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Endeavoring to Finish a Marathon in Record Time in Nat Geo’s ‘Breaking2’
September 20, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Imagine running a mile in 4 minutes and 34 seconds.

Then imagine running 26 of them in a row.

That’s the pace you must maintain to finish a marathon, which is actually 26 miles and 385 yards, in less than two hours.

It’s never been done. And – spoiler alert – it’s still not done in National Geographic’s Breaking2, a documentary project that follows three ultra-elite marathon runners in an all-out bid to crack that barrier.

Airing at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, Breaking2 follows a team of coaches and scientists trying to find every means by which an already excellent runner could shave off just enough additional minutes to get below two hours.

The three runners are all African: Lelisa Desisa, 26, Zersenay Tadesse, 34, and Eliud Kipchoge (top), 32.

Kipchoge, the most accomplished of the three, comes in with a previous personal best of 2:03:51, meaning he’s about four minutes away.

Tadesse is the world’s best half-marathon runner, and the coaches feel that if they can find a way for him to stretch it out, he could become an equally great marathoner.

Desisa is remarkably young for a marathon runner since most don’t peak until their late 20s or 30s. So the feeling is that since he’s already great at a young age, he could have the greatest future upside.

All three runners do some of their normal training and spend time living their normal lives back home. In between they go something like elite marathon school, which includes submitting to a series of tests that measure things like blood oxygen level and lactate production.

That’s where the science comes in. Since the human body is a machine, the science team looks for ways to fine-tune it. That takes them into areas like efficiency of movement and regulating hydration.

The science people also study external factors such as the optimal air temperature for marathon running, which turns out to be 50 degrees. The ideal course will have no sharp turns, which decrease efficiency, and will be as close to sea level as possible so the air has maximum oxygen.

And yes, full disclosure: One of the partners in this enterprise is Nike, so there is discussion of more efficient running shoes. Not to mention a lot of swooshes everywhere.

On the non-quantifiable side, all three runners also talk about what this quest means to them and how they think it can be achieved. Kipchoge, for instance, says he thinks a runner’s team, the people who help set his pace, is as important as his own preparation.

After months of training, they all run a marathon in Chicago, under conditions as ideal as possible.

None of this was done in secret, so it’s not a spoiler to report that no one broke two hours.

Kipchoge, the first finisher, comes home in 2:00:25 – just short of the goal, yet still the fastest marathon anyone has ever run.

He says he’s disappointed, but still feels a sense of victory, because he’s sure that someday someone – maybe him, maybe another runner – will knock off those last 26 seconds and break the barrier.

As one of the science team notes, we’re down to the point where some runner has to run just one second faster per mile.

Breaking2 will be of most interest, of course, to runners and athletes. But whether you’re a sports fan or not, the quest to do something better than it’s ever been done makes for a quietly inspiring story.

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