“No human is limited”: Eliud Kipchoge’s journey to 1:59

3 years ago Triangle 0

Written by: Nathan Kernell, assistant editor

Eliud Kipchoge ahead of pace runners.

In the past, fans of long-distance running could call Eliud Kipchoge the greatest in the sport and could even rank him among the best runners ever. But Kipchoge catapulted himself to undoubtedly claim the title of best long-distance runner ever by running the first sub-2 hour marathon with a time of 1:59.40.  

Although Kipchoge’s accomplishment on October 12, 2019 solidified his name atop the list of running greats, he has long been scaling the catalog that includes figures such as 9-time marathon champion Haile Gebrselassie, and Abebe Bikila, famous for capturing gold in the 1960 Olympics barefoot. 

Originally a 5000-meter runner, Kipchoge was grabbing notable attention by 2003 when he won the IAAF World Junior Cross-Country Championships with a time of 22:47. Later that same year, Kipchoge also won the senior IAAF World Championships, taking the $60,000 prize that came with it. Just one year later, Kipchoge found himself on the pedestal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens taking bronze in the 5-kilometer race. 

During the next eight years of Kipchoge’s racing career, he would only become more successful and his trophy collection would only grow larger. During this span, he claimed 34 victories, including a 2004 IAAF World Athletics Final first place finish, and a 2010 IAAF Diamond League victory, as well as taking home silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

It was not until 2013 that Kipchoge’s efforts turned to marathon running. At his first marathon on April 21, 2013 in Hamburg, Germany, he took home a first-place victory with a time of 2:05.30. From then on, Kopchoge’s days of running 5000-kilometer races were behind him, and his focus was now on marathon running. 

In his six years and 13 competitive marathons that have come since, Kipchoge has taken home 12 victories and one second place finish, and in the process has set the official marathon world record with a time of 2:01.39, completed at the Berlin Marathon in 2018. 

On May 6, 2017, an attempt was made to run the first ever sub-2 hour marathon. The event, sponsored by Nike, was titled “Breaking 2” and, in addition to Kipchoge, featured world-renowned marathoners Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. According to Nike’s science team and some of the brightest minds in athletic performance, these three runners “stood out as capable of breaking the two-hour barrier”: Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic marathon gold medalist, Desisa, a two-time Boston Marathon winner, and Zersenay, a four-time Olympian: 

The endeavor was to take place at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, 13 miles north of Milan; a motor-racing track with gradual curves and the temperate Northern Italian climate that would allow for the best possible conditions for a feat of this magnitude to occur. 

For an accomplishment of this caliber to be attained, perfection is almost mandatory. Seemingly minute variables that may appear insubstantial must be measured and improved to allow for the best possible outcome. In addition to finding the ideal environment, other body conditions were measured and monitored. According to Brad Wilkins, a director at Nike Sports Research Lab, a variable known as temperature gradient was the most important temperature reading.

“We’re looking at what core body temperature does in relation to skin temperature and we want those two numbers to be as far apart as possible,” said Wilkins. “That means that the gradient, the temperature gradient, from the core to your skin is really high.”

During several training sessions, including a half-marathon performed at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, enough data was collected using internal and external monitoring devices that it was determined what racing conditions would best benefit each athlete. 

Seemingly every variable that could reduce race time was taken into consideration. From shoe design, to hydration, even to reducing air drag by having pace runners in a triangle formation in front of the athletes. 

Leading up to race day, the goal seemed more attainable than ever, yet it was still undetermined whether 1:59.59 was humanly possible. Every possible advantage was given to create the ideal race conditions for 2 hours to be broken. And although the goal of breaking 2 hours was not achieved during the “Breaking 2” campaign, a belief was implanted that it could be done. 

Never before had an athlete come closer than Kipchoge did with his time of 2:00.25. Just a second faster per mile and Kipchoge, the oldest of the three competing athletes, would accomplish what was previously thought to be impossible. 

Although the 2 hour barrier was not broken, following the race, Kipchoge showed nothing but optimism. “It [the race] was not about me.” said Kipchoge in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “This was about showing the world that no human has a limitation. You can do anything.”

Following the unsuccessful, yet inspiring attempt with Nike, it seemed inevitable that another attempt was near in the future. Ineos, one of the world’s largest manufacturers, sought out Kipchoge for another attempt at breaking 2 hours in 2018. Kipchoge seemed the obvious athlete of choice for breaking 2 hours. If any athlete on Earth was capable, it was Kipchoge.

This time, instead of having three separate athletes, Kipchoge was the center of attention; Kipchoge, along with 41 pace-runners who would switch out periodically, would run for a second attempt at breaking the 2-hour barrier. 

The 41 pace-runners were assembled one-by-one by Kipchoge himself, and were strategically chosen based on merit and physical ability. Runners representing 10 different countries were selected, including American names such as Hillary Bor and Bernard Lagat. 

In order to keep the pace-runners fresh throughout the duration of the race, they would switch out every 10 kilometers, using the same triangular tactic to reduce air drag that was used in the 2017 attempt. 

Vienna was the new race location, and for good reason. A track located in Vienna fit the qualifications sought after by both the INEOS team and Kipchoge. Characteristics such as weather, temperature, and even wind conditions were analyzed, as well as other qualities such as time-change from Kipchoge’s home training location. 

In choosing location, Vienna’s stable weather conditions, low altitude and similar time zone to Kipchoge’s home of Kenya were all strong components pointing to Vienna for Kipchoge’s 1:59 attempt. 

Additionally, Hugh Brasher, the event director, even said, “The quality of air in the area of Vienna is stunning.” 

Specifically looking at the track, a 4.3 kilometer straight course was repeated 4.4 times, with turns at each end. The course was designed to minimize any imperfections that may cost the runner more energy than necessary, and these included having an incline of only 2.4 meters as well as being 90% straight. 

Pace runners, an ideal location and a pace car with highly precise distance and speed measurement; all were used to give Kipchoge every ethical advantage for him to break two hours. 

Throughout the historical race, Kipchoge left little doubt in the minds of the more than 500 million people watching worldwide, from more than 200 territories. The race was about as uneventful and unexciting as an event of this magnitude could be recounted, but not in a way that demonstrated negative qualities; rather uneventful and unexciting are used to portray the sheer dominance and machine-like qualities that Kipchoge exhibited. 

At no point during the race attempt did Kipchoge fall behind pace; at no point during the race attempt was there doubt on “if” 1:59 could be accomplished. One hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds after the commencement of the race, Kipchoge crossed the finish line becoming the first runner to ever accomplish a sub-two hour marathon.

“That was the best moment of my life. The pressure was very big on my shoulders,” said Kipchoge upon crossing the finish line. “I got a phone call from the President of Kenya.”

Eliud Kipchoge completing the marathon in 1:59:40

Kipchoge’s feat was less about holding a solidified record, and more about showing people that anything is possible. The record time is not accepted as a new world record by the IAAF (International Associates of Athletics Federation) due to the race not aligning with standards set by the IAAF, such as the use of pace runners or unapproved running shoes. 

“I am the happiest man in the world to be the first human to run under two hours, and I can tell people that no human is limited,” said Kipchoge. “I expect more people all over the world to run under two hours after today.”

Following Kipchoge’s bout in Vienna, he now holds the world record marathon time, the Olympic Marathon title and is the only person to ever run a marathon in under two hours, making him undoubtedly the greatest name in marathon history.

Nathan Kernell is a junior majoring in communications with a focus in digital media. He enjoys playing on the baseball team and also playing guitar. Kernell has always enjoyed writing so it only seemed fitting to pursue that path in college.