I did it. On Saturday afternoon, a few hours after Eliud Kipchoge ran a stunning, historic marathon in two hours and 25 seconds in Monza, Italy — narrowly missing his goal of breaking the two-hour marathon mark for Nike’s Breaking2 initiative, but obliterating the current world record and everybody’s idea of what is possible in the sport — I ran a half-marathon on the same course in 1:26:52. My time was more than three minutes beneath my goal of 90 minutes, and almost exactly 10 minutes quicker than my personal best for the half-marathon, which I set last November in Lancaster, England. After crossing the line, I celebrated by collapsing on the tarmac, and closing my eyes for what seemed like a long time.
The curious thing is, my initial burst of endorphin-rich joy at finishing the race in a previously unthinkable time has given way to more complicated emotions. Six months ago, I would have thought I would be ecstatic to run so quickly. Back in December, 90 minutes for a half-marathon — 13.1 consecutive miles at six minutes 51 seconds per mile — seemed impossibly fast. Now, I’ve not only beaten 90 minutes — I’ve demolished it. So why did I find myself, hours after the race, in a bland hotel room in central Milan, with a tear running down my cheek? Exhaustion is part of the answer, but not all of it.
Keeping The Pace
On Saturday, I ran with four friends, all of whom are much more accomplished runners than I: Knox Robinson, a running coach from New York; Mike Doyle, the editor of Canadian Running magazine; Alex Hutchinson, a writer for an American running magazine; and, for the first three or four miles, Becs Gentry, a Nike coach from London who had guided me through the early part of what I took to calling my Breaking90 training program. None of us had enjoyed perfect preparation: we’d all been up since 3:00 in the morning to cover the Breaking2 attempt, and had spent nine hours on our feet, subsisting on pastries and too many espressos. Every one of us was tired before the starting hooter blared at 12:45 pm.
We ran behind the same pace car that led Kipchoge. The display mounted on top of the car spat out our split times as we crossed timing mats around the one-and-a-half-mile junior circuit at Monza. We wanted to run at a pace of four minutes and 10 seconds per kilometer (or six minutes and 43 seconds per mile). And that, pretty much, is how we started. In fact, we went a little quicker than goal pace for a while. But within half an hour, the race got hard. Wearing my new Vaporfly Elite shoes, I enjoyed that cushioned, rocking, downhill feeling they promote, but I began to feel occasional discomfort in my hips and quads. Maybe I was a little tight from work, and travel.
The weather, meanwhile, was overcast — in the mid-60s Fahrenheit when we started (15 or so degrees hotter than optimal marathon conditions), with over 70 per cent humidity. It could have been worse. A sunny May afternoon in Italy could have been a furnace, and a sub-90 half-marathon would have been extremely difficult for me in such heat. But still, the temperature didn’t make it easy, and I sympathized with Kipchoge having to run in that humidity. There is something invigorating about gulping clean, dry air.
At around five miles into the race, rain began to pour, rattling the roofs of the empty stands like coins dropping into a money-box. We were all drenched. My shirt began to cling uncomfortably to me; eventually, I decided I’d be happier shirtless. Puddles began to form on the track. My shoes squelched as water pooled around my toes. Knox made a joke about how this was the perfect weather for a guy from Manchester — where, famously, it rains more than it shines. But I lost my flow, and my split times began to drift dangerously.
Knox sensed my discomfort, and began to talk to me. “Let’s just get a little rhythm back here,” he said.
I tucked in behind Knox, Mike, and Alex, and I tried simultaneously to keep my strides light and forget I was running. It worked: my splits regained their regularity. However, some of the thoughts that crowded my head were overwhelming. I have read that, high on mountains, in their tents at night, many solo alpinists recall long conversations with lost or imaginary friends. Runners don’t generally hallucinate, unless they are irredeemably exhausted, but serious effort in a race can dredge up submerged parts of your psyche. (Later on Saturday evening, over a celebratory glass of wine, Mike Doyle told me he experienced similarly crystalline and profound thoughts when he was 20 miles deep, and hurting, in the Philadelphia Marathon.)
For instance, after taking a water bottle around an hour into the race, I recalled one of my last training sessions the week before the attempt. I had run laps around a lake near my house, and my four-year-old son Rory had worked as my assistant, gleefully handing me my water bottle as I came around each lap. For the past six months, he has been more excited about what he has called my “special race” even than I. (On Saturday morning, I had choked up as I watched a video my wife had made for me, featuring Rory and his baby sister Annabel wishing me luck.) My excuses for failure — the weather, my tiredness — were real. I could explain all that to my wife, who would understand. But the thought of returning home, and reporting my failure to Rory was painful — more painful than whatever was happening to my own body.
Later in the race, a much older memory sprang me like a mugger. I thought of my oldest brother, Ben, telling me one day in 2006, outside my mother’s house in South London, that he thought Dad would have been proud of me. My father, also called Ben, had died in a helicopter accident when I was two years old, and my older brothers were eight and ten; you can, perhaps, imagine the effect of that tragic event on our family. I don’t know why, but on a Formula One racing track in Italy, naked to the waist, heart pounding at 169 beats per minute, legs and lungs urging me to stop, that simple, beautiful memory from more than a decade ago came to sustain me.
With less than two laps remaining of my race and my splits still on target, I knew I was going to break 90 minutes. That joyful feeling was accompanied by a moment of serendipity. As we were rounding the curve for our last circuit of the course, the church bells of the Oratorio San Luigi Gonzaga in Vedano al Lambro, a village just outside the track at Monza, began to toll. It was as if God himself were ringing the bell for our final lap. We all broke into broad smiles, and our pace began to quicken.
In the final straightaway, encouraged by my pals to leave nothing on the course, to expend every last ounce of energy, I raised my knees and pumped for home. Cheered on by a group of Nike employees and sports scientists — many of whom had not slept in two days, all of whom had worked on Breaking2 for months, and who all should have been sound asleep — I ran my final mile in six minutes and 12 seconds, and fell to the ground.
Marathons and Magic
Much will be written, not least by me in an upcoming story for WIRED, about the science and technical acumen of the Breaking2 attempt, which my own smaller Breaking90 effort mirrored. Certainly, Kipchoge benefited from advanced and meticulous thinking about shoe design, nutrition, and race structure. I, too, was helped by the Nike team’s unobstructive and wise counsel about how and when to train, eat, and rest. Sports science, without doubt, took me to a place I didn’t think I could reach.
Science, however, can’t unlock the magic of running entirely. Kipchoge has qualities that cannot be recorded on a treadmill. Likewise, the effect of running cannot be understood only in numbers.
Before I engaged in this project, I already loved professional marathon running as a writer and observer. I spent three years writing a book about it. But I have only recently experienced serious running as a participant. As I have done so, I’ve discovered a sport that I cherish not only for the benefits it has given my body, but for the kinship I have felt with other runners and — most important — the way it has nourished my mind, and my soul. Measure that.