How The Greatest Marathoner in History Went Beyond His Limits
Image credit: Associated Press, Alastair Grant
Step onto the average treadmill and turn it up as fast as it will go, typically about 20 km/h. If you could sustain that lung-bursting sprint for 42.2 kilometers in a row, you would finish a marathon in about two hours and eleven minutes. Breaking the two-hour marathon barrier is one of the boundaries of human achievement, like the four-minute mile, that many believed could never be crossed. “It is up there with the first man on the moon,” said BBC Sport journalist Chris Dennis.
2017 New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan admits to having once said, “No way in my lifetime will I witness a sub-two-hour marathon.” But on October 12, 2019, as both Dennis and Flanagan looked on from the commentators’ booth, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge did it.
Eliud Kipchoge was born in 1984 to the Talai clan of the Kalenjin tribe that hails from the Rift Valley of Kenya. His father died when he was little. He supported his family by gathering milk from his neighbors and selling it in the market. One day, glimpsing his neighbor running, he saw a way to a better life. That neighbor was running coach Patrick Sang. Sang says, “I remember this young 16-year-old who would come up to me at the dirt track in Nandi County and ask for a training program and, at that time, I didn’t know who he was. I gave him a two-week training program and off he went. He came back two weeks later and said, ‘What’s next?’” A year later, Kipchoge won his first 5000-metre World Championships gold medal. In 2013, disappointed at not making the London 2012 Olympic team, he switched from track races to road races and won his first marathon. Today, Sang is still Kipchoge’s coach, though he now says, “It is me who is the student and Eliud the coach.” Kipchoge is the defending Olympic marathon champion and a self-made millionaire.
But he doesn’t live like a millionaire. When he’s training for a race, he leaves his wife and three children behind and stays at a spartan training camp in Kaptagat in the Rift Valley. There, he gets up at 5 a.m. every day to run. With a warmly humble focus that has made him beloved to his teammates, Kipchoge, arguably the greatest marathoner ever, chops vegetables, scrubs toilets, and milks cows.
“No human is limited,” Kipchoge said in the leadup to his historic run. “Any human being can go beyond his limits. Any human being can go beyond his thoughts. I totally believe in myself, believe in my teammates, believe in my training. That’s what pushes me beyond the barrier.”
Microbiologist and Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary Ambassador Kevin Mtai, who lives in Eldoret in the Rift Valley, not far from Kipchoge’s training camp, said, “His breaking of records encouraged me so much as a MAPS Ambassador. If you aim for something, you can accomplish it, and let the world see the product of what you have been working for.”
Kipchoge’s October 12 result, like a previous attempt at the two-hour barrier in 2017 where he finished in 2:00:25, is not an “official” world record. Created with optimal conditions, including an aerodynamically designed phalanx of pacers, it wasn’t a race in the usual sense of the word; the only contestant was Kipchoge himself. For World Athletics, the organization governing marathon standards, the marathon world record remains Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 at the Berlin Marathon in 2018.
None of that changed the thrill for twenty thousand spectators (and enough livestream viewers to make the YouTube video trend in the top three) when Kipchoge and his first team of pacers took off in Vienna’s Prater Park. One kilometer after another went by as the pacer teams changed in and out, and Kipchoge calmly sustained a pace faster than the top speed of most treadmills.
Kipchoge told the Oxford Union Society in the UK last year, “Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you are undisciplined you are a slave to your moods. When you have decided to do something, do it. No excuses.”
It’s said that the real marathon begins around the 30-km mark, where physical pain and mental fatigue really start to set in. But the only sign of strain Kipchoge showed on October 12 was a smile. “He says smiling when he’s hurting relaxes his muscles,” Flanagan noted. Four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome remarked, “It’s incredible to watch him. He’s just gliding over the road.”
In the final kilometre, Kipchoge sped up and ran forward through his pacers, who fell back and cheered to watch him complete the distance alone. The spectators, thrilled, roared louder than ever and banged the sideline gates like thunder. At 1:59:40 on the clock, Eliud Kipchoge ran over the finish line, past the two-hour marathon barrier and into the arms of his wife Grace.
Kipchoge spoke with reporters at the finish about his joy at being able to go beyond the two-hour limit. His face glowed with quiet joy as he talked about the privilege to have 41 of the world’s best runners as pacers. He talked about how the hardest time for him all day had been the few hours between waking up that morning and starting the marathon. He concluded, “I want to make a clean sport, an interesting sport. All human beings can make the world beautiful just by running.”
Half an hour after the marathon, when most runners sit down to rest, Eliud Kipchoge took his Kenyan flag and ran back out into the race course yet again to high-five spectators. The run was over. But no one wanted the moment to end.
Pranada McBurnie is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Editor for Parvati.org, including Parvati’s forthcoming self-help and fiction books under GEM: Global Education for MAPS.