights on your feet and then you take the weights off and you can fly,” Pitsiladis said.
As a doctoral student, Pitsiladis experimented with giving runners a pint of heavy cream as a prerace meal. The idea was to use fat and help delay the depletion of carbohydrates, the body’s main fuel source during high-intensity exercise.
But Pitsiladis had come to believe that a two-hour marathon might be best achieved by bombarding the system with glucose.
For instance, Owen Anderson, a consultant to the Sub2 Project who coached elite Kenyan road runners in Michigan, gave his athletes eight to 10 ounces of a sports drink about 10 minutes before a race to get accustomed to a bloated feeling. (They drank more during competition.) To further get accustomed to an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach, the runners sometimes practiced by eating ugali, a Kenyan porridge, or cabbage before training.
“My runners can eat a Sichuan Chinese dinner before they run,” Anderson said jokingly.
Against convention, Pitsiladis theorized that the second half of a two-hour marathon would be run faster, not slower, than the first half. As runners burn fuel and become lighter during a race, he said, they should become more economical, needing less oxygen to maintain a certain speed.
When runners drank, Pitsiladis believed, they could shave precious seconds by squeezing fluid from a bag instead of opening a bottle, as elite runners do on the course. And perhaps, he said, they needed to drink little or nothing in the second half of a two-hour marathon.
Instead, they might rinse their mouths with a carbohydrate solution and spit it out. Research showed the brain could be tricked into believing that more carbs were on the way, thus inducing the muscles to work harder.
Pitsiladis and his Sub2 colleagues also wanted to explore basic questions. What is the optimal running form? Much was known about the biomechanics of sprinting, but little about distance running.
Marathoners run with more variable strides than sprinters, said Weyand, the biomechanist, but there is probably an ideal pattern for minimizing energy costs and reducing or delaying fatigue.
“I don’t think the prospect of coming down a minute for an elite male is unreasonable with a form intervention, based on what we know now,” Weyand said. “And it might be more.”
Even some of the greatest runners, however, doubted that a two-hour marathon was possible. Could the body have enough carbohydrate fuel to run that far, that fast? Would the brain slow the legs for self-preservation?
“I can’t say it’s possible,” said Bekele, the Ethiopian star, a three-time Olympic champion on the track whom Pitsiladis enlisted for the Sub2 Project with the hope, in the face of fits and starts from the runner, that he could one day test some of his theories on him.
“For me it’s impossible, maybe,” Bekele said. “You never know. Maybe in 10 years’ time there is a different thing. Maybe somebody creates a new technology.”
Doping scandals have also left the running world a far more cynical place than it was in 1954 when Roger Bannister of England broke the four-minute barrier in the mile.
Forty Kenyans have tested positive for banned substances in recent years. Ethiopia has also been rattled by doping, and Russia has been barred from international track and field competition, which might extend to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Lamine Diack of Senegal, a former president of track’s world governing body, is accused of having taken more than $1 million in bribes to cover up positive drug tests by Russian athletes. He remains under investigation by the French authorities.
“I no longer believe we should be pushing the pace” to reach a two-hour marathon, said Mary Wittenberg, a former race director of the New York City Marathon and an influential voice in international distance running.
“I think, at a period in this sport’s history where doping has become a real concern, that we should do everything we can to go back to racing and competition and not superhuman feats,” Wittenberg said. “You put a lot of incentive on time with money and glory, I think it can heighten the risk that somebody might cheat.”
Pitsiladis at his laboratory at the University of Brighton. The Sub2 Project’s research is meant to explore and possibly buck the received wisdom of the running world.CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist from South Africa who has studied elite runners, wrote perhaps the most stinging rebuttal to the aims of the Sub2 Project. Tucker said Pitsiladis and his team had overpromised what science could achieve in trying to produce a 2.4 percent drop in the fastest marathon time by 2019.
East Africans already receive top coaching and scientific advice and have decades of experience and huge economic incentives to inspire their performances, Tucker wrote on SportsScientists.com when the Sub2 Project began. These runners, he wrote, “laugh at Westerners for their heart rate monitors and gadgets because they understand their bodies so well already.”
Unless an entirely new population of runners is discovered, Tucker wrote, only unrestricted technology, like doping or springs in shoes, is likely to produce a two-hour marathon in Pitsiladis’s time frame.
“This is a P.R., marketing issue, dealing with the translation of science and its ‘sale’ to the sports world,” Tucker wrote. “I just don’t think it’s helpful.”
