In May, three men tried to run a marathon in less than two hours. Lelisa Desisa, the youngest of the men and a two-time Boston Marathon winner, grew up running barefoot in Ethiopia. Zersenay Tadese, from the tiny country of Eritrea, is a half-marathon world record holder. Eliud Kipchoge, an Olympic gold medalist and Kenyan superstar, is considered the best runner in the world. Laid bare, their sub-two-hour marathon goal shook out to 26.2 miles run at an average pace of 4 minutes and 34 seconds per mile—a feat widely considered physiologically impossible for the human body. The marathon, called the Breaking2 project, was sponsored by Nike.
A new documentary, also called Breaking2, about the runners will premiere Wednesday. This isn't a spoiler—the event itself was live-streamed to millions of people around the world—but neither Lelisa, Zersenay, nor Eliud managed to run the marathon in under two hours. But that isn't really what the film is about. It's about how Eliud came just 25 seconds away from breaking it, and how in doing so, changed the way scientists and athletes define "impossible."
Martin Desmond Roe, who directed Breaking2, spent the better part of a year filming Lelisa, Zersenay, and Eliud at Nike's research labs and in their home countries. This is what he learned about training, failure, and human potential from three of the best athletes in the world.
On Lelisa, who grew up running without shoes:
Lelisa got his first pair of shoes when he made the Ethiopian national team. He ran a race in school, did really well, then got invited to go run in a national competition. He knew other people were going to have shoes, but he couldn't afford any. Instead, he had a pair of insoles from shoes, so he sewed them to the bottom of his socks. He ran in those and came third. The Ethiopian team was like, "Yes, great, we'll sign you up. Here's a bag." He went back home to his village and opened the shoes in front of his whole family.
On Zersenay, who had never considered hydrating before:
It's incomprehensible to us. I feel like before any of us do any exercise, we've Googled 17 different opinions on it, trying to maximise. Zersenay's entire running strategy was: Run as fast as you can from the beginning to the end and try to beat everybody. That's it. That's why scientists were so intrigued by him, because there's basically no question that Zersenay has the best god-given structure. If Zersenay had had rigorous scientific training from his late teens, early 20s onwards, there's little doubt he would have been the best runner in the world. But he didn't. And also, he's Eritrean. When he started running, there was no Eritrean Federation. There's no Internet in Eritrea. It's pure street learning.
On Eliud, the millionaire athlete with extraordinary humility:
I've had the honour of filming Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant, I've spent a lot of time with elite athletes, and I've never been more impressed with anybody than I was with Eliud Kipchoge. He's like a cross between Yoda and Bruce Lee. He's got this profound wisdom inside him, an earned and grounded wisdom that is absolutely intoxicating. How many millions and millions of dollars that he's earned—he's a big Nike athlete, he's won all these marathon—and yet, five days a week, he goes up to a place in the rural highlands, which is really remote and about 8,000 feet up. There are 11 rooms in the building, 22 runners at any given time, two per room. I think there were four Olympic gold medalists in that crew of 22. There is no running water, and they're not allowed to hire anybody to help them. They have to go to the wells to get the water, they have to clean the toilets, they have to scrub their own plates. You have the gold medal Olympic champion sharing a room with a 19-year-old wanna-be. Well, in this group, you're not a wannabe, you're on your way. Eliud's the pride of Kenya, and yet he shares a room with a young man as part of his training and part humility.
He's like a cross between Yoda and Bruce Lee.
The runners in the camp wake up at 5:15 every morning, and they start running at 6 a.m. without fail. They run about 120 miles a week, sometimes more, and then they come back, they have lunch—some tea and some rice, and two days a week they have meat. In the afternoon at 4:00 they run again, and because they've run so hard, around dark it's time to read a book and go to bed. I haven't spent time with monks or anything like that, so comparing it to that is not fair for me, but there was such an impossible sense of purpose in everybody in that camp. Everybody in that camp knew what they were supposed to do. They knew they were pursuing absolute excellence.
On failure and what comes next:
When I first looked into breaking the two-hour limit, and I was like, "Wow, they have to run 26.2 miles at 4 minutes and 34 seconds a mile. I couldn't run one of them." It's unthinkably hard. Then I started drinking the Eliud Kool-Aid. I was spending all this time with him, watching him, and he was so utterly radioactive with confidence. He so completely believed he could do it. I cried when he crossed the line, but not out of sadness. I didn't consider it a failure even in the moment, because he ran every mile at 4 minutes and 35 seconds, and he was supposed to run it at 4 minutes and 34. It's so agonisingly close.
Everybody in that camp knew what they were supposed to do. They knew they were pursuing absolute excellence.
Obviously, human beings, we rally around these challenges. Why is it more valuable to run it in 1 hour and 59 minutes and 59 seconds? We love these even numbers. We love a good, clean target. So yeah, it was a failure on paper, but in reality, I think it was such an incredible success. As Eliud says, one of the big talking points in the Kenyan running community is that when he was growing up, people would say, "You can't even try to run a two-hour marathon. If you even try to run a two-hour marathon, you're probably going to die." Whereas now, we're going to have a generation of runners coming up who are going to be like, "25 seconds. I just got to get 25 seconds off." I think unquestioningly what Eliud did is prove that physiologically it's possible. We can do this.