Scientists Help The World’s Top Runners Attempt To Break The Two-Hour Marathon Barrier

A Q&A with a doctor and a runner from a new documentary on the attempt.

Eliud Kipchoge runs into the rising sun during a training session at the University of Eldoret track in Eldoret, Kenya. Image via National Geographic and Nike.

“The world is now just 25 seconds away. No human is limited. That’s my message.” – Eliud Kipchoge, elite distance runner from Kenya

Who or what limits human potential? A fascinating new one-hour documentary special, “Breaking2,” might reveal some answers in its premiere on National Geographic on Sept. 20 and on its digital networks on Sept. 21.

It’s an epic story that follows three of the world’s fastest elite distance runners as they endure a year of intense training and scientific training analysis (fueled by Nike) to do what no one else has done before: break the two-hour marathon barrier.

More than 19 million spectators worldwide watched as the runners circled the Monza circuit in Italy. In the climactic finish, 32-year-old Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge came within only 25 seconds of breaking the elusive two-hour mark.

From testing in wind tunnels and running labs in the United States to balancing training with their day-to-day lives in eastern Africa to the final heart-pounding race in Italy, the film follows Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tadese on their global trek.

The determined athletes met with a team of leading sports scientists for more than a year of testing, training analysis, product innovation design and development, and customized race-day planning.

Key to the science behind the Breaking2 endeavor was Dr. Brett Kirby, a Nike Sport Research Lab researcher and the lead physiologist on the project. As an expert on human bioenergetics, Kirby conducts pioneering research that unlocks better performance for every athlete. His formula for measuring and enhancing a runner’s velocity, running economy, hydration ability, and oxygen consumption is the basis for the science behind this world-changing attempt.

GOOD Sports caught up with Andrew Bumbalough, one of the Breaking2 pacers, and Kirby to learn about the barriers we impose on ourselves and how to overcome them.

When you're looking at optimizing performance, where do you begin?

Kirby: Performance optimization starts with a clearly defined target. Next, it’s critical to identify any problems, barriers, or gaps that could impede the achievement of that target. For example, this could be an observed limiter of a certain athlete’s physiology that needs attention or a barrier such as a race being held in hot temperatures when evidence shows that hot temperatures aren’t conducive to fast times. Finally, we must apply innovative and creative solutions to overcome these barriers and iterate regularly so that performance continually, even if slowly, moves closer and closer to optimal — and this is exactly what our team did for Breaking2.

Coach Haji Adillo passes water to runners midway through a 22-mile ​training session in Ethiopia. Image via National Geographic and Nike.

What surprised you throughout this journey?

Kirby: Teamwork, unity, and trust were the underlying components of Breaking2 — potentially hard to see on the surface but each massively important to the achievement. And this is not just within our Nike Breaking2 team, but across the athletes, staff, and all of the pacers who ran on race day.

On May 6, 2017, the Breaking2 community united across the globe to support our moon-shot mission to demonstrate that barriers are only barriers until they are broken and that humans have the capability of running a marathon in less than two hours. It’s really hard to put into words, but the feeling I have is that everybody and anybody that felt a single ounce of hope during our Breaking2 attempt played a role in helping forge Eliud’s amazing time of 2:00:25.

What barriers do you think we impose on ourselves as athletes and human beings? How do we overcome them?

Kirby: We only know what we know and don’t know what we don’t know, based on life experience. Often, it’s difficult to imagine a different way of doing or being, but that’s precisely what innovation and optimization are all about. Sometimes we have to be willing to consider that things are only as they are because we haven’t created a new way of doing or seeing those things just yet. The doors are wide open for change, and the first step in overcoming our self-imposed barriers is to believe that a better — or at least different-than-the-norm — way could exist and a willingness to try and make it a reality.

What was your big takeaway from this journey?

Bumbalough: The biggest takeaway from the event is that the human mind is an incredible machine. Obviously, you need an athlete of Kipchoge's caliber to even attempt such a mind-blowing time. He absolutely believed in the mission from the outset and that he could come within range of achieving it. Rarely have I seen such genuine belief in an individual. There was no need to grandstand or brag; the effort was always within him, and he knew it. Breaking2 was merely the avenue to express it.

Breaking2 pacer Dejene Debela (right) and other members of coach Lelisa Desisa’s training group recover on the team bus after completing their long-run workout on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Image via National Geographic and Nike.

What drives you to keep going during those cold mornings, painful injuries, etc.?

Bumbalough: Injuries are no fun and can be a limiting factor in how much you get out of the sport — and likely how much you enjoy it. Sometimes I think people get so frustrated with injuries that they decide they don't want to put in more work or more time. The last couple of years for me have been up and down with different injuries that have kept me from the progression I enjoy each season. But being back now, healthy and fit, before my upcoming marathon has me excited in a way I haven't felt in a long time. I think sometimes it’s just checking back in with yourself and reminding yourself why those sacrifices are worth it.

What advice do you have for young runners who want to be like you?

Bumbalough: Young runners need to know that the #1 way to get better is to be consistent. Be ready to get the miles in every day of the summer when no one else wants to train. Show up to practice every day ready to work and improve your skills. At the same time, don't take yourself too seriously. Enjoy being on a team and working towards a common goal.

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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