5 things I learnt while watching Nike’s #breaking2 attempt

This morning Eliud Kipchoge became the person to come closest to running a sub 2 hour marathon. Had he done it, it would have been a milestone, like the first sub 4 minute mile, or the first sub 10 second 100 metre sprint. He came tantalisingly close. Although technically it was the fastest marathon ever ran, it doesn’t count as a world record because various conditions weren’t met (for instance, the distance between the start and finish lines; the ability to have fuel whenever they wanted as opposed to at set points on the course; the use of pacers). But that’s not the point of the experiment.  Zersenay Tadese, Lelisa Desisa and Kipchoge all still needed to run their hardest for all 26.2 miles.

Before I became a runner I never would have watched any distance – not even the 10 seconds required for a 100m – let alone a marathon. But loads of non-runners on Twitter seemed to also find it a nailbiting 2.00 hours. I’m sure we all learnt a lot.

If you want to do it, you’ll go ahead and do it

I am not an early riser, but I had to get up at 4.40 am on a Saturday to watch the thing. And I saw all bar the first minute and a half. This presents a challenge – if I was that desperate to watch a handful of men run for two hours to get me out of bed long before I needed to be, what else should I be excited to do? I’m sure if I wanted to get up and go for a run at that time, I would make it happen. Or read the bible and pray.

Failure is as much about a state of mind as it is a thing

Given the aim of running 1:59:99 or below, the time-stamp on Kipchoge’s run of 2:00:25 is a failure, as are Desisa’s and Tadese’s comparitively slower but still flipping fast efforts. So, yeah, Nike failed to break the 2:00:00 barrier. But does that make them a failure?

Not in the slightest. This was an experiment. And all that science, selection, training, drafting, use of pacers, individually tailored fluids to the quantity and makeup of their sweat, and – yes – the trainers with a carbon fibre insole, clearly worked: Kipchoge ran the fastest marathon ever – the WR being 2:02:57 – while Tadese got a PR.

Humilty maketh a man great

I don’t know why Nike chose to have comedian Kevin Hart on the side of the track. Probably to appeal to those not in the running community as he could bring some fun into all the data and discussion given by commentators Paula Radcliffe and Craig Masback. He was amusing during the clip of him racing the pacers (he lasted maybe a minute), but he managed to turn everything toward him. While talking with Carl Lewis, he failed to give Carl time enough to voice his thoughts before he talked about how he could do it, just give him time. It was by then a tired and laboured joke. I think I actually shouted at him at one point.

Compare this with the pacers, tasked with setting the pace for the three men, getting them round the course. Each of them seamlessly entered and exited the group. Each of them had to take time out of their own seasons to practice all this in the weeks leading up to this attempt. Each of them did 4.8k before a 30 minute rest and another slot – as someone said “it was like a good, hard workout for them”. And each of them were darn thrilled for Kipchoge. One of my favourite memories is of them coming round the last bend, pointing to the finish line, screaming encouragement and smiling as if it was them achieving it.

Also compare with Kipchoge himself, who when being interviewed by Lewis stated that he was happy that “the world is closer to the sub-2”. He could have easily said “I am closer to sub 2 than anyone else.” This was for him about testing the boundaries not only for himself but for all of us – or at least the ones who might be able someday to do it! He also made a point of jogging past the fans and signing shoes, high-5ing, selfies. So chilled.

Human physiology is amazing

The science could only do so much: these guys still had to run fast. For two hours. In a way that isn’t (or wasn’t) really possible. Most records are set by running the first half slower than the second; the Nike team realised that they had to have the guys set off as fast as they were to finish. Watching Kipchoge was memorising. The fast leg turnover, the stable torso, the arm swing. His form did not breakdown at all until the final push when he somehow gave more than he had already been giving, and I honestly had to look really hard during his post-race interview before I noticed the tiniest bit of sweat.

Tadese and Desisa had completely different form; Nike had chosen them all for their running efficiency (how much oxygen they get pumped round their body) not on a perceived “perfect form”. That two of them gave the best performances of their career shows that running style can vary from runner to runner – at least in elites. There are basic principles which as a back-of-the-packer with terrible form I am working on – but it was encouraging to know there is some leeway.

The mind-battle must be fought, and can be overcome

I’m amazed at Tadese and Desisa for finishing. Runners aim to have a stronger finish in mid to long distances because starting faster means a lot of pain at the end of the race. They kept ploughing on, despite the searing pain their legs must have felt. Once they realised that the sub 2 wasn’t going to be theirs, they must have felt like giving up, because, well what’s the point? They could have so easily gone “nope, it’s not happening today.” (for other stupefyingly courageous mind-over-matter battles, watch Akwhari finishing the ’68 Olympic Marathon  , or Derek Redman in Barcelona – i’m sure you’ve seen that one).
Kipchoge has also spoken about how much he wonders if the battle is psychological.

He didn’t accomplish the goal, but the attempt and all those other finishers are so inspiring because of that drive to keep pushing to test the limits. The question Radcliffe kept asking was “what’s your sub-2?”

The day I achieve a sub 2 half marathon will be amazing for me. But that’s the point – to think about your dream, and question whether any of the barriers aren’t actual but perceived. There may be some physical ones (I am not built for speed, so I doubt I’ll get much below 2 hrs for a half), but before the sub 4 mile, 4 minutes was a psychological block. Now some people run under 4 minutes regularly. I definitely used this psychology in my long run today. Setting off for somewhere between 8 and 15 miles, I pushed my barriers and, very much glycogen depleted, nailed 16.1 miles; driving me to think that a sub 5 hour marathon in two weeks might just be possible.

So, as Radcliffe asked – what’s your sub-2?

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