Others have wondered whether great scientific advances are even necessary for a groundbreaking marathon. Andy Jones, a member of the Sub2 consortium, said two hours might be within reach today by gathering a group of the world’s top marathoners, paying them hefty appearance fees and time bonuses, and improving drafting to reduce aerodynamic drag.
“I think probably the talent is there,” said Jones, a physiologist at the University of Exeter in England. “I don’t think we necessarily change anybody’s training. I think the best shot is to get them all together in the best possible conditions, working together, and have the right investment package to make it happen.”
Pitsiladis called Tucker an “armchair professor” and felt he could help allay suspicions about drug use.
The number of athletes using banned substances at the higher levels of marathon running is probably “very high,” Pitsiladis conceded. But if anyone can help curb doping, he said, he can.
Pitsiladis is a member of the International Olympic Committee’s medical and scientific commission. And he is at the forefront of creating the next generation of drug tests for the blood booster known as EPO by detecting its lingering fingerprint on genes. All runners who participate in the Sub2 Project must submit to an expanded regimen of blood and urine testing, conducted independently.
Pitsiladis, far right, and locals in Kalite, Ethiopia, watched in September as the champion runner Kenenisa Bekele trained on a highway under construction.CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
“I want to beat those on drugs,” Pitsiladis said, adding: “I want to say, in a sense, yes, drugs have been taken, but not by my athletes, and I’ve just smashed the two-hour barrier without them. It breaks the argument ‘I’m going to use drugs because it works more than science.’”
Starting an Adventure
The Sub2 Project is not Pitsiladis’s first voyage into doubt and the unknown. He is an adventurer in a family of adventurers.
After World War II, his father, Tony, left Greece as an 11-year-old, sailing with strangers to a new life in Australia. The elder Pitsiladis later regaled his son with exotic stories: serving as an extra in the apocalyptic 1959 movie “On the Beach,” starring Gregory Peck; talking his way into the V.I.P. stand at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Yannis Pitsiladis’s own life has been peripatetic, evident in his Greek ancestry, his South African accent, his advanced degrees obtained in Scotland and England. He broke his chin as a teenager while diving for a ball in an attempt to become an Olympic-caliber volleyball player for Greece. If he did not have the genes for volleyball, he joked, he did have the DNA for perseverance.
“I tell him all the time, ‘Slow down; one day you are going to fall over,’” said Jos Hermens, a Dutch Olympian in 1976 and a manager for a number of the world’s top marathon runners, who is helping to fund the Sub2 Project.
Over the past 16 years, Pitsiladis has traveled from Jamaica to East Africa to collect DNA samples from about 1,000 Olympic and world champions and other stars in various sports. He believes in the primacy of genes in influencing athletic ability. “Choose your parents well,” he likes to say in speeches.
But he also considers the dominance of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running to be largely due to cultural and socioeconomic factors. In other words, he said, genes need the proper environment to thrive.
At his TEDx talk in Cyprus, Pitsiladis described a study of his that found Kenyan children engaged in 170 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day, compared with 20 to 40 minutes for Europeans.
“Life was a kind of sport” for Ethiopians and Kenyans, Pitsiladis said, as they walked and ran long distances in a pastoral lifestyle.
Children running home from school in Bekoji, Ethiopia. Pitsiladis said life itself could be a kind of sport for Ethiopians and Kenyans, who walk and run long distances in a pastoral lifestyle.CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
With a grant of $500,000 from the Japanese government, the Sub2 consortium plans to begin sequencing the genomes of all the champions whose DNA Pitsiladis has collected.
“The ideal scenario is that most of them, or all of them, would have a number of gene variants that are very rare in the population,” Pitsiladis said, adding: “We know genes are important. We just don’t know which ones they are.”
He wants to begin developing individualized training regimens, based not simply on how a runner felt on a particular day but on the response of his biomarkers.
What genes switched on and off when he reached the level of exercise intensity known as lactate threshold? What genes signaled the production of red blood cells or flashed like a red light at a railroad crossing, signaling dehydration or muscle damage?
“We could say, ‘When training is going well, the biomarkers are in this zone, so let’s let him loose,’” Pitsiladis said. “Or when they deviate from that, damage could occur, so let’s hold him back or not take him to a race. No one is doing that.”
There is relatively meager funding for sports science, especially compared with biomedical research. Pitsiladis has sometimes spent his own money on his projects. At one point, his genetics research was sponsored by an Indian restaurant in Glasgow.
The personal cost was high, too. He was consumed by his work. His marriage crumbled. He divorced. He blamed himself.
“Imagine your wife if you’re remortgaging the house to pay for your work,” Pitsiladis said. “I think she’ll throw you out.”
But his former wife, Mariny Kapsali, and his two teenage children recently moved back in with him and are supportive of his Sub2 Project.
