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The Greatest, Fakest World Record

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Early yesterday morning, in a misty park in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in less than two hours. His time, 1:59:40, is the fastest any runner has ever covered 26.2 miles. Kipchoge carved two minutes off his own world record, and became the first marathoner to break the two-hour barrier.

At the event, branded the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, the performance was heralded as a radical historical leap, his “Neil Armstrong moment,” as one announcer said. Indeed, Kipchoge himself—a soft-spoken 34-year-old Kenyan who dulls the pain of distance running by smiling mid-competition—has repeatedly equated his feat to reaching the moon. That comparison is audacious on the scale of human achievement, but in the galaxy of running, it might actually be an understatement. Running’s original moon landing, the sub-4-minute mile, took place back in 1954. Yesterday, Kipchoge launched running to Mars.

Like the moon landing, Kipchoge’s run was a technical achievement that required unprecedented planning and support. In fact, it was so heavily engineered that his new time will not be counted as a world record. Kipchoge ran the fastest time ever over the marathon distance, but for heated reasons that get at the heart of the sport, he did not run a marathon.

[Read: The marathon world record shattered by Eliud Kipchoge]

One hour and 59 minutes is fast in a way that’s difficult to comprehend. Despite the formidable distance, Kipchoge ripped through each mile of his run in about four and a half minutes. This speed would feel like an all-out sprint to almost anyone who could keep up with him in the first place. To sustain this blistering pace, Kipchoge ran under conditions that had been painstakingly and exclusively arranged to push him beyond the two-hour barrier. The INEOS 1:59 Challenge was not a race by any strict definition: It was simply Kipchoge, joined by a rotating phalanx of pacesetters, rocketing along the pavement against the clock.

The planning that went into the event was a fantasy of perfectionism. The organizers scouted out a six-mile circuit along the Danube River that was flat, straight, and close to sea level. Parts of the road were marked with the fastest possible route, and a car guided the runners by projecting its own disco-like laser in front of them to show the correct pace. The pacesetters, a murderers’ row of Olympians and other distance stars, ran seven-at-a-time in a wind-blocking formation devised by an expert of aerodynamics. (Imagine the Mighty Ducks’ “flying V,” but reversed.)

Kipchoge himself came equipped with an updated, still-unreleased version of Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes, which research appears to confirm lower marathoners’ times. He had unfettered access to his favorite carbohydrate-rich drink, courtesy of a cyclist who rode alongside the group. And the event’s start time was scheduled within an eight-day window to ensure the best possible weather. The whole thing was as close as you can get to a mobile marathon spa treatment—if going to a spa was paired with the worst discomfort of your life.

Such an extensive level of support, combined with the fact that Kipchoge wasn’t actually competing against anybody, pushed the event outside of official marathon conditions and prevented his performance from counting as a true record. The organizers were fully aware of this; the event, as Outside magazine aptly referred to it, is perhaps best understood as an “exhibition marathon.” It was a time trial, albeit one that had been scienced to an almost entirely unrivaled level. The only professional marathon competition that has resembled it was 2017’s Breaking2, a much-hyped Nike campaign that put Kipchoge and two other athletes on an Italian motor-racing track under similar top conditions. They all failed at breaking the two-hour barrier, but Kipchoge got close enough to convince INEOS, a U.K.-based chemicals company that owns several sports franchises, that two hours could be broken with just a little more optimization.

But with great optimization comes great controversy. Looked at one way, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge is a straightforward testament to how money can buy anything, including a branded sub-two-hour marathon. INEOS, which is owned by Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, appeared to spare no expense when it came to either the groundbreaking science or the marketing blitz leading up to the event. “As much as they might like to present this as such, the first sub-2:00 marathon is not like the first sub-4:00 mile, or the first summit of Everest, much less the moon landing,” the running commentator Toni Reavis wrote before the event. “All those challenges carried in the public consciousness the possibility of death. This is a second-chance marketing exhibition for a plastics manufacturer and springy shoes.”

[Read: How unhealthy are marathons?]

Corporate sponsorship is of course nothing new in sports, but when it arrives at the marathon with a monomaniacal focus on time, it rubs against the nature of the race itself. The 1:59 Challenge was less about Kipchoge exhibiting new abilities than it was about improving the marathon’s running conditions. But the marathon as it is popularly run is not really designed for records in the first place, precisely because of its shifting variables. It would be hard for a race organizer to design an ideal 26.2-mile course that would still attract spectators, entertain competitors, and net enough money to justify a race’s costs. (Imagine running a major marathon on an indoor track.)

