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Wilson Kipsang wins the Tokyo Marathon

Wilson Kipsang won the Tokyo Marathon on March 1 with the time of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 58 seconds. The Kenyan broke the Japan record for the race, but did not beat his personal best of 2:03:23, which was a world record he set at the 2013 Berlin Marathon. Nor did he best the current world record of 2:02:57, currently held by fellow Kenyan Dennis Kimetto.

Kipsang, enjoying the cool temperatures of Tokyo, thought he could take back the world record. But he likely did not believe he had a chance at running under 2 hours. Getting to 1:59:59 is the holy grail of long-distance running. According to this in-depth look from the New York Times at “Sub2”, as this quest is called, a researcher from the Mayo Clinic thinks that breaking the 2-hour barrier won’t happen for another 10 to 25 years, and a three-time Olympian from Ethiopia, Bekele, says “I can’t say it’s possible.” As the article explains, “Could the body have enough carbohydrate fuel to run that far, that fast? Would the brain slow the legs for self-preservation?”

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.)

It is beginning to feel a bit like Zeno’s Paradox, that no matter how close you get to your target, you may never reach it. Could the 2-hour marathon be a bridge too far? Sports scientist and anti-doping expert in the IOC, Yannis Pitsiladis, believes that a Sub2 marathon is possible. “What excites me is understanding the limits of human performance. What can man do?”

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Pitsiladis believes we’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding the science of endurance running. Incremental gains in the disciplines of nutrition, biomechanics, genetics, running efficiency, training, race strategy, sports medicine, as well as data analytics could get runners to the tipping point of dramatic advances in long-distance running. “We know nothing about the science of training,” Pitsiladis said. “I really mean nothing. When I say that, people get really upset.”

Here are a few of the non-conventional ideas of Pitsiladis from that New York Times article:

  • How Many Miles: 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.
  • Live High Train High? 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.
  • Be a Glutton for Glucose: 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.)
  • Run the Second Half Faster: 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.
  • Squeeze Don’t Twist: 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.
  • Rinse Don’t Drink: 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.
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Femke Van den Driessche _Sporza

It’s been suspected for a while. The effortless speed. The wheels continuing to spin way longer than they should after a crash.

Tiny motors in bicycles.

“Bike doping.”

And finally, on January 28, 2017, a bicycle of a racer who had dropped out of the cyclocross world championships in Zolder, Belgium was seen to have electrical cables coming out of part of its body, according to this article. Upon further investigation, a small motor was found.

The bike belonged to a 19-year old Belgian cyclist named Femke Van den Driessche, a champion of Belgian national cyclo-cross and junior mountain bike tournaments. She was a favorite in the Zolder event until a mechanical problem ended her race. It has also put her career in suspension as Van den Driessche was banned for six years, and would be required to forfeit all results since October 10, 2015.

Van den Driessche said “It wasn’t my bike — it was that of a friend and was identical to mine,” according to this article. But her coach, Rudy De Bie said he was “disgusted.” “We thought that we had in Femke a great talent in the making but it seems that she fooled everyone,” he told Sporza.

Coincidentally, the day after this first publicly realized case of “bike doping”, the American news program, 60 Minutes, aired a segment entitled “Enhancing the Bike“. Correspondent, Bill Whitaker went to Budapest, Hungary to meet an engineer named Stefano Varjs, who designed a motor small enough to fit unseen inside the frame of a bike and powerful enough to motor an adult up a hill with relative ease.

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Stefano Varjas and Bill Whitaker_60 Minutes – click on image to watch this 60 Minutes’ segment.

When Varis showed this invention to a friend in 1998, the friend said he had a buyer who wanted this technology and would pay a handsome sum, if the buyer was assured of exclusive right to this technology for 10 years. Varis was paid USD2 million, an offer he simply could not refuse.

From that point on, it has been suspected that motorized bikes have been used in competitions, even the Tour de France. Here is part of the transcript of the 60 Minutes report:

Jean-Pierre Verdy is the former testing director for the French Anti-Doping Agency who investigated doping in the Tour de France for 20 years.

Bill Whitaker: Have there been motors used in the Tour de France?

Jean-Pierre Verdy: Yes, of course. It’s been the last three to four years when I was told about the use of the motors. And in 2014, they told me there are motors. And they told me, there’s a problem. By 2015, everyone was complaining and I said, something’s got to be done.

Verdy said he’s been disturbed by how fast some riders are going up the mountains. As a doping investigator, he relied for years on informants among the team managers and racers in the peloton, the word for the pack of riders. These people told Jean-Pierre Verdy that about 12 racers used motors in the 2015 Tour de France.