Pitsiladis’s work has had a toll. He and Mariny Kapsali, right, divorced, but she recently moved back in with him and has been supportive of the Sub2 Project. Their children, Asimina and Antony, joined them for dinner.CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
“I worry that Yannis set the bar too high,” said Kapsali, 48, a pharmacological researcher. “But no doesn’t mean no to him. If there is a problem, he won’t stop until he solves it.”
Scouting a Location
The Dead Sea held intriguing potential as a place to train and race. Highway 90 on the Israeli side is mostly flat. So are earthen dikes that cross the sea. The coolest times of day in January and February are near what Pitsiladis figured would be an ideal racing temperature — about 46 to 48 degrees — so runners would not be wasting energy to cool their bodies.
“It’s a bit warmer than we want,” Pitsiladis said, “but the added oxygen benefit from being below sea level might give us an advantage.”
Average healthy men, along with well-trained runners and cyclists, had improved their performances when given oxygen-enriched air in a laboratory. But no one had done field studies on the world’s fastest marathon runners, Pitsiladis said.
He speculated that the top Kenyans and Ethiopians, who dominate marathon running, might benefit doubly at the Dead Sea. They have greater oxygen-carrying capacity from living and training at altitude, and they would have more oxygen to breathe below sea level. They could stress muscles in a way that would not be possible at higher altitudes and would presumably be able to run faster while perceiving less exertion.
The runners also might be able to correct a condition observed in some highly trained athletes known as exercise-induced arterial hypoxemia. Top marathoners have such vast cardiac output — they are able to circulate their blood seven or eight times a minute through the lungs, Pitsiladis said — that while running at top speeds at or near sea level, some have experienced a decrease in oxygen saturation in their red blood cells.
“Not all elite athletes get that,” Pitsiladis said, “but some do. Typically it’s the better ones.”
He compared the hypoxemia to a bus traveling so fast that passengers did not have time to climb aboard and fill all the seats.
“This place may really help correct that,” he said, “because there is more oxygen coming in.”
Pitsiladis floated in the Dead Sea. The coolest times of day in January and February there are near what he figured would be an ideal racing temperature — about 46 to 48 degrees.CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times
Above the sea in this biblical landscape, cliffs at the edge of the Judean Desert flared red and then became as tawny as lions. Pitsiladis spoke excitedly. He would have to bring top athletes here and conduct the proper experiments, of course. But he was encouraged by possibility.
“We can come and do training and racing in an environment like this, and this is probably the best place on the planet to do it,” Pitsiladis said.
The temperature in winter could be accommodating, “and there’s more oxygen than anywhere else, and it’s flat,” he added. “What else do you want?”
At dusk at the Dead Sea, the sky turned the blue and orange of a gas flame. Marathoners are accustomed to racing in the morning. But some research suggested that athletes might perform slightly better in the late afternoon, when body temperature and hormone levels peak, muscles become more flexible and lung function is enhanced.
Pitsiladis had one final mission on his scouting trip: a run of five or six miles along dikes that jutted into the sea, bordering vast ponds where minerals were extracted.
The wind could be strong in this area, crossing Highway 90 from the desert. An attempt to set a course record with elite runners at the 2007 Dead Sea Half Marathon was blown off course. Perhaps it would be calmer on the water. Perhaps that would be the place to run a race.
The wind persisted on this February day, and tiny ridges of salt on the berms made finding one’s footing a bit tricky. But the ridges could be covered up, Pitsiladis said. Perhaps screens could shield the wind. If the best runners gathered here to try to break two hours, they would not be bound by a strict starting time, as they were at marathons in big cities. The race could be postponed for a day or two until the conditions approached ideal.
The Dead Sea might also be a place to experiment further with satellite technology, which Pitsiladis had tested at the Dubai Marathon in the United Arab Emirates, measuring the ground temperature of each section of the course in real time. He recently obtained 30 small thermometers that runners could swallow to record their temperatures throughout a race.
“I want to be able to link the land temperature to the body temperature,” Pitsiladis said. “What effect does it have?”
Information could be relayed to a runner, he said, perhaps by someone following on a motorcycle who could advise, “Around the corner, it’s cool, so push it more,” or, “It’s hotter; slow down.”
All of these ideas are speculative. But they speak to Pitsiladis’s pursuit of innovation and his refusal to surrender to orthodoxy.
“Yannis is very good at questioning the common wisdom,” said Barry Fudge, a former doctoral student of his who is the head of endurance for the British track and field federation. “At this juncture, most people would be like, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to be crazy.’ Well, Yannis is crazy enough to do it.”