Film Chronicles The Road To The 2-Hour Marathon: It's 'Just 25 Seconds Away'

Sep 20, 2017
Originally published on September 20, 2017 10:52 am

Can a human run a marathon in two hours flat? The documentary Breaking2 follows three elite runners as they attempt to break one of the most famous barriers in sport — maintaining 26.2 four-minute, 34-second miles.

One of those runners, Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge, of Kenya, came 25 seconds shy of the two-hour mark with a time of 2:00:25. "The world now is just 25 seconds away," Kipchoge says in the film.

"I'm not afraid to say when he crossed the line I cried," filmmaker Martin Desmond Roe tells NPR.

Breaking2 was a Nike project (you can watch the race here) in which trainers and scientists collaborated to give the runners every possible advantage, from tests in wind tunnels to specialized shoes. The film was co-produced by Nike and National Geographic.


Interview Highlights

On the three runners featured in the film

The project brought on board three of the greatest distance runners in the world right now. Eliud Kipchoge ... was generally considered to be the greatest distance runner currently running and possibly of all time. He's the Olympic gold medalist. At the time that we did the event he had second fastest marathon time of all time so he was a shoo-in. ...

The other two, we have Zersenay Tadese, from Eritrea — he's a very untrained talent but he has some of the greatest physical stats that the science team had ever recorded. ...

And the third is Lelisa Desisa, from Ethiopia. He actually was 22 years old when he won the Dubai marathon and then he went on to win two Boston marathons as well, so he's sort of a rising star within the marathon world.

On running the race on a Formula One race track in Monza, Italy

It's been known for quite a while that [a two-hour time] wasn't going to happen for a very long time under race conditions. Firstly, like, they just wanted to find somewhere that wasn't hilly. The less consistent the pace that they're able to maintain, the less likely they are to be able to maximize their time. ... By staging it ... on the Formula One track, not only was it perfectly flat, they ran in perfect circles so minimizing turns.

On how much "control" the scientists and trainers have

So much of it boiled down to grit at the end of the day, I mean, I think that whilst there was a lot of engagement from the scientists in the training program ... they advised on it, and they engaged with them — but these guys were already the best of the best.

On the drafting strategy, in which other elite runners ran as "pacers" in front of Eliud Kipchoge to cut down on wind resistance

[They were] running in a very regimented, six-man, arrow-like formation, which is breaking the wind. If you imagine drafting cars, or drafting, like, a bicycle team ... that was the most significant thing that they were honestly able to bring to Eliud. And it's the most controversial thing because ultimately it was the key thing that stopped it from being an official world record.

On Kipchoge missing the two-hour mark by just 25 seconds, less than one second per mile

We spent so much time watching him and feeling that self-belief that we'd all bought in. Even those last two laps as he starts to drift off — there was still, like, some hope and some belief that he was going to be able to slam it in that last mile.

On whether Kipchoge, 32, will try to beat the world record or the two-hour mark again

It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility. He's running the Berlin Marathon on Sunday. If he sets the world record this Sunday, then I don't know, maybe there will be another attempt [at the two hour mark] next year — we'll have to see.

Kevin Tidmarsh and Jacob Conrad produced and edited the audio of this interview. Holly Herzfeld and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This next story is about an attempt to break one of the most famous barriers in sports, running a marathon in less than two hours. Now that means running a 4-minute, 34-second mile and then maintaining that pace for 26.2 miles. The documentary "Breaking2" follows three runners as they attempt to do just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BREAKING2")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three, two, one - go.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN SIGNAL)

KELLY: Martin Desmond Roe directed the film, which is a co-production of National Geographic and Nike. I asked him, why these three men?

MARTIN DESMOND ROE: The project brought on board three of the greatest distance runners in the world right now. So Eliud Kipchoge was brought onboard because he's generally considered to be the greatest distance runner currently running and possibly of all time. He's the Olympic gold medalist. At the time that we did the event, he had the second-fastest marathon time of all time, so he was a shoo-in.

KELLY: OK. And who were the other two?

ROE: The other two - we have Zersenay Tadese from Eritrea. He's a very untrained talent, but he has some of the greatest physical stats that the science team had ever recorded. And the third is Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia. He actually was 22 years old when he won the Dubai Marathon, and then he went on to win two Boston Marathons as well. So he's sort of a rising star within the marathon world.

KELLY: OK. So you have these three great runners, and then the project was all about, how do you push them to the next...

ROE: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Level? The scientists and trainers involved in this effort were controlling the training regimen of the runners for six months up to race day, controlling what they ate. I mean, one of the things you can't control for is heart. And I wonder how much boiled down to just mental strength, to what you might call grit.

ROE: I mean, just so much of it boiled down to grit at the end of the day. I mean, I think that whilst there was a lot of engagement from the scientists in the training program, these guys were already the best of the best, you know? And with Eliud, it was pretty clear that he was the favorite, very quickly.

KELLY: But he also posed something of a unique challenge, I gather from watching the film. There's a little bit of the film that I'd love to play here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BREAKING2")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He already does everything almost perfectly. When we analyze him in terms of his training, when we analyze the things that he does in the mathematical sense, I find very few places for us to intervene. And that makes him a very unique problem for the scientists.

KELLY: How did they go about trying to solve that problem?

ROE: In a way, the scientists didn't really massively impact Eliud in this race. Well, one thing we should mention - the most controversial part of what the scientists brought to the race was this drafting program, where they swapped pacers in every lap and have - so there's fresh pacers running every lap. More specifically, they're running in a very regimented, six-man, arrow-like formation, which is breaking the wind - if you imagine, you know, drafting like cars or drafting like a bicycle team. And that was the most significant thing that they were honestly able to bring to Eliud. And it's the most controversial thing because it's the thing - ultimately, it was the key thing that stopped it from being an official world record.

KELLY: I want to let people know, and this is - spoiler alert - but this has been widely reported in the sports news, so I don't think I'm giving away the end of your film here. He missed, but he missed by 25 seconds, meaning, over the course of a marathon, his pace was off by less than a second per mile. That's incredible.

ROE: It was incredible. We spent so much time watching him and feeling that self-belief that we'd all bought in. I mean, even those last two laps as he starts to drift off, there was still, like, some hope and some belief that he was going to be able to just slam it in that last mile.

KELLY: You captured this remarkable moment with him where he's reflecting after the race. And he's asked about what it means to have come so close. And he's asked, does this mean human beings have limits? And let me play his answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BREAKING2")

ELIUD KIPCHOGE: I don't agree with that. The world now is just 25 seconds away.

KELLY: Just 25 seconds. I mean, it's not outside the realm of possibility that he might crack this.

ROE: Oh, it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility. And he's running the Berlin Marathon on Sunday. If he sets the world record this Sunday, then - I don't know - maybe there will be another attempt next year. We'll have to see.

KELLY: That's Martin Desmond Roe, director of the documentary "Breaking2" about the quest to run a marathon in under two hours.

Thank you so much.

ROE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSAJ THING'S "MOON")

KELLY: I want to let you know, "Breaking2" premieres tonight on the National Geographic channel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.