In many ways the 2018 Berlin Marathon was unsurprising. Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s top marathoner, glided easily to the finish line, finally setting the world record that has long eluded him. What was surprising was the time that he ran: two hours, one minute, and 39 seconds.
It is the greatest athletic feat this century
It’s worth reflecting on this time alone. For just over two hours Kipchoge, 33, ran at an average of 13mph. It took him 61 minutes to run the first half-marathon, and 60 to run the second, meaning he got faster during the run. In recent marathons the trend has been for the elite runners to set out at a ridiculous pace (usually 60/61 minutes) for the first half-marathon, and then slow as they hit their physical wall. Not only did Kipchoge start at this electric pace, but improved on it as he ran. This happened despite his pacers falling off around 30 km into the marathon.
I cannot overstate Kipchoge’s achievement: it is the greatest athletic feat this century, only matched by Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 marathon record and Usain Bolt’s 19.19 in the 200m. The marathon world record has become a matter of small gains, with Dennis Kimetto in 2014 only improving by 26 seconds on Wilson Kipsang’s time, or Haile Gebrselassie taking four years to get 29 seconds on Paul Tergat’s 2003 record. Yet Kipchoge has somehow found 78 seconds on the previous record. If conditions were good in Berlin, Kipchoge was expected to break the record, but not in this manner.
He has dominated the competition, winning 10 out of the 11 marathons he has competed in
Kipchoge’s record has once again ignited the quest for the holy grail of athletics, the two-hour marathon. Before 2017 many doubted that we would see such an achievement anytime soon, but Kipchoge ran a 02:00:25 at Nike’s ‘Breaking2’ event (this does not count towards the official record for various reasons) and has now brought the world within two minutes.
After a moderately successful track career, Kipchoge moved to the marathon distance in 2013. Since then he has dominated the competition, winning 10 out of the 11 marathons he has competed in (it took Kipsang setting a world record in 2013 to beat him) and placing himself as the greatest in a generation of superb runners.
The combination of his talent and personality have made him respected
While running Kipchoge is efficient and controlled, maybe lacking the artistry that made many fall in love with Gebreselassie. When not running Kipchoge is humble and thoughtful. He said of his unofficial world record attempt in 2017 that “the goal was to break the two hours barrier. I didn’t manage to do that, but the world is now just 25 seconds away.” He is always quick to put his success down to coaches or training plans. The combination of his talent and personality have made him respected – his fellow athletes call him ‘the boss’.
However, don’t hold your breath for a two-hour marathon, even though Kipchoge is an exceptional athlete, far ahead of his generation, far ahead of any runner before. Save for another Nike attempt, or a superhuman performance in the next Berlin marathon, Kipchoge will not be able to run under two hours. The rate of advancement is not fast enough to give Kipchoge the tools he needs before he starts to decline.
Before, a two-hour marathon seemed outlandish, implausible, 50 years or more away
So we’ll have to wait until the new generation of marathon runners emerges, and for the singular talent that can stand tall as the best of that generation. Then we can watch as he breaks two hours in what would be the finest sporting achievement that we will see in our lifetimes, and perhaps the finest ever.
Kipchoge’s two times, at Berlin this year and at the ‘Breaking2’ event last year, have changed marathon running. Before, a two-hour marathon seemed outlandish, implausible, 50 years or more away. Now the Kenyan runner has changed that, with a two-hour marathon seeming tantalisingly close. Kipchoge himself, always the philosopher, said, “It was hard for me to shed all those minutes, but I think it will be easy for another human being to shed 25 seconds.”