Exceptional performances in sport are elusive.

For this reason, among others, these moments amaze and inspire. Beyond the wonder and admiration, these moments immediately re-calibrate our collective sense of what is possible. Instantly providing a new definition of the boundaries describing human potential.

Underlying these unparalleled feats in sport are physiological and biochemical processes, mechanical principles, and natural laws. A lot of people cringe when I point this out; upset that I somehow, by trying to describe the underlying principles, undermine the seemingly super-human feat just witnessed. But to me, the elegant nuances of nature that provide explanation for these feats of sporting perfection are just as amazing. Richard Feynman (famous Physicist, look him up) once said, “See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man”. Describing his amazement and awe in the mysteries of nature. Exploring the underpinnings of these feats of greatness in sport make them far, far more mesmerizing.

Breaking2 was about pushing boundaries, exploring the limits of human potential. Can a human run 42.195 km (26.2 miles) in under two hours? What physiological processes, mechanical principles, and natural laws describe a sub-two-hour marathon? What barriers (either real or perceived) prevent a sub-2-hour marathon now?

Change Thinking

In an IAAF-sanctioned marathon like the Berlin Marathon or the Chicago Marathon, the elite runners invited are racing each other. The time, a potential world record, is secondary to the win as the athletes are often paid bonuses commensurate with their finish placing. Therefore, strategies are about winning or racing, which is not always synonymous with breaking world record times. Breaking2 was not about runners racing each other, but about a race to beat time … 2:00:00. This is a mental paradigm shift from “I need to beat the person next me” to “How fast can I possibly run a marathon”. This shift necessitates an athlete (or athletes) who possesses both the physiological and mental capacity necessary to break this ultimate barrier in running. The athlete would be required to throw out all hesitation and caution to run a marathon at the 4:34 min/mile pace and see if they could hold on.

Marathons, like Berlin or Boston (even though Boston is not a world record eligible course) are constrained by tradition and regulations, constraints that often limit the best possible performances. A tradition (or assumption) as simple as a marathon must be run on a given day; even if the wind, rain, or heat on that day will limit the fastest times possible. I understand that many of these traditions and regulations are part of the race … part of the “game”. An attempt to level the playing field and they bring excitement to the competitors and fans alike. I love watching these races unfold. However, redefining the game and removing constraints around a specific problem can be liberating. It focuses thinking on how to solve the problem, not conform to “the way things are done”.

Define the Outcome

Can a human run 26.2 miles (42.194 km) in 1:59:59? Not: Can we run the fastest marathon ever? Not: Attempt a world record at the Berlin or London marathons. Run a certified marathon distance in 1:59:59. Period.

Clarity of purpose can be galvanizing.

Put that stake in the ground that every team member, everybody involved, knows the goal and clearly understands when it is reached. From a leadership perspective (and as a member of a team): clearly defined, singular goals enable and empower every team member to do what must be done to for success. “Does this decision help our chances to run a marathon distance in 1:59:59?” If the answer is yes, then do it. Of course, it is not always that simple; budget, time, and resources must all be considered. But an empowered, passionate team working toward a singular goal can move mountains and solve the most challenging problems to achieve the seemingly impossible. They will figure it out.

Clarity of purpose defines the problem.

A precise description of success distinguishes the true problems that need to be solved. We can plainly identify where we are today (world record marathon of 2:02:57) and where we need to be (run a marathon in 1:59:59). Closing that gap requires the identification of the problems, barriers, or limitations that exist currently.

Not to downplay the complex physiological and psychological factors at play, but a sub-2-hour marathon is, fundamentally, a problem of a runner’s capacity to sustain the required energy production balanced with reducing the energy demand to perform the task (run 4:34 min/mile for 26.2 miles). We knew we could not control everything during a marathon; removing the most impactful barriers became the goal. In a traditional marathon, the biggest barriers to the fastest marathon times include: the energy required to run up hill, around sharp turns, and to overcome the resistance of the wind; environmental temperature limiting the removal of heat produced by the body while running a 4:34 min/mile marathon pace; hydration (or dehydration); inadequate energy stored in the muscle; and mechanical energy loss through footwear.

With a clear purpose and succinctly defined outcome, the most impactful problems to solve become apparent. Creatively forging the path to solutions becomes the quest.

Start Solving Problems

One of my favorite lines from the movie The Martian, comes at the very end when Mark Watney (Matt Damon) says: “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

That is all it is, just begin solving problems.

The outcome is unambiguous (staying alive, in the case of Mark Watney); what problem needs to be solved today, right now? What problem needs to be solved next? Many, many, problems come up along the way; some are easy to solve, some are hard, some solutions become controversial, and some solutions include multiple iterations and failures. Understand if the problem is real …. we need to have pacers enter and exit throughout the race without tripping or slowing down. Or if the problem is perceived .… “that is not how a marathon is run”.

Just begin solving problems.

Parting Thoughts

We spend a lot of time, effort, and resources making ourselves stronger (mentally, physically, emotionally) to handle obstacles and overcome barriers in our path. Although not necessarily easier, along with having the necessary capacity to handle the required stress, spending effort and resources to simply remove the barriers in our path can uncover our true potential.

When asked about Breaking2, I usually say, “All we did was create the circumstances, remove the barriers, for Eliud Kipchoge to do what he does best.” When the barriers in front of us, either real or perceived, are removed; our true potential can be discovered. We can fully understand the exquisite perfection that is the human spirit.