“Scientist and provocateur” is how the New York Times’ Jeré Longman describes Yannis Pitsiladis, in this in-depth profile of Pitsiladis and his one-man quest 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 his quixotic project is called, is an attempt to define the extraordinary.
“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?”
A member of the IOC’s medical and scientific commission, and a scientist 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, Pitsiladis started his Sub2 Project in late 2014, writes Longman, 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.
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,” Barry Fudge, a former doctoral student of his who is the head of endurance for the British track and field federation, tells Longman. “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.”
“We know nothing about the science of training,” Pitsiladis said. “I really mean nothing. When I say that, people get really upset.”
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,” Peter Weyand of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who is the biomechanics expert for the Sub2 Project, tells Longman. “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.”
A HIGH-ENERGY QUEST
“Lots of energy” is the way fellow scientists invariably describe Pitsiladis, reports Longman. 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.
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.
Over the past 16 years, writes Longman, 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.
He is terrified of flying even though he had often travels more than 200 days a year.
“The only way I can get on a plane is a bottle of wine. I think I’m going to die throughout.”
THE DNA FOR PERSEVERANCE
The Sub2 Project is not Pitsiladis’s first voyage into doubt and the unknown, writes Longman. 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.
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, reports Longman, his genetics research was sponsored by an Indian restaurant in Glasgow.
The personal cost was high, too. Pitsiladis 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.
“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.”
One scientist’s quixotic quest to propel a runner past the two-hour barrier. Part 1 of a two-part series on a scientist’s attempt to produce a revolutionary marathon time. Read more at: nytimes.com