Eliud Kipchoge shatters two-hour barrier to crash into the mainstream

Trending Now Eliud Kipchoge shatters two-hour barrier to crash into the mainstream

Oct 12, 2019 6:21 pm
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First came the regal wave. Then a triumphant squeeze of the afterboosters. As Eliud Kipchoge realised that the sub-two marathon was finally his and that the pages of history were opening up to embrace him his stoic racemask gave way to smiles, a modest thumbs up to the swelling crowds, and sheer delirium.

Kipchoge called it his moonlanding moment. There are many in track and field who remain sniffy about such pronouncements, given his prototype Nike shoes rocket-boosted him to glory. He also had 41 elite pacemakers in arrow formation, subbing in and out of the race, to help him draft and protect him from the elements.

That, and other parts of the Kenyans attempt, were in clear violation of IAAF rules. But when people are asked who was the first person to run the marathon in less than two hours, they will reply with two words: Eliud Kipchoge. The Kenyans time 1:59.40.2 will trip off the tongue as easily as Roger Bannisters 3:59.4 did for the mile.

Because make no mistake, Kipchoge has not only shattered the two-hour barrier but crashed into the wider mainstream, too.

On social media, politicians and celebrities talked about his achievement. It made global news, far beyond the sports pages. Athletics has long known that Kipchoge was a special athlete. Now the rest of the world does, too.

Imagine running 17 seconds for 100m and then keeping the pace up for two hours. Or setting the pace on the gym treadmill to 21km an hour and trying not to get dumped off within seconds. It was at that pace the Kenyan was speeding, never flinching, never faltering.


Incredibly, Kipchoge never seems to have a bad day. Even when things go wrong he is able to trick his way to victory. At the 2015 Berlin marathon his insoles started hanging loose during the first mile and he spent much of the race with his feet bloodied and blistered. What happened? He skittled away from the field to record a personal best.

His only defeat came six years ago when, as a novice marathon runner, he was behind his compatriot Wilson Kipsang. Since then he has won 10 races in a row, broken the official world record and cantered to Olympic gold in 2016. He does not just belong in the pantheon, but he deserves a seat at the highest table.

It is wrong, though, to wave the pom-poms too vigorously. Part of what happened in Vienna was clearly a magicians sleight of hand by Britains richest man, Jim Ratcliffe, to greenwash the environmental damage of his petrochemical business, Ineos, and while no one doubts Kipchoges physiological and mental talents, he was assisted by a massive input of science and technology, too.

Eliud Kipchoge salutes the crowd as he crosses the finish line in Vienna.
Eliud Kipchoge salutes the crowd as he crosses the finish line in Vienna. Photograph: Lisi Niesner/Reuters

For his latest attempt the Kenyan was wearing a souped-up version of Nike Vaporfly trainers, which contain a special curved plate that allows runners to roll through instead of bending toes and losing energy. Without doubt it has been a game-changer, given it has been worn by those running the five quickest official marathons, all of which have taken place in the past 13 months.

The sports scientist Ross Tucker estimates that Vaporflys, first used in 2016, give elite mens marathon runners between a 60- and 90-second advantage. The rumours on the grapevine suggested that Kipchoges shoes in Vienna might have improved his running economy by 7-8% rather than the standard 4-5%, further increasing his advantage.

Tucker said: The integrity of performances is impossible to evaluate, because the exact performance advantage [of the shoes] is unknowable. All we know is that lab studies show it to be massive and universal.

And yet. It was hard not to be carried away by Kipchoges performance or enjoy the unbounded affection from his pacemakers. The Olympic 1500m champion, Matthew Centrowitz, said: Through that whole 5k, I was just thinking how much of an honour it was to be one step in front of Kipchoge, a once-in-a-generation athlete.

There will always be those who believe this was no more than a stunt a high-end laboratory experiment rather than a proper achievement. Perhaps it was. But sport cannot just be about kicking balls into nets, hurtling from one part of a track to another, the grace and punch of a perfect backhand. It needs myth-shatters and story makers, too. On a quietly tumultuous day in Vienna, Kipchoge rewrote the impossible.