We get caught up in records, but there's a lot to be said for style. This is especially true in the marathon, dominated by images of fatigue, frozen faces, bleeding nipples, crap-streaked legs, and claw-rigged arms—and those are just the spectators. The visible degradation over 26.2 miles from athlete to decayed but discernible human to roadkill is compelling in a train-wreck kind of way. But it's not pretty.
This past Sunday, 30-year-old Eliud Kipchoge, of Kenya, gave a two-hour-four-minute-and-11-second tutorial on how to lay down the 12th fastest marathon of all time and look good doing it. A few weeks ago, countryman Dennis Kimetto set the marathon world record, 2:02:57, which is very fast, but it showed. His expression was grim as he worked praying mantis-like legs to their limit. Watching him, I felt the growing pain of utter exhaustion, on and on, muscles screaming, how much further? I collapsed on the couch, drained, when he broke the tape. Yes, Kipchoge required an extra three seconds every mile, but it was time well spent. He's an elegant runner, fluid, composed, as if he was sailing through the streets of Chicago for fun. It was refreshing, I tell you, and pleasant to watch.
The occasion was the Chicago Marathon which was set up to be a battle of ex-track titans Kenenisa Bekele and Kipchoge. Ethiopian Bekele, jingling with gold medals and world records, won everything he possibly could on the track before turning to the marathon earlier this year. The last of five children of farming parents, Kipchoge followed a similar, if slightly less decorated path.
Bekele and Kipchoge clashed many times on the track, the Ethiopian coming out on top most often, but Kipchoge was the most elegant second placer you ever saw. Maybe 5-foot-8, with a compact chassis, an extra-long southern half, and the musculature of a track runner rather than the gauntness of a career marathoner, Kipchoge is proportioned for fluid velocity. His entire being—still head, leading chest, swinging arms, kilometer-carved legs, every sinew, every cell—is in happy agreement when the accelerator is pressed—Yes, let's go now. No head bobbing, no flailing as if some body parts are being dragged along against their will: a slight forward impulse, arms rising by an inch or two at the end of their arc, stride widening incrementally, landing lightly on the forefoot, every particle gleefully flying forward with a unified will. Bus stops and street signs suddenly whizz by at 4:33 pace instead of 4:52. It's pretty.
A 4:34 first mile, pushed along by Chicago's famous wind, was merely a formality, a way of identifying the pack as the real contenders for the course record (2:03:45), the still-warm world record (2:02:57), the win, whatever. Bekele and Kipchoge, separated by Bernard Koech, Sammy Kitwara, and Dickson Chumba, rolled abreast, close on the heels of three pacers. They passed the first 5K (metric system runners think of the marathon in 5K segments with a 2K sprint finish) in 14:42. For Kipchoge, who routinely covered 5K on the track in the 12:50s, the pace was comfortable.
Bekele and Kipchoge pointedly ignored each other. They glided, trance-like, through 10K in 29:27, 15K in 44:13, passing the halfway point in 62:09, instead of the 61:40 the pacers had been instructed to hit. Rather than towing the pack, the pacers were doing all they could to keep from being chewed up and spit out the back.
TV coverage maddeningly left the lead pack intact before 30K and returned from a technical glitch at about 34K to a three-man race of Kipchoge and fellow Kenyans Sammy Kitwara and Dickson Chumba. Professional photographer Sean Hartnett, who saw the break from the back of the lead motorcycle, said the precipitating factor was a turn into the wind at the critical 20-mile mark, where the long run ends and the racing begins. The 5K segment between 25K and 30K was the slowest of the day in 15:04. Turning south onto Halsted street, a particularly bleak and windy section of the course, those who could gathered themselves and eased down on the accelerator. The segment between 30K and 35K was covered in a herd-thinning 14:34. Former lead pack member Bernard Koech was visible in the background, and Bekele was a speck on the road in south Chicago.
The Ehiopian later said he was suffering from jet lag and that his body didn't respond when asked at 20 miles. "Obviously, I would have liked to run faster but I couldn't," Bekele explained at the post-race press conference. It's been proven by previous track-to-marathon converts that it takes a few tries to translate successful 10,000-meter racing to the 42K distance, and this was only Bekele's second marathon, 2:05:04 and this, 205:51. But it may be that he just doesn't like running that far. He admitted to finding long runs boring at first. You have to truly enjoy running farther than many people drive in a day to be successful at the marathon. Kipchoge does. Chicago was his fourth marathon, all between 2:04:05 and 2:05:30.
The No. 1 problem eliminated, Kipchoge started enjoying his tour of the Windy City. Not that he wasn't concerned with countrymen Kitwara and Chumba, but both were pretty close to red lining and he knew it. Kitwara's right arm swung wider; Chumba, too, was a little ragged, leaning forward, willing himself to hang on. In the end, Kitwara and Chumba were second and third, posting personal bests by about a minute.
Kipchoge, composed as ever, had not broken a sweat. Literally or figuratively. Kitwara made a few feints at the lead but Kipchoge answered easily. At 25 miles, Kipchoge decided it was time to smell the roses. He did this with a 4:33 mile. Knockout punch delivered, he owned the city.
It must have been a great feeling, knowing he'd vanquished a world-class field and covered 40K in about 2:57/kilometer pace (4:44 per mile), and that, still, his body responded. It must have been satisfying to know that the grinding 120 miles/week, the searing track sessions and spartan lifestyle had paid off. Of course, it's fun to win, and pick up a $100,000 prize. For whatever reason, Kipchoge smiled. He smiled while smoothly, gloriously, powerfully flying over the last 2K (mile and a quarter) in six minutes 14 seconds. It was a beautiful thing, and stylish.
To say his 2:04:11 was effortless would be wrong by a factor of eleven. Kipchoge confirmed it was not easy after 30K but that, indeed, he "enjoyed the race from start to finish."
photo credit: Getty Images