Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge proved in Sunday’s Berlin Marathon that he is the classiest human to ever lay down 26.2 miles at an average of 4:44 per. About 10 miles into the race, the insoles of his custom Nike racing flats slipped out halfway and stayed there for the remaining 16 miles, flapping like tongues. Distracting? A little. Probably race-ending for a lesser athlete.
This is how Kipchoge’s shoes looked 10 miles into the race:
Kipchoge not only kept running like the wind, he vanquished a world-class field, studded with world record holders, and won the race in a personal best time of 2:04:00. That’s the ninth-fastest marathon of all time.
Even the cheetahs of this world require near perfection in every detail—weather, pacing, preparation, course, diet and, yes, footwear—to post a personal best. He’s already in the rarified range where seconds over the course of 26.2 miles make the difference between his slowest performance (2:05:30) and his best. That he was able to compete head-to-head, prevail, and post the ninth-fastest marathon time ever with that kind of impediment, well, it boggles the mind.
But what puts this performance in a class of its own is what happened after the finish line.
Given many opportunities by salivating reporters to blame ‘n bash Nike (and if ever a shoe maker had it coming, this was the occasion), Kipchoge refused to take the bait. He admitted that the slipped insoles caused pain with every step, but when asked if the footwear malfunction caused him to miss the world record (2:02:57) which he was shooting for, he replied matter-of-factly, “Maybe, maybe not.” And again, when baited about the quality of the shoes, Kipchoge did not feel the need to add to the shoes’ own hour-and-a-half televised statement. He said they were “the best shoe ever.”
While the press was eager to play the blame game, Kipchoge demurred and spent his air time saying how pleased he was to win, how happy he was with his performance. Let’s think about the number of finish line excuses we’ve heard—poor pacing, illness, it was too hot, it was windy, no one went with me—and stand in awe of a true mensch.
The Kenyan Globe pointed out one more calamity Kipchoge could have pinned on the wagging insoles: By missing the world record, his spot on Kenya’s Olympic marathon team next summer is in question. Since eight of the world’s top marathon times have been posted by Kenyans, competition for the three Olympic team spots is ridiculously intense. A world record would have clinched it.
The athletic achievement itself—enduring the searing pain of a penultimate performance—burdens the imagination. It bears repeating that only eight human beings, ever, have gone to that hellish place. But every runner has to get through a personal hell. Every competitor is effected by heat or hills or poor pacing. The difficult thing in the marathon is not the distance, but the almost endless list of things that can go wrong, and how you deal with them. Surprisingly few runners, elite or recreational, can fully embrace that aspect of the race. Kipchoge did, and it was one of the most remarkable sports performances I’ve ever witnessed