But you know, we are human

Kirti Patil
Saturday, 5 May 2018

The record is still intact despite the best efforts of sports scientists, psychologists, physiologists, athletes and several of those who understand what distance running really is.

Stretching human capabilities has been an endeavour for achievers across generations. It could be in sports, science or in any other field where human limits are put to test. This very effort has been grippingly penned by Alex Hutchinson in his book Endure — Mind, Body And The Curiously Elastic Limits Of Human Performance.

Purely of the non-fiction genre, Endure deals with real human efforts to achieve beyond the considered limits. Hutchinson, himself an elite distance runner, narrates the story of human endeavour to the break 2-hour barrier in running a full marathon. The record is still intact despite the best efforts of sports scientists, psychologists, physiologists, athletes and several of those who understand what distance running really is.

Hutchinson himself had undertaken a comprehensive analysis of the physiological, psychological and environmental factors that would need to come together for someone to run a 2-hour marathon at the behest of Runner’s World magazine. In his 10-page report comprising charts, graphs, maps and arguments, he had predicted that the barrier would fall, in 2075.

The barrier of 2-hour for 42.195-km had become an absolute challenge, not just for athletes but for everyone, who is involved in making of a world record. That’s when Nike, the sports brand, unveiled its ‘top secret’ project that aimed to deliver a sub-two-hour marathon by May 2017 — 58 years ahead of Hutchinson’s prediction.

Like everyone, he was also sceptical, but the offer to go behind the scenes to cover the initiative, which Nike dubbed Breaking2, was too good to let go.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or roll my eyes, but I couldn’t say no. I agreed to fly to Nike’s headquarters…a few weeks later to hear their pitch. If someone had to debunk an overhyped marketing exercise, I figured the research for my earlier Runner’s World piece had left me as well equipped as anyone, writes Hutchinson in his first chapter May 6, 2017 — the day reigning Olympic Champion Eliud Kipchoge was to attempt to break the barrier.

The book gives a lot of insight into the science of running and human capabilities to overcome once-considered untouchable records, but ever since athletics’ best-known showman Usain Bolt set the World Record 9.58 seconds for 100 metre race in Berlin World Championship in 2009, nobody has been able to go near it. For 100 metres, the barrier is now 9.50, which looks unachievable but if sprinters can dream of, why not the distance runners!

Hutchinson begins with the hovering anticipation at the historic Formula One racetrack in Monza, in the northeast of Milan, which was the chosen venue for Breaking2. The author ends his tale saying he thought that Nike’s efforts would be “almost comically boring.” But it was not so, eventually.

Kipchoge, who won his first Olympic gold medal over the distance only less than a year ago in Rio, passed the halfway point in 59:54 and anticipation grew further.  

With every step Kipchoge now takes, I tap into the Twitter app on my phone. It’s the fastest a human has ever run for this distance, writes Hutchinson to take us to that day in Monza. Kipchoge was expected to make the attempt respectable, but as laps go by and clock ticks on, there’s a palpable realisation that we’re witnessing something special — that however it ends, Kipchoge is blowing past almost everyone’s expectations of what humans are capable of.

The final chapter is gripping to say the least. Even though result of that attempt was known, what went on in Monza is reader’s delight. Kipchoge’s legs were getting heavier and his fuel stores waning and his body telling him that he had reached the limit and can no longer sustain the pace. The finishing kick never came, still the Kenyan fought all the way to the finish and crosses the line in 2:00:25 — human vulnerability finally coming into play.

As Hutchinson says nothing is inevitable; nothing is simply mathematical this book is a delightful read for those who understand distance running, at least. Because, Breaking2 was never about Kipchoge — it was an effort that took the world just twenty-five seconds away from the 2-hour barrier.

Endure —Mind, Body And The Curiously Elastic Limits Of Human Performance
Author: Alex Hutchinson
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 306
Price: £14.99

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