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Eliud Kipchoge's triumph invites science and data into sports

Monday October 14 2019

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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I am one of those Kenyans who cannot run and I only do watch athletics when we win and get a gold medal, contrary to a popular global opinion and stereotypes that regard all Kenyans as great runners.

And so last Saturday, due to week-long and mounting global expectations, I found myself glued to the TV, watching Eliud Kipchoge deliver on the expected promise – to be the first marathoner to run a full marathon in under two hours.

LEAD CAR

My technical mind was quickly sucked in by the lead car, which was projecting a laser beam on the road. The beam basically marked the geo-location that Eliud and his pace makers should be at that point in time if they were to beat the below two hours target.

It projected the V-formation that his pace setters should adopt in order to shield him from excessive wind or what they call aero-dynamic drag while providing a moving line that sets the overall tempo or speed for the team.

The projected and moving line was crucial in ensuring Eliud runs the whole race at a standard pace.

Typically, runners have a natural tendency to complete different kilometers at varying speeds and science had shown that this end up degrade their overall performance.

The car was also fitted with gadgets that could read and report the current time, speed and distance covered, the projected finish time at that pace, amongst other statistics to keep the team on course.

The pace set ensured that Eliud and team had to ran 100 meters under 17 seconds, 422 consecutive times in order to complete the distance of 42 kilometers, 195 meters in under two hours, hence the new slogan that Africans can and do keep time.

To ensure a fresh pair of legs for the pace setters, five teams of excellent athletes were carefully rotated in and out of the circuit over the course of during the challenge.

To avoid carbon polluting the team and slowing them down, the lead car selected was electric with zero carbon emission.

But the science did not end there.

ELUSIVE RECORD

The location, in terms of altitude, temperature, humidity, time zone and track gradients were carefully selected to ensure maximum probability of success, given that that this was Eliud’s second attempt to crack the elusive record.

His diet has of course been under professional nutritionist, but during last Saturday marathon a specially-designed energy drink that was calibrated to consistently deliver 100 grams of carbohydrates per hour to his body was introduced.

This was observed as different cyclists handed him the drink at a predetermined schedule of time in carefully synchronised motions to avoid compromising his steady pace.

Finally, scientists had designed custom-made running shoes for his legs and feet. Apparently this new pair gives him a four percent performance efficiency in his movements since they are designed to suck in and evaporate the extra weight that watery sweat introduces in traditional running shoes.

FUTURE IMPROVEMENT

Even after he broke the record, one could see the scientists still taking measurements with an eye on post-recovery and future improvement on the performance.

The amount of data points or records the scientist have on Eliud must be running into millions, given that its been collected over the 15 years of his running career.

This marathon has clearly demonstrated the intersection between sports and the data economy.

How many other ‘Eliuds’ are hidden in Kenya, waiting to be discovered, but lack the elaborate digital and scientific ecosystem that has made it possible for Eliud to break the sub-two hour record?

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu