Every sport has its barriers and ceilings. Breaking through these barriers and ceilings is every athlete’s ambition. It is what makes them push the limits of their sport even further. So when Nike announced in December 2016 that it would sponsor the attempt to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon, it reminded athletics enthusiasts of Englishman Roger Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile in 1954. Bannister’s record lasted only 46 days and hundreds of athletes have run faster times since then. However, the barrier to the two-hour marathon remains intact.
The marathon is the longest competitive race in athletics. The official distance is 42,195 km, and it is usually run as a road race. East Africans have become dominant in the race ever since Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila Demissie won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics. Bikila set the world record in the event, which he ran barefoot, and he later became the first person to defend his Olympic gold medal, when he broke his own record, shaving off three more minutes.
So, when Nike chose three men to attempt what they called ‘Breaking 2’, it was no surprise that they chose three East Africans: Lelisa Desisa, the two-time Boston Marathon champion from Ethiopia; Zersenay Tadese, the world half-marathon record holder from Eritrea; and Eliud Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic champion from Kenya – and possibly the greatest marathon runner in history.
Watching Kipchoge run feels like watching him meditate.
Beginning and Decisions
Eliud Kipchoge first became a sensation in the athletics world when he beat giants Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele at the 2003 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in the 5 000 metre race when he was just 18 years old. Before then, Kipchoge was unknown.
Kipchoge was expected to become the next star on the track, but Bekele would strengthen his kick over the next few years to consistently deny Kipchoge gold in both the World Championships and the Olympics. In 2012, Kipchoge missed the selection for the Kenyan Olympics track team and turned to road racing.
There are very few athletes who can survive for long at their zenith, but Kipchoge belongs to that elite group. His first marathon was in Hamburg in 2013, which he won in a time of 2:05:30. He improved that time to 2:04:05 in Berlin that same year. But it was at the 2015 Berlin Marathon, when the insoles of his shoes came off while he was running, that the world learned of his resolve. Kipchoge maintained his calm and finished to win the race in 2:04:01. A year later, he would win both the London Marathon in the second-fastest time ever and gold in the Rio Olympics.
To Kipchoge, running below two hours is within the realm of human capability: “This effort won’t require a robot or Superman drilled to perfection by scientific faith or medicine, but a good, time-tested human heart, blood and sheer resolve,” he told the Daily Nation’s Lifestyle Magazine in February this year.
Kipchoge, who was born in Nandi County in Kenya, was first discovered by former Olympic 3 000 metre steeplechase silver medallist Patrick Sang. To train for Breaking 2, he went to Sang’s Global Sports Communication athletics camp in Kaptagat in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where he is still being trained by Sang himself. His teammates, whom he has trained with before and continues to, include 2012 Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda and world half-marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor, among others.
To live in Sang’s training base is to choose a monastic life. The world-class athletes who live here do everything for themselves: They draw water from a well, wash their own clothes in buckets and even entertain themselves.
“Material things are immaterial when it comes to excellence in athletics,” Sang was quoted as saying in Run Blog Run.
This camp is also where Nike’s scientists and researchers came to help Kipchoge train for his feat. They started by first making the shoes and apparel that the athletes would wear: light shoes that would still be able to cushion on impact, apparel that would not wear from muscle movement during the run. The athletes would also be consuming special drinks for rehydration throughout the race. But as one commentator put it during the race, ‘The shoes and apparel can’t run the race. It is the athletes who do it.’
Nike finally decided on the place where the race would be run: the Autodromo Nazionale Monza in Italy, nicknamed ‘the temple of speed’ because it holds the fastest-ever speed recorded on a Formula One track. The scientists chose it because it has a relatively flat surface and good running weather. The athletes would run 17 laps around a loop of 2 400 metres.
East Africans have become dominant in the marathon ever since Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila Demissie won a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics.
The Starting Shot
The plan was to have an arrowhead formation of six pace-setters running in front of Kipchoge, Tadese and Desisa to provide the pace and to have the three running in a wake to reduce air resistance. Each set of pace-setters would do two laps, then rest for at least 36 minutes as another set took over.
To run below two hours would require the athletes to run seven seconds faster than the world record-holder Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 time in each of the 26,2 miles. Even for these, the best athletes in the world, this was going to be a punishing pace.
The race started at 5:45 am, with Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese behind the pack of pace-setters, as planned. Nike streamed the race live on its Twitter page, Facebook and YouTube. Forty-nine minutes into the race – with about 16 kilometres run – the fatigue started to show.
Kipchoge and Tadese were still on pace, but Lelisa Desisa, who was perspiring more than the rest, started to fall back. About 20 kilometres in, Tadese started falling back too, leaving Kipchoge as the lone runner at the front, and still on pace.
The marathon is both a physical and mental race. Resolve is key to getting one through it, as athletes often encounter a ‘wall’ as the brain realises that it is low on energy. This usually happens between the 18th and 20th mile. When the runner hits this wall, it means they have depleted their glycogen levels. Glycogen is a carbohydrate stored in the muscles and liver, and it is quickly accessed by the body as an energy source. The body then starts to shut down to protect itself. Negative thoughts often overwhelm a runner at that distance. An athlete has to train to withstand the rigour of this depletion and conquer the mind’s constant urge to stop running.
Watching Kipchoge run feels like watching him meditate. He has a Zen aura around him: calm, relaxed and running at a pace that many people would struggle to keep up after just a minute. Occasionally, he winces as the pain from the running gets through to him, but he remains in control of his mind. The wince quickly changes into a smile and everyone watching him is at peace once again.
Kipchoge started slowing down in the last six laps, however. The wincing expressions on his face became more frequent. With two laps to go, both commentators and fans realised that he would not make it. Still, Kipchoge finished the harrowing race in a sprint, clocking 2:0:25, a few seconds outside the target time.
After the race, Kipchoge was grateful to the pacers: “Thank you, thank you to all the pacers that have given out their energy to help me go through this journey of 42 kilometres,” he said. “Thank you for lending me your bodies and your minds.”
Kipchoge’s time will not be an official record, as all official records have to be ratified by the International Association of Athletics (IAAF). According to IAAF regulations, pacers are supposed to start and end the race (or drop out) with the competitors, and drinks are not to be delivered while athletes are in motion. In Monza, the pacers were regularly switched out and drinks were delivered via mopeds to the athletes to avoid slowing them down.
In 2014, Runner’s World magazine published a data-driven analysis of over 10 000 top marathon performances over the last 50 years and projected that running the marathon in less than two hours under normal race conditions will first be achieved after 2075.
To put Kipchoge’s record into perspective, the 10 000 metre world record stands at 26:17.53. It was set by Kenenisa Bekele in Brussels in 2005. No man has run the 10km in 26 minutes flat yet, and no man has run below Kenenisa’s time in the last 12 years. To run the marathon below two hours, one would need to run the 10km equivalent in 28.44 minutes, just two minutes outside the world 10km record. Kipchoge did that consistently at least three times in Monza, only coming short in the last 10km.
At the closing ceremony, Kipchoge said, “We didn’t get the target, but I’m a happy man to run the marathon in just two hours. And now the world is just 25 seconds away.”
Yes indeed. The world is just 25 seconds away now – well within reach for the next person to attempt it. Kipchoge broke more than the world record; he broke a mental barrier as well.