In May, he ran 42.2 kilometres in 2:00:25, but now the Olympic champion is going for the official mark to become the greatest of all time. – By Cathal Dennehy
It was, without question, the hardest thing he had ever done.
When Eliud Kipchoge clocked 2:00:25 for the marathon in early May at a Formula One Track in Monza, Italy, it sent shockwaves through the world of distance running. Nike, the orchestrators of the Breaking2 project, had referred to it as a moonshot, and for Kipchoge the fall back to earth took a heavy toll.
“I proved to myself and the world that any human can go beyond any limitation when you really concentrate and love the sport,” he said this week during a phone interview with Runner’s World US from his training base in Kenya. “But it was really difficult – mentally and physically.”
Kipchoge, 32, didn’t run for a month after the Breaking2 project, using his downtime to catch up with friends and family who he had only seen on weekends during the seven months he spent preparing.
“I tried to get lots of massage, to walk around to let my muscles recover,” he said. “Everywhere I went, people appreciated what I did.”
While it was, by some measure, the fastest marathon ever run, his time is not recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) as a world record because he utilised a team of alternating pacemakers.
That means Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic champion, still has one box to tick to be considered the greatest marathoner of all time. On 24 September, at the Berlin Marathon, he plans to settle that debate.
“I want to run a world record,” Kipchoge said. “That’s why I’m going after it in Berlin.”
To date, his best time in a record-legal race is 2:03:05, eight seconds off Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57. To get the mark in Berlin, however, he will have to defeat the second fastest man of all time, Kenenisa Bekele, and Wilson Kipsang, the former world record holder.
“We are all stars at the marathon, so it’ll be very difficult,” Kipchoge said. “But at the end of the race, we will have one winner.”
Something in Kipchoge’s tone implies it will be him.
For many years now, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Kenyan has ruled the marathon with peerless supremacy.
A self-made millionaire, he chooses to live a basic, humble life while training for marathons, sharing a small room and helping out with chores at the training camp run by his agency – Global Sports Communication – where young athletes treat his word as gospel.
When his 1.68-metre, 52-kilogram frame clicks into marathon pace, there is a hypnotic serenity about Kipchoge’s movement. He can coast at a pace that reduces even his world-class rivals to sideways-dancing drunks in the closing kays of a marathon.
Two years ago in Berlin, Kipchoge shrugged off malfunctioning shoes and bloodied, blistered feet to destroy the field and win in 2:04:00. Last year in Rio, he was so confident of taking Olympic gold that when he surged ahead to collect his drink, he told his rivals, “Don’t worry, I’m not going yet.”
When he did make his move, it was decisive, Kipchoge coming home more than a minute ahead of the silver medalist, Feyisa Lilesa.
In the spring, he bypassed competing in a major marathon to join the Breaking2 project, an initiative which drew criticism by some who felt Nike – which developed controversial shoes and utilised cutting-edge techniques to shave off time – were reducing the sport to a science experiment.
Others were concerned the company did not announce plans for drug testing at a time when all fast times provided cause for suspicion.
Earlier this year, Kipchoge was in the thick of preparations for Breaking2 when the doping issue reared its head, his countrywoman Jemima Sumgong, the Olympic champion in the women’s marathon, testing positive for EPO.
Kipchoge, it should be noted, has a different coach, agent, and training group than Sumgong, but when the news broke he was concerned about the damage it would cause to the reputation of Kenyan distance runners.
“I was worried, but I thought: What can you say? Those who do sport for the wrong reason cause it to have this sickness where you wonder whether people are clean and not clean,” he said. “It’s really important to be ethical.”
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There are signs things are improving. Last year the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) was established and the country also criminalised doping, allowing for a three-year prison term for those found guilty.
“There is a lot of progress,” Kipchoge said. “The government is cracking down on those who are violating the rules.”
Keen to protect the integrity of their events, the Abbott World Marathon Majors has also teamed up with the IAAF to increase out-of-competition testing, and Kipchoge said he is tested regularly under the system.
“I’m tested normally twice a month,” he said. “This year was a lot [of tests]. I lost count.”
For many, what mattered most while watching Kipchoge in Monza was not the shoes or the drinks, or the pace or the time, but whether he did it clean. Unlike some other stars of his sport, that’s a topic he’s always been happy to discuss.
“It’s important to run clean so that you can inspire people, to give an example to the young generation,” he said. “You can enjoy sport when you’re working hard, when you run clean.”
It’s a message Kipchoge often reverts back to – his memo to the younger generation and the running community as a whole.
“In sport, there are no limits,” Kipchoge said. “Those who are running for fun, for health, those jogging or walking: If you set a goal, you should not change your mind.”
For him, the latest goal is simple, a number which has been on his mind since he began training for it in June: 2:02:57.
Under the guidance of long-time coach Patrick Sang, he has taken on board many of the ideas tried in Breaking2, even if his weekly training diet of 177-200 kilometres a week – which includes a 40-kilometre long run – has remained the same.
The Berlin Marathon, too, has embraced some of the Breaking2 initiatives in a bid to play host to another world record. In previous years elites could only take personal drinks at eight points during the race, but in an email Thursday afternoon, Mark Milde, race director, confirmed they can now deposit up to 13 drinks at various points on the course.
Milde, however, will not be employing any special pacer formations as witnessed in Breaking2, noting that a trio of world-class marathoners has been recruited to take the leaders to 30K at a fast pace. “If the weather is great, we can get close to the record,” he wrote.
But how fast does Kipchoge think he can go?
“I don’t want to say, but provided it’s a world record, that’s what I want,” Kipchoge said. “My coach knows why I am going to Berlin and he has made the program with that in mind.”
Kipchoge knows an attempt on the two-hour barrier is highly unlikely in this setting, but his experience has taught him that it will happen eventually.
“A man can run 1:59, that’s for sure,” he said. “I just missed it by 25 seconds so it’s not impossible.”
Beyond Berlin, Kipchoge admits his plans remain up in the air, but the bad news for his rivals is that he sees his career stretching until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020—at least.
“I want to stay for a long time and leave a mark so the young generation can aspire to be at the top like me,” he said. “I love the sport, and that’s what drives me.”