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? ... 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. ... 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. ... 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.
Around the world, nearly 80 research groups in 25 countries are honing their technologies for the €5-million (US$5.5-million) event. They range from small, ad hoc teams to the world's largest manufacturers of advanced prostheses, and comprise about 300 scientists, engineers, support staff and competitors: disabled people who will each compete in one of six events that will challenge their ability to tackle the chores of daily life. A race for prosthetic-arm users will be won by the first cyborg to complete tasks including preparing a meal and hanging clothes on a line. A powered-wheelchair race will test how well participants can navigate everyday obstacles such as bumps and stairs. ... The venue — Zurich's 7,600-spectator ice-hockey stadium — should combine with the presence of television cameras and team jerseys to give the Cybathlon a sporting vibe similar to that of the Paralympics, in which disabled athletes compete using wheelchairs, running blades and other assistive technologies. The difference is that the Paralympics celebrates exclusively human performance: athletes must use commercially available devices that run on muscle power alone. But the Cybathlon honours technology and innovation. Its champions will use powered prostheses, often straight out of the lab, and are called pilots rather than athletes. The hope is that devices trialled in the games will accelerate technology development and eventually be used by people around the world.
The gym is the Red Bull High Performance Center, a 270m2 space inside the company's North American headquarters in Santa Monica, California. It's a vast building that includes a cinema, recording studio and gaming room. Here, the Red Bull-sponsored athletes are looked after by a team of performance experts and use an extensive assortment of equipment. ... Not all US-based Red Bull athletes participate in the High Performance Program. Those who do, such as Chamley-Watson, are part of one of the world's most sophisticated and experimental training programmes, whose partners include institutions such Cirque du Soleil, Intel, elements of the US Department of Defense and a vast network of universities and scientists. "We have all this talent and from the start we made a decision to learn as much from them as we could, to test them and understand their mastery," says Andy Walshe, Red Bull's director of high performance. "We started collecting data without knowing what we were going to do with it. Blood work, brain scans, psychometric questionnaires… It's not big data, it's complex data and we're just focusing on collecting as diverse a range as possible."