By Ellen Siefke | Staff Writer
A few weeks ago, on a cool morning in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge took the world by storm by becoming the first person to break the two-hour marathon barrier. He ran 1:59:40 for 26.2 miles, a whopping 4:33 per mile. Imagine sprinting all out for two hours, and you have an idea of how fast he ran.
Let’s make one thing clear: What Kipchoge did was incredible. Very few athletes have the nascent talent and work ethic necessary to make his time possible, let alone the confidence to attempt it. Although the world record had inched closer and closer to two hours, actually breaking that barrier still seemed mythical. That Kipchoge did so is a testament to human athletic potential.
However, several factors place a big asterisk next to his time. For one, this was not an official marathon race but an “exhibition event” put on by INEOS, a British chemical company. The course was designed to be flat and fast, consisting of a long straightaway and a roundabout to minimize right-angle turns. The course also took place at sea level, meaning there was plenty of oxygen, and the organizers scheduled eight different days for the run so they could wait for ideal weather conditions.
Second, Kipchoge had help with pacers and access to carb-rich beverages. These are the two major reasons his time will not count as a world record. Official rules specify that all pacers must begin with the runner and that runners must retrieve drinks from a course station. Instead, a rotating group of seven runners formed a triangle in front of him, and bikers provided him with hydration.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Kipchoge wore a special set of Nike shoes yet to be released. A carbon plate in the midsole meant the shoes acted as springs, helping him to run lighter and faster.
These factors have stirred debate within the runner and non-runner communities about what it means to run a marathon and the role of money in the running world. I find myself having mixed reactions.
On the one hand, it’s easy to take a cynical view, and as a lifelong runner, I must confess my initial reaction was to adopt a purist attitude and dismiss his time, grumbling about the infiltration of corporate sponsorship. After all, this was a corporate event that went against the spirit of the marathon and the thrill of racing — seeing how fast you can go with the conditions you’re given. Kipchoge didn’t have to make any of the decisions you normally would during a race, such as how fast to start and where to surge. So did he really run a marathon, or did he merely run 26.2 miles?
That said, when I really think about what transpired that morning, I find myself more and more in awe of what Kipchoge did. First of all, not only did he have the gumption to think he could break two hours, he managed to convince everyone else of the same. A slew of people, runners and non-runners, all came together to make this possible. Most inspiring to me were the pacing groups: Every person running with Kipchoge really believed he could do it, and I can attest to the power of that pack mentality. It’s part of what makes running so amazing: It brings people together, inspiring them and uplifting them to achieve something greater.
Second, 1:59:40 is insanely fast. Running a 4:33 mile could win a state track title, and Kipchoge did that 26 times. There’s a reason two hours was considered so mythical. Even with the shoes, course and pacing, only the most athletic of individuals could run like Kipchoge did. He also couldn’t do what he did without a superior work ethic and true dedication to his sport.
That brings me to my last point: Kipchoge himself is inspirational. He’s humble, he’s kind and he’s a genuinely good person. If INEOS had chosen anyone else, it would be easy to dismiss that time as too contrived to gain respect. But Kipchoge is an incredible athlete and an incredible human being, someone who truly believes in inspiring others through running. You can’t help but root for him.
Yes, Kipchoge’s run defied the spirit of the marathon, but it was also a triumph of athleticism and collaboration. While record books will not remember that morning in Vienna, I will remember that day as demonstrating the power of the sport of running and its ability to bring people together to break barriers.