Bill Whitaker: The bikers who use motors, what do you think of them and what they’re doing to cycling?

Jean-Pierre Verdy: They’re hurting their sport. But human nature is like that. Man has always tried to find that magic potion.

Watch the video below to see an example of a possible bike that’s been doped.

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There be gold in them thar phones!

If you’re living in Japan, and you buy smartphones like you buy a fashionable spring jacket, then you’ve got a bunch of phones in your cabinet that are just gathering dust.

Tokyo2020 wants your phone! Starting April, Japan telecommunications conglomerate, NTT Docomo, will set up collection boxes in over 2,400 NTT Docomo stores across Japan. Additionally, the Japan Environmental Sanitation Center, will also set up collection centers to collect old PCs, tablets, wearables, monitors, and other electronic devices that can be mined for metals.

The goal is to collect 8 tons of metal, which will yield 2 tons of gold, silver and bronze, and eventually result in the production of 5,000 medals for winners in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Said Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura of this initiative, “computers and smart phones have become useful tools. However, I think it is wasteful to discard devices every time there is a technological advance and new models appear. Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic medals will be made out of people’s thoughts and appreciation for avoiding waste. I think there is an important message in this for future generations.”

Sustainability will be a key theme of Tokyo2020. And my hope and expectation is that Tokyo2020 will be a shining model of how to present the Olympics, as it was in 1964. Tokyo2020 will stand in stark contrast to past Olympics.

For example, there are already signs of decay in Rio de Janeiro as venues used for the 2016 Rio Olympics have been abandoned. This is an oft-told tale, with plenty of photographic evidence of waste from past Olympics. Only six months later, the main venue for the Rio Olympics is an empty, pilfered and unused shell of a stadium.

The IOC knows its reputation and perhaps its long-term survival are dependent upon making the Olympics more in line with the host country’s economic plans and means, and more conscious of its obligations to be more socially tolerant and more purposeful in driving sustainability.

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Kohei Uchimura’s next gold medal might be made from recycled smartphones

Since its inception in 2014, IOC President, Thomas Bach, has driven home the 40 tenets of his vision – The Olympic 2020 Agenda – a list of priorities, principles and actions that will guide the IOC in the coming years. Some of the hopes is to help ensure that host cities do not end up with an overly burdensome budget to hold the Games, to make the bidding process less complicated and less expensive, to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to drive greater sustainability.

The IOC has been working closely with Tokyo2020 to bring its operational budget down from USD30 billion, which is four times the budget put forth in the 2013 bid for 2020. The current goal is to get the budget down to under USD20 billion, which is far under Sochi’s USD50 billion spend, Beijing’s USD40 billion spend, and more in line with London’s USD20 billion spend. I believe that Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is making an honest attempt to drive the budget down, as well as create a legacy of sustainability and inclusiveness in Japan.

If you’re in Japan, you too can help! Look for your old smartphones, and the signs at NTT Docomo. Donate a phone, and ensure that a piece of your property becomes a piece of the winning medal for Olympians in 2020.

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Expect incredible drone shots of surfing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

One of my favorite toys as a kid was Verti-bird, a Mattel product from 1973 in which you operated a mini-helicopter to stop the bad guys. You had to control the helicopter’s lift and descent as well as speed, but it was connected to a wire so its flight was limited to a circular route.

But it was very cool!

Today, drones are the modern-day Verti-bird. This is a very weak comparison because drones today are in the middle of cutting-edge advancements in logistics, the military, security, news and sports coverage.

I remember talking with a photographer who covered the sailing events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and he mentioned that it is hard for people unfamiliar with yacht competitions to show interest because of how hard it is to capture these competitions visually. Perhaps drones will change that.

Fox Sports made a commitment last year to provide broadcasts of golf and super cross using perspectives provided by drones. This has been made possible by adjustments to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines in the US, which now allows the use of drones for commercial use.

Because drones, when controlled by a skilled technician, can provide unique angles, particularly from above a stadium or an athlete, or close ups of athletes who are far from areas where cameramen or spectators watch.

Drones can currently move at speeds of 64 kph (40 mph). They can venture as far as 1.2 kilometers (.75 miles) away from the controller, which is a pretty wide berth. And battery life for a drone is about 20 minutes. These specs are true as of this writing, but I’m sure it’s already an outdated reality as this technology will advance rapidly.

Yes, there are fears that a drone will plop out of the sky and interfere with an athlete’s performance. People will point to the drone falling just behind a skiier at the Sochi Olympics. But the benefit, in terms of the birds-eye-view images and up-close perspectives in sports where such access was not possible, will outweigh the risk.

