On Sunday morning in Berlin, three of the greatest marathoners in history will face off under highly intriguing and unusual conditions. It will be a race for the ages, pitting the reigning Olympic champion against a former world-record holder and perhaps the best all-around long-distance runner ever. Bookmakers are putting the odds of a new world marathon record at greater than 60 percent.
Mere firepower isn’t what will roll me out of bed at 3:15 a.m. to follow along online, though. Instead, it’s the subplot created by a curious anomaly. The world record, set on the same Berlin course three years ago by the Kenyan star Dennis Kimetto, is 2:02.57. But one of the men in this year’s field has covered the marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards more than two and a half minutes faster than that, in 2:00.25, powered, like Kimetto, only by his own legs and lungs — albeit with an asterisk.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged in the sporting world that the toughest obstacles to surmount are those we erect in our own minds. A barrier like the four-minute mile, we’re told, is impregnable — until someone like Roger Bannister shows, as he did in 1954, that it can be breached, and then everyone else follows. Kimetto’s world record, having been bested by such a large (though unofficial) margin, has lost much of its mental force. So will it, as the bookies seem to anticipate, be swept aside with ease?
To me, the bout in Berlin seems like not just a clash of three heavyweights but a real-life test of the “mental barriers” theory of human endeavor. Faith in the primacy of mind over body is a trope as eagerly embraced in board rooms as in locker rooms and Nike commercials — and it’s a message we’ve lapped up, without much evidence, for centuries.
The 1859 book “Self-Help,” by the Scottish do-gooder Samuel Smiles, recounts the tale of a first-time horseback rider who sees another rider leap gracefully over a tall fence and decides that he wants to do the same. “It was a maxim of Dr. Young, the philosopher,” the book tells us, “that ‘any man can do what any other man has done.’ ” Sure enough, after two failures, the neophyte sails over the fence. If you believe, you can achieve.
This empowering idea is now ubiquitous. For the ambitious athlete who seeks to overcome a favored foe or break through to a new level of performance, the right attitude to overcoming obstacles is laid out clearly by the king of self-help books, Norman Vincent Peale, in “The Power of Positive Thinking”:
“Just stand up to it, that’s all, and don’t give way under it, and it will finally break,” Peale counsels. “You will break it. Something has to break, and it won’t be you, it will be the obstacle.”
The peculiar circumstances in Berlin this weekend are a result of the Nike-sponsored Breaking2 project, started with great fanfare last December, which sought to marry the brilliance of East African distance runners with the full fury of modern sports science to produce a sub-two-hour marathon. The project’s time trial, held on a Formula One track in Monza, Italy, in early May, featured three runners wearing customized shoes with a curved carbon-fiber insert in the soles, chasing a rotating pack of six pacers to block the wind — the latter detail making the race ineligible for a world record.
Most pundits, including me (I was covering the project for Runner’s World magazine), were highly skeptical that these improvements would get anyone close to the two-hour mark. And if the technology did make that much of a difference, what would be the point? How would it be any more significant than breaking the record by running downhill on roller skates?
Nike’s team argued that a sub-two-hour marathon, even under artificial conditions, would break down mental barriers and pave the way for others to follow under standard race conditions. “If any of the men can do it, it will open the gates for marathon running the same way Roger did for the mile when he broke the four-minute barrier,” argued Paula Radcliffe, the Nike-sponsored runner, now retired, who holds the women’s marathon record of 2:15.25.
The logic here isn’t totally crazy. Often forgotten is that in 1953, a year before Bannister’s big run, he ran an exhibition race in which he was paced all the way to the finish, in part by one of his teammates who had deliberately allowed himself to be lapped. His time of 4:02 wasn’t ratified as a British record, because it violated the same pacing rules as the Breaking2 marathon did — but it served its purpose. “Only two painful seconds now separated me from the four-minute mile,” Bannister recalled in his autobiography, “and I was certain I could cut down the time.”