By necessity, then, the marathon has resisted optimization. Different cities have different courses that are known for their unique challenges. Berlin has become the go-to race of late for official world records, but while that course is flat and fast, no one thinks it’s the ideal marathon path. Preciently, the journalist Ed Cesar wrote in Two Hours, a 2015 book about the future of marathoning, that the only way to pull someone under the two-hour mark would be to manufacture a marathon entirely for the purpose of speed. Kipchoge’s new time suggests that part of the reason no one had broken two hours until yesterday is that marathoning simply hasn’t prioritized it.

“It’s meaningless,” the sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis said of the new record in an interview with The Times. Pitsiladis was once a vocal advocate for sub-2 attempts, but according to the running website Letsrun.com, he recently tried to pull together a marathon that sped runners down a mountain, so that he could point out that two hours can be broken with relative ease with relative ease under extreme enough conditions.

And yet, and yet—the most compelling counterpoint to a cynical view of the performance is Eliud Kipchoge himself. Among a pack of mostly Kenyan runners who have recently pushed marathoning into a golden age, Kipchoge stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is the distance’s Michael Jordan, an era-defining and Kelly-Clarkson-loving talent whose credentials—which include an Olympic gold medal and multiple big-city-marathon titles, on top of the official marathon world record—were secure well before yesterday.

If INEOS had found a way to usher any lesser runner beyond the two-hour barrier, their hyper-calculated efforts easily could be dismissed as too contrived to merit admiration. But perfect conditions and unavoidabe INEOS logos can’t dimish Kipchoge’s magic. At the heart of the spectacle was still one of history’s most extraordinary athletes, flexing his skinny legs and giving the world yet another opportunity to behold him. Kipchoge’s performance was not necessarily better than some of his other great feats, but it’s hard to argue that it was any worse.

Yesterday leaves marathoning with a paradox. The INEOS 1:59 Challenge was indeed a brazen defiance of the marathon’s spirit. It was also a triumph of humanity. As the science of running continues to improve and new technologies creep in, that tension is only going to grow.

In a televised interview after he crossed the finish line, Kipchoge offered some characteristic platitudes: Running can make the world a more peaceful and beautiful place, and he wants to inspire people to get outside and move. But there was a glimmer in this invitation. He said he wants to inspire his competitors to move, too—to join him in what is now marathoning’s most exclusive club.

He didn’t really have to break 2 to motivate them, though. Two weeks ago, while Kipchoge was merely dreaming of landing on the moon, a legendary Ethiopian distance runner named Kenenisa Bekele arrived on Berlin’s famously fast course and dropped a 2:01:39—two seconds away from Kipchoge’s official world record.

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JimB
6 hours ago
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Start Planting Trees

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Recently Deb Fallows kicked off a series of “Big Little Ideas”—innovations or reforms that could be applied fairly easily at the local level and that might have cumulatively very important effect.

(Thanks to many readers who have written in. We’ll be sharing some of the many suggestions that have arrived.)

Here’s another in the series: making it easy to plant large numbers of trees, city-by-city.

In an article in the October issue of the magazine, I cite recent findings that tree-planting matters more than many people suspect, in its potential climate impacts. The story said:

After Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, more than 400 U.S. mayors, representing most of the U.S. economy, said their communities would still adhere to it. “That is where most of the leverage lies on sustainability—with mayors and governors,” Morley Winograd told me.

He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This could spread city by city, state by state, with no federal involvement or limitation,” he said.


The tree-planting movement has gained surprising momentum. For example, check out this report from Louisville, on its ambitious “Green Heart” project to assess the impact of urban green space. Or this, from Tulsa, about the difference its “Up With Trees” program has made. Or the “Greenprinting” map tool, from the Trust for Public Land. Or the MTree tool.

More tree-planting in Redlands, Ca. (Courtesy of Karen Bell.)

For now, here’s an illustration of one community taking an innovative step. This story has three bonus reactions for attracting my attention.

First, the community in question is my original homeland, the small inland-California community of Redlands, in San Bernardino County.

Second, the tree-planting initiative is of a variety often mocked in the nation’s capital but of growing importance at the community level: namely, a “public-private partnership.” It’s a collaboration involving a private company (the mapping firm Esri); a local university (the University of Redlands); and the community’s public schools (of which I am an alum).