Expect to see incredibly creative use of drones at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Testing the new high-tech road surface August, 2016

The average temperature in Tokyo in July and August is around 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit. But on the roads of Tokyo, after absorbing day after day of heat, can get as hot as 50 degrees Celsius, or over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s hot!

And that’s not counting the dreadful humidity that time of year in Tokyo. I hated summers in New York City, but they’re worse in Tokyo.

Now, imagine running 42 kilometers on those roads, in that heat and humidity, because the marathons for women and men are scheduled respectively on August 2 and 9 in 2020. Researchers say that on average optimal times to run a marathon are temperatures of around 6 degrees Celsius or 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Average body temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius and research also shows that running performance drops significantly if body temperature rises above 38.8 degrees celsius, according to this article.

At 38.8 C, the body can no longer effectively cool itself and it begins to divert blood to the skin to help keep it cool. This decreases the amount of blood available to carry oxygen to working muscles, which affects performance.

In intense hot weather athletic events, as the body becomes severely dehydrated, the result can be heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, heat-induced coma and then even death.

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The examples of the high-tech road surfaces: the one on the left is the water-retaining material and the one on the right is the ceramic-based sprayed material

Clearly, organizers of the Tokyo Olympics want to avoid both cramps and death. What are they going to do? They’re going to turn the roads white. On August 31, 2016, a special event was held on a 250-meter stretch of road in the middle of Tokyo that incorporated two pieces of heat-reducing technology:

  • a ceramic-based spray coating with insulating properties which resulted in a whitish-colored road that reflects the sun’s infra-red rays, as well as
  • another road material that has water-retaining properties, by which water is retained and slowly evaporated, thus cooling the roads.

These two technologies will be combined to build out a road of some 21 kilometers, according to a television broadcast I recently saw, and allows the entire 42-kilometer race to be run, presumably, on a road much cooler than what they would experience today.

Olympic marathon runner Toshihiko Seko and Paralympic wheelchair marathon runner Nobukazu Hanaoka, were on hand on August 31 to test them out the new road. Their reaction?

  • “The heat-insulating paving was clearly cooler,” said Seko after a test run on the road.
  • Hanaoka said: “The wheels did not slip when I applied the brake, even when the surface was wet.”

Other ideas being explored to keep the road and the runners cooler are:

  • More shade along the course
  • An earlier start in the day
  • Routing the course through more open areas with greater wind movement
  • Routing the course near water and presumably lower temperatures
  • Placement of cool mist stations along the course

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Four women, Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo, did something no American women had done in 20 years – win a medal in track cycling at the Olympics.

Their incredible story of training and triumph are told impactfully in the documentary, Personal Gold. You can find a summary of their story at this link here. This post is about the amazing transformation sports performance sciences is undergoing, and how biometric data is making an impact on the training and performance of athletes today.

With incredibly little resources available to them, Reed called her former USA Cycling teammate, Sky Christopherson, who was well on the way of making a marked transition from athlete to entrepreneur. Christopherson had become convinced that digital medicine would become a vital tool for high performance athletes. Understanding how to uncover insight from big data is hugely important in marketing, financial services, economics, and is now a big part of health and human performance sciences.

Due to the relatively low support of the women’s cycling track team by USA Cycling, Christopherson recruited volunteers to help him gather individualized biological and genetic data on each of the four cyclists, data that was being generated by sensors attached to the athletes bodies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and then to analyze it.

According to Christopherson, who was also the producer of the documentary, Personal Gold, the amount of information available to them was overwhelming, not only for Sky and his team, but for his computers, which in the early days crashed in trying to cope with the number crunching.

But once Christopherson recruited a big data analysis firm to volunteer their time and expertise, they began to take note of insight they could use. And all the data told them that each cyclist had unique characteristics and individual needs, and thus training them all the same way could at times be detrimental to the individual’s performance and growth. Here are a few examples pointed out by Christopherson at a recent speaking engagement in Tokyo, sponsored by the US Embassy:

  • In Hammer’s case, blood tests showed she had Vitamin D deficiencies, made worse by training indoors most of the time. Having normal levels of Vitamin D is key to getting the most out of one’s training, so Hammer was working harder than she needed to due to her deficiency.
  • Bausch, whose experience was greater as a distance cyclist and was struggling at sprinting speeds, was found to have what is known as the “sprinter’s gene”, which according to this Wired article, boosted her confidence.
  • Sensors noted that Reed was not getting enough deep sleep. More and more research is revealing the importance of deep sleep. In the case of athletes, the longer and deeper you sleep, the more HGH (human growth hormones) like cortisol or testosterone, is released naturally into their systems. These hormones are essential to faster recovery, and thus the ability to train longer at peak performance.