The four-minute mile is now an allegorical staple of the self-help literature. Bannister’s feat shattered an imposing mental barrier much like the one holding you back from climbing El Capitan or getting promoted at work. “Within one year,” asserts “The Winning Mind Set,” a fairly typical self-help tract from 2006, “37 other runners did the same thing. In the year after that, over 300 runners ran a mile in less than four minutes.”
This claim is only marginally less impressive than the premise of “Do It With Words: Regrow Your Hair With Your Mind,” one of the “related titles” Amazon suggested to me, impertinently, when I looked up Norman Vincent Peale. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Just one other runner joined Bannister within a year of the first four-minute mile, and four more followed the next year. Still, even the unvarnished truth is striking: What was once impossible became possible, and soon almost unremarkable, with startling rapidity.
At the time trial in May, whether the barriers were mental or physical, two of Nike’s three chosen runners blew up before even hitting the halfway point. But Eliud Kipchoge, the defending Olympic champion from Kenya, surpassed everyone’s expectations with his 2:00.25 — a monumental effort that prompted him to take a full month off from running to recover.
How did Kipchoge run so fast? Debate swirled in the aftermath about the relative contributions of the shoes, the ultra-flat course, the drafting effect of the human pacemakers and the Tesla pace car in front of them, and other factors. But to Kipchoge, a devoted consumer of motivational books (his favorite is Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”), the answer was much simpler.
A few months before the race, I asked him how he planned to change his training to produce a three-minute improvement in his best time. He and his coach weren’t planning any big changes, he replied, “but my mind will be different.” He told another reporter that confidence was the key: “The difference only is thinking,” he said. “You think it’s impossible, I think it’s possible.”
Now, be honest for a moment: Did you smile a bit when you read that quotation? I know I did. Motivational slogans are great, but 26.2 miles is still 26.2 miles, and you can’t simply will your muscles to keep contracting as their fuel supplies dwindle.
In Berlin, Kipchoge will face the Ethiopian runner Kenenisa Bekele, considered by many to be the best all-around long-distance runner in history, whose best marathon time of 2:03.03 makes him the second-fastest in history (one spot ahead of Kipchoge’s official best of 2:03.05). Also in the field is Wilson Kipsang, a 2:03.13 performer who held the world record before Kimetto. All three men have announced that they intend to break the record; Bekele has said he believes he can run 2:01.30 before he retires.
And yet — I was there in Monza, as Kipchoge flirted with the two-hour barrier until the waning miles of the race, and something changed. My immediate reaction, which I tapped into the Twitter app on my phone moments after he crossed the line: “Hard to deny that, all caveats aside, all marathon times now sound a little different in light of what just happened.”
Four months later, that still feels true. A once-unthinkable time like 2:01-something no longer sounds that fast — because a human has run 2:00.25.
Even science, it turns out, acknowledges that such gut feelings are not without power. Some physiologists now argue that your subjective sense of effort, rather than the metabolic state of your muscles, is the final arbiter of your limits. When you feel that it’s impossible to continue, it is. And consequently, anything that changes your sense of effort alters your limits: subliminal messages flashing a happy face or an encouraging word extend your endurance; so does training in motivational self-talk, in which you learn to substitute phrases like “I’ve trained for this!” for “I’m dying!” in your midrace internal monologue.
So, if the weather is good and the stars are aligned, I expect to see Kipchoge set out at an impossible pace, in pursuit of an impossible time. And because any man can do what any other has done, I expect Bekele and Kipsang to follow. The tension will mount as the trio clip off mile after reckless mile, and we’ll hold our breaths waiting for the inevitable moment when the physiological debt comes due. I expect to see carnage and mayhem and beauty and truth in the final miles.
Something will have to break — but, despite myself, I don’t think it will be Kipchoge. I think he’s going to run 2:01-something. And if he does, I’ll start writing my self-help book on Monday morning.
Alex Hutchinson is a runner and author who writes the Sweat Science blog for Runner’s World magazine.