If a marathon can be said to stand for something, it must surely stand for the idea that speed comes at a price. Run too fast at the start, expend your energy too early, and you are sure to come to grief. Be patient and persistent, and you might overtake the early leaders. “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon” is one of those phrases that everyone understands, whether or not they’ve ever run a competitive step.
And for those who HAVE run a competitive step or two, the marathon distance has a well-earned reputation for magnifying minuscule problems into major ones. It’s such a long race that any small, seemingly insignificant issue can become magnified to the point that it ruins an otherwise good day. Slight stride irregularities can lead to debilitating muscle soreness; an overlooked wrinkle in a sock can cause an excruciating blister. The swish of the wrong kind of fabric against unprotected skin can bring painful chafing.
All this, along with the fickleness of wind, weather, and the state on one’s digestion on race morning contributes to the unpredictability of the marathon. In this severe test of endurance, even the strongest may falter, and even the swiftest may be slowed to a hobble or left by the side of the road.
Unless, of course, we are talking about Eliud Kipchoge, the man who has mastered the ability to run 42.195 kilometers with unique competence and focus. There has never been anyone better at it.
As everyone knows by now, Kipchoge annexed the world record on Sunday in Berlin, adding to his laurels and removing all doubts that he is – by far – the greatest marathoner the world has ever seen. His resume now includes 10 wins in 11 attempts at the distance, His only runner-up finish came against Wilson Kipsang, who had to run a world record in Berlin five years ago to beat him. Kipchoge has been winning ever since, has produced three of the nine fastest times ever run on record-eligible courses, and is the Olympic Champion. He also single-handedly ensured the marketing success of Nike’s Breaking Two project by covering the standard marathon distance in 2:00:25, albeit with non-sanctioned pacing and support. Never mind the gimmicky nature of the event… it was hugely impressive, and even with similar assistance it’s unlikely any other human being on the planet could have run 2:00:25. Now, there’s this new, monumental mark of 2:01:39, and most observers will tell you that – what with the less-than-perfect weather and the lack of pace-making in the final 17K – the Berlin performance is superior to the Breaking Two time trial.
It’s hard to describe Kipchoge’s mastery of the marathon without resorting to a mind-numbing recitation of numbers. Yesterday I found myself being drawn into multiple conversations with non-runners about the record. Yes, I had heard about it. Yes, it was astonishing that he had broken the record by such a wide margin (78 seconds… the largest single improvement in fifty years). No, I don’t think anyone is about to run sub 2:00:00, but I’m a little less sure that we’ll have to wait for two decades to see it. Then I would try to describe how fast, how FAST, it was. With one of my H.S. runners I (perhaps unkindly) asked him to compare his own PR in the mile, the 800, the 400 for God’s Sake, with Kipchoge’s average pace. With some adults at the dinner table, I talked about how the pacemakers were strained to breaking with the demands of bringing Kipchoge through the half marathon in 1:01. And how he ran the most remarkable negative splits in marathon history – 60:33 for the second half.
It came up in one conversation that there had been another world record set on Sunday. Poor Kevin Mayer! I wonder if he anticipated the possibility that his superb world-record in the Decathlon — a performance that might last longer than the new Marathon WR — would be subject to the full solar eclipse of Kipchoge in Berlin?
Numbers aside, what is always – to me – the way to relate to world-class performances is to consider not the difficulties of the accomplishment, but the relative ease of it, compared to what we can imagine. I see in my mind’s eye Kipchoge striding lightly and seemingly untroubled along the streets of Berlin, following the blue line without ever wandering a foot to either side, making 4:36 mile pace look natural and effortless, when we had all thought such a pace would be suicidal. Of course it was not easy. But it was magical that it didn’t appear to be that hard, either.
So the speculation has begun about how fast he could go with pace-makers who could take him through 30K, with competition, with perfect temperature and humidity, etc., etc. This all seems beside the point, at least for the moment. By those same calculations, most of us probably knew that Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 was not the ultimate barrier. Eliud Kipchoge seemed to understand this well, pointedly saying that his goal was to run a personal best, rather than set a new record. Well, now the record has been set, and set so far out there that it seems the only runner who can challenge it is Kipchoge himself. Maybe in a few years there will be others. Maybe 2:02 marathons will become as common as sub-2:05 marathons are today.
Before Sunday, it would have been almost unimaginable, but not anymore. Breaking into tiny pieces our old ideas about what is possible in the marathon does seem to be the point.