Breaking2, Take 2: the Man and the Machine

He Did It!

Skeptics (like me) and cynics (like me) found themselves cheering on Eliud Kipchoge in the closing minutes of the “Breaking2” two-hour marathon attempt, once it appeared that he had a slim but plausible chance at hitting the target. This observer, following by TV in the wee hours of Eastern Daylight Time, found himself choking up at the spectacle, made dreamlike by the camera work showing Kipchoge’s long fluid stride and unfaltering rhythm right up to the final sprint. Whoever watched this thing who was not chanting the equivalent of “go, go, go—you can do it” for the last lap is a person without a heart. That he did not technically break two hours mattered little—he might as well have run two hours. Being one second per mile off the crucial pace was like a pitcher missing a perfect game by an infield error with two outs in the ninth inning.

The skepticism came from a reckoning—made not just by myself back in December but also by plenty of folks with a lot more expertise than I—that the two-hour marathon was physically impossible at this point in the sport.  The cynicism came from the feeling that the Breaking2 project was as much a marketing tool for Nike as it was a test of human limits. “Science or Stunt?” I painted it back in December.  It turned out to be both and more—but to get the “more” I think you had to have watched it in real time, when no one knew the outcome and the suspense built steadily to a crescendo. Not as hair-raising as watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes, but in the same realm.

 “Moon Shot” on solid ground

What most struck me was the counterpoint between the flesh-and-blood man—Eliud Kipchoge—and the machine of many parts that Nike put together.  That machine was constructed by a team of scientists, engineers, sports physiologists, shoe and clothing designers and materials experts over at least two years of preparation, given the best technology and physiological and psychological preparation Nike could buy.  The most obvious elements on the scene itself were the carefully chosen venue, the pre-dawn start to optimize temperature and humidity, the pace car gliding with silent, spooky constancy , and the arrowhead formation of six human pacers, just far enough in front that no one could claim for certain that Kipchoge benefited from their draft, but close enough to give him companionship—and a shared sense of purpose with the team-of-nine pacers who came and went by threes, lap after lap, with uncanny precision. (We were later to hear that the seamless pacing maneuvers had, incredibly, not been rehearsed!)

(A note on drafting: cyclists are aware that noticeable benefit from drafting kicks in at just about the speed Kipchoge was running, and to realize it at such low speeds you have to be directly behind the wheel ahead at less than a bike length.  I’d guess the aerodynamic benefit Kipchoge got in the “arrowhead” pacing configuration was .5% at best—bearing in mind that .5% of 120 minutes is 36 seconds.)

You knew Kipchoge was at his limit for the last half hour, but was so smoothly conveyed by the flawless machine, and so in his Zen-like zone of concentration that there was little sense of struggle. The oft-invoked “Moon Shot” metaphor was apt: the Apollo astronauts were extraordinary humans doing extraordinary things with a calm unthinkable to most of us earthlings, while their achievements were enabled by extraordinary technology.

I was tempted to entitle this post “The Man in the Machine,” but Eliud Kipchoge transcends the notion of an experimental subject in a technological bubble, as much as the Apollo astronauts transcended the United States.

But was it a two-hour “marathon?”

What Kipchoge ran was not a “marathon” in any conventional sense, for all the reasons discussed above.  It was more like a 26.2-mile time trial, especially since the “field” of three fell apart far before the hardest challenges arose.  It was a “singular” event in more ways than one.  As impressive as Kipchoge’s achievement was—and he is probably the only man on earth who could have come so close—I will be more impressed if he breaks 2:02:00 in an actual “standard” marathon race. And I think he could do it at Berlin.

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