The data can also tell an athlete when an athlete can train hard, when the body is ready for it, or when to rest. This is key because as Christopherson advised, this knowledge can prevent injuries from occurring.

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Trailer screenshot

I asked Christopherson if this was a case of “Moneyball“, where the women’s team had access to insight that other teams didn’t have, using that information arbitrage to their advantage unbeknownst to the heavily-resourced cycling giants.

“We were grassroots and so we were very nimble and could innovate and change very quickly,” Christopherson told me. Being a small, low-budget operation forced them to be innovative, using whatever resources were available to them in the world. In fact, he felt that the well-financed teams, whose funds came from sponsors, often limited their flexibility. While teams are obligated to using the products of sponsors, the American team had no such limitations, and Christopher told the audience that they had the flexibility to change sensors and equipment as they saw fit.

The proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”, was never truer.

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Lauren Tamayo, Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed

“It was a miracle,” he said.

Not only had the US not won a medal in team pursuit cycling in 20 years, USA Cycling hadn’t even bothered to organize a pursuit cycling team since 1996. So in 2012, when four American women decided to make a go of it, training desperately for the London Olympics, the collective experience in pursuit cycling in America was minimal, the team’s budget was meager, and the gap between them and the very best in the world was huge.

And yet, as 1996 Olympian, Sky Christopherson told a transfixed audience at a speaking event sponsored by the US Embassy in Tokyo in early December, a miracle indeed happened. Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo came seemingly out of nowhere to win silver in the women’s team pursuit in London.

Hammer was already a four-time Cycling World Champion in individual pursuit, but was determined to be an Olympic champion. Bausch was a model recovering from anorexia who hadn’t started her cycling career until the age of 26. Reed was asked to come out of retirement to join the team to take a crack at the 2012 London Games.

This is the starting point for the mesmerizing documentary, Personal Gold, produced by Christopherson, who had transitioned from Olympic cyclist to entrepreneur. Not only has he become an authority on the relationship between biometrics and genomics and high performance, he also established a consultancy called Optimized Athlete.

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Sky Christopherson at The American Center Japan in Tokyo

I had the pleasure of watching this documentary at this event, after which Christopherson made himself available for Q&A. His documentary told the story of a women’s cycling team that clearly lacked support in 2012. While Great Britain and Australia’s cycling organizations put tens of millions of dollars into their road and track cycling teams, USA Cycling put all their dollars in road racing, thanks to the success of Lance Armstrong and his colleagues.

Personal Gold tells the story of how the team identified Mallorca, Spain as a good place to train for its low cost and proximity to London. Other national teams would provide a whole cadre of trainers and coaches. When the American team arrived in Mallorca three months prior to the start of the London Olympics, they were shocked to learn that the only support USA Cycling would provide is a single coach.

As is shown in the documentary, the athletes’ husbands played an integral part in Team USA, keeping the bicycles in tip-top shape, shouting out times and providing water during training, cooking meals, giving massages, and being massively important keepers of morale. In addition to the cyclists’ husbands, Christopherson created a virtual team of volunteer advisors – experts on biology, genetics, sleep, a data analytics consultancy, as well as a former Navy Seal who provided guidance on teamwork.

During the course of the training camp, amazing progress was made in understanding the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the cyclists, and what they needed to do as a team to improve. When the team began its training in Spain, they knew they had to get to world-class speeds of about 3 minutes and 16 seconds in the 3,000 meter race. But try as they could, they could not even break 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Unfortunately, by the time they broke camp, they still had not improved their times.

But Christopherson provided insight into how the body works after training hard. Like the idea of how an “a-ha” moment hits unexpectedly, after periods of great focus and concentration, the body is also readying itself for it’s own “a-ha” moment. “When we arrived in London, we began to taper (our training routine). We mostly rested. And that’s when the biggest potential comes. Of course, it’s unclear how high you will go. But athletes can get into a flow. Something happens, from their hearts, and they transcend.”

As they readied themselves for the qualification round in the velodrome in London, the team from the US tried to stay calm in a velodrome located in a country that is cycling mad. Unfortunately they were going up in the first round against Team GB, and the noise and the support for the Brits was likely intimidating.

The riders selected for this round, Bausch, Hammer and Reed, looked sloppy during the qualification race, their formation far from tight. As it turns out, they achieved their fastest time ever at 3 minutes and 19.4 seconds. But it was disappointing as it was still