Third, the news is reported by a new local publication, the Redlands Community News, which fits the pattern I have reported on from Maine and Mississippi and Massachusetts, in offsetting the pernicious effect of private-equity control of local newspapers. (More reports are coming on this local-journalism theme, from Michigan and Tennessee and Massachusetts and beyond.)


It’s an idea with a history: Arbor Day planting ceremony, New York City Public Schools, in 1908. (Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.)

One of our good friends in Redlands, Shelli Stockton of the University of Redlands, explains the idea. The reason for spelling this out is the possible application elsewhere:

Idea:

Increase the awareness of the benefits of trees through education and give away trees to plant. Redlands’ specific project involves presentations at school assemblies, providing each elementary student in our city a tree to plant, and mapping and measuring the results with GIS [online maps, like those developed by Esri in Redlands].

The project will take place in April 2020 in honor of the 50th worldwide Earth Day celebration. Approximately 12,000 trees will be distributed.

How It’s Done:

Identify key partners in the project, including a funder to pay for the trees, an audience with whom to communicate and distribute the trees, and a person(s) to organize the project. In our case the players are:

  • Funder: a local company with an interest in the environment and climate change issues
  • Audience: the local school district and private schools
  • Organizer: the local university

How This Works Locally:

Redlands has been named a Tree City USA Community  by the Arbor Day Foundation for 22 years. It has a volunteer-led city Street Tree Committee who assist city staff in overseeing issues regarding the city’s urban forest … There was even a project to plant trees in honor of a nine-year-old girl who died of leukemia.

The University of Redlands is also 10 consecutive year Tree Campus USA school and has more than 4500 trees on its 160-acre campus.

It’s medium-scale idea with potentially very large effects. And of course planting trees is only the first step: they need to be watered, tended, cared for. But it’s an important start, which other communities could consider. And please continue to write in, at OurTowns@TheAtlantic.com , with more suggestions.

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JimB
11 hours ago
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Black woman shot dead by Texas police through bedroom window

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Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was at home with her nephew when she shot and killed by a Fort Worth officer.
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JimB
11 hours ago
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Typhoon Hagibis: Japan deploys military rescuers as deadly storm hits

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At least 18 people died after one of the strongest storms in years hit central Japan.
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JimB
11 hours ago
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Snotty children are the key to the UK's biggest ever flu vaccine push

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With winter looming, public health agencies are ramping up to deliver 25 million flu vaccines, including tackling the biggest flu spreaders: icky children



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JimB
18 hours ago
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What did Donald Trump do today?He defended Rudy Giuliani—to a point.Trump's new ...

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What did Donald Trump do today?

He defended Rudy Giuliani—to a point.

Trump's new "fixer," Rudy Giuliani, is reportedly under federal investigation related to his involvement in Trump's attempt to gin up a fake Ukrainian "investigation" of his political rival Joe Biden. The news broke yesterday, just two days after Giuliani's associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested on charges related to their attempts to illegally funnel Ukrainian money to American political campaigns. 

Parnas and Fruman had lunch with Giuliani the day before their arrest, and were traveling on one-way tickets to Europe, where Giuliani had been scheduled to meet them. The two have long-standing ties to Trump, as well.

Whether Giuliani is Trump's actual lawyer is a matter of some debate. Trump himself was very reluctant yesterday to call Giuliani his lawyer. When asked, he said, "I don't know. I haven't spoken to Rudy," before correcting himself: "I spoke to him yesterday, briefly." Trump then added, equivocally, "He's a very good lawyer and he has been my lawyer, sure." Today, after leaving Giuliani's status up in the air for more than 24 hours, Trump confirmed that Giuliani is his lawyer. 

Trump has good reason to hesitate. No attorney-client privilege applies to illegal acts that the "lawyer" is party to, which means that Giuliani could testify against Trump about his Ukrainian activities, either in a court or an impeachment proceeding. But insulting Giuliani, whose temper and emotional stability are much like Trump's, could be equally disastrous.

That is presumably why Trump tweeted out his support this morning, blaming the "Deep State" for Giuliani's problems. 

The investigation into Giuliani is reportedly being done through the Southern District of New York office, whose leadership is, like all United States Attorney's offices, made up of Trump appointees.

Why should I care about this?

  • The president doesn't just get to declare his friends and/or criminal co-conspirators innocent of any crimes.
  • The reason it's important to remove presidents who are mixed up in criminal activity is that they are easily blackmailed.
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JimB
18 hours ago
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