It was the marathon that turned into a sprint. Even the strongest cynics – and they are not hard to come by – had to smile at the 500-metre final stretch that defined the making of history: the marathon distance has been completed in under two hours.
Eliud Kipchoge had brushed aside his pacemakers. The Kenyan pointed to and waved at adoring galleries, 15 deep in the middle of a Vienna park, as he galloped towards athletic immortality. “That was the best moment in my life,” said Kipchoge of catching sight of the finish line. When he crossed it, the clock read 1hr 59min 40.2sec. In the inevitable, wide-ranging assessment of what this all means, at least this can be defined as a reference point for decades and generations to come.
It was already known that Kipchoge is an extraordinary athlete. He merely pressed home the point on a misty morning in Austria. With the clock stopped and a sporting world looking on with awe, the 34-year-old Kenyan displayed all the physical strain of having walked for the morning papers.
“I felt a lot of pressure yesterday,” Kipchoge admitted. “I received a lot of calls of encouragement from all over the world. The president of Kenya called me. When you receive so many calls from high-profile people, there is pressure.”
Kipchoge described the period between a 4.50am wake-up call and his scheduled 8.15am start as the toughest of his life. What followed resembled blissful simplicity.
Giddy comparisons to other sporting and historical acts were inevitable and duly forthcoming. It is altogether fair to reference Roger Bannister, who 65 years ago achieved what had been widely perceived as impossible by running a mile in under four minutes. That Kipchoge has entered the domain of first man on the moon Neil Armstrong – as some commentators claimed – is, however, a stretch.
This was an operation afforded military levels of planning and an even loftier budget. Vienna had been preferred to London because of benign conditions. Kipchoge ran every kilometre between a range of 2:48 and 2:52. Teams of seven pacemakers – in a phalanx formation, 2-1-2-2 – not only kept Kipchoge on the right side of the clock but protected him from what little breeze existed. That was controversial. So, too, the green lasers projected on to the road as a further safeguard against losing ground. This is not sport as we knew it. The hills couldn’t be alive because the hills didn’t exist; Kipchoge’s route was entirely flat and 90% straight.
Ineos, a petrochemical company not exempt from bad publicity, reportedly ploughed £15m into this event. The brand was unavoidable, to the point where you could have suspected this was the key protagonist’s surname. Jim Ratcliffe, the company’s founder and richest man in the UK, sat alongside Kipchoge for his post-run press conference.
Ratcliffe was afforded the kind of canned laughter as follows men of his wealth around. Dave Brailsford, seemingly unaffected by the controversy that attached itself to Team Sky which is now rebranded Team Ineos, was sat in the front row. When Kipchoge’s status as a Nike athlete – the sportswear giant wounded by the Alberto Salazar affair – is factored in, those seeking to detract from what transpired here are not short of ammunition. Kipchoge’s prototype running shoes will fly from shelves when eventually released to the public at £240 a pop. How much of this actually relates to man and muscle?
Technological advancements are not unique to athletics. He is not at all troubled by the fact the IAAF does not recognise this feat as a record, a scenario perhaps impacted by the detail that he holds the world’s best official marathon time anyway.
This was about breaking barriers and showing, as the marathon logo stated, that no human is limited. If that is true, presumably the glass ceiling for those famous 26.2 miles has yet to be reached.
Kipchoge, essentially a modest sort, said he knew within the first kilometre he would achieve his goal. He swatted aside one view that mid-race presented brief troubles. “That’s untrue,” he said
It seemed incredible that the four-time London marathon winner trained for this pursuit for four months. And the morning breakfast of champions? Oatmeal.
The runner’s coach, Patrick Sang, cut one of many euphoric figures. “He has inspired all of us to stretch our limits in our lives,” he said. “Everything went perfectly. Records are meant to be broken, I’m sure someone down the road will want to try to break this one, but history has been made.”
Kipchoge quietly exited to bestow an epic party on his 41 pacemakers. Pretty swiftly – if not in the territory of the man himself – this corner of Vienna returned to normality. Marathon running, meanwhile, will never be the same again.