On a cold and crazy-windy day, 32-year-old Wilson Kipsang of Kenya cruised through the five boroughs of New York City for 26 miles, and still had the presence of mind to provide spectators an edge-of-the-couch, hollering-hoarse, mano-a-mano throwdown in the last quarter mile. He edged out Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa for the win in 2:10:55.
Kipsang took home $100,000 for his efforts on Sunday, and at the same time, clinched the 2013-2014 World Marathon Majors series title, worth another $500,000. In addition to padding his already robust bank account, the performance in The Big Apple pretty much cemented his status as the best marathoner in the world right now. He's run under 2:05 five times, more than anyone else, ever. He earned a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, set the world the world marathon record, 2:03:23, at the 2013 Berlin Marathon (which was bettered again a few months ago by countryman Dennis Kimetto), and earlier this year, won the London Marathon over perhaps the deepest, most competitive field ever assembled.
That's all well and good, for him. But you trained. You did the long runs, sometimes in lieu of going out for pancakes. You tried to eat healthy and hydrated and dressed in layers and drafted off that big guy and didn't cry openly at 22 miles when every single cell slammed the door on the fingers of your Life Force at the same time (who knew fatigue could hurt that bad?), even as your lower intestine swirled over an exhausted, quivering sphincter. You ran over the same manhole covers and smooshed ex-food products, you covered every bridge and dip that Kipsang did, similarly willing yourself past the subway stops. You scissored your legs in a running-like motion while wearing neon-colored technical fabrics, just like he did. Why were the results so different?
Nuances, I'm sure, but let's look at possible reasons Wilson Kipsang won the NYC Marathon and you didn't.
1. He's been at it full-time since 2007. Forget the running-10K-to-and-from-school Kenyan story; Kipsang lived close to his school and graduated from high school unimpressed with running as a career. He spent three years as a traveling farm supply salesman before reading about Paul Tergat's world record performance at the 2003 Berlin Marathon. Kipsang, 21 at the time, was inspired to start training, and won some local races, but didn't quit his day job. In 2007, in his first go at running outside Kenya, he won and set a world record at a 10-mile race in Germany. No longer a farm supply salesman, he eventually moved up in distance to the marathon and was again rewarded immediately for the extra effort, debuting in 2:07:10, third place, at the 2010 Paris Marathon.
2. He trains at altitude. Kipsang trains in the iconic towns of Iten (7,900 feet above sea level) and Eldoret (6,550 feet). The elevation is similar to Flagstaff in the U.S. The air is thin, so his body has adjusted by producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen. Then, when he raced in New York, which is barely above sea level, the air was lousy with oxygen and he has the adaptations to process it: His muscles worked more efficiently, longer. They required less oxygen to do more work than a runner who's spent his life at sea level.
3. He logged at least three months of 110-plus-mile weeks. That's about 16 miles a day, seven days a week, if you average it. But since the goal is not to run 16 miles many days in a row, but rather 26.2 miles very fast just once, he did some very long, 40K (almost 25-mile) runs and some shorter, faster workouts in the week. That means he regularly covered almost the full marathon distance in training, probably eight times before race day, something few average runners do. One of his favorite marathon workouts, according to a Running Times article, is an undulating 40K dirt road between Iten and Elgeyo-Marakwet County that steps up and up and up again. This brand of spleen melting was interspersed with equally demanding track workouts (elite marathoners have to train for speed to lay down even one sub-5 minute/mile, to say nothing of 26 of them), but Kipsang credits the long runs with his ability to not only maintain, but to actually pick up the pace late in the race.
4. He runs a company that runs him. Literally. Since the mid-1980s, very successful runners like Kipsang have created productive distance running farm teams. They provide housing, food, gear, and sometimes travel expenses out of their racing largess to a raft of young training partners, one of whom might become the next Wilson Kipsang. Having a large group of training partners means on any given day, at least one or two will be able to push him, or take turns pushing him, through a workout. He told Running Times he trimmed his training group from 40 to 15 guys, downsizing his company to make it more efficient, because it was a hassle and expensive (up to $5,800 for a marathon training season) to support that many employees.
5. He does not multitask; he focuses. Kipsang invested his winnings by building a resort hotel in Kenya, which his wife manages. He told IAAF that when he's training for a marathon, he avoids even going to the hotel to cut down on distractions. Other top East African runners move away from their families in training mode, living a spartan, distraction-free life at a training camp.
6. He's tall and lean. At 6 feet tall, Kipsang is taller than most elite marathoners, which can be a hindrance, but he's also very lean—137 pounds. Though he maintains a cadence of 180-190 footfalls per minute, like other top runners, his stride length allows him to cover more asphalt with each step. And he's not dragging much baggage along for the ride. It's hard to quantify how much each extra pound of fat costs because there are myriad factors—weight is muscle, bone, and fat; level of fitness; body conformation—but a rule of thumb is that each pound of fat costs you one to two seconds per mile.
7. He's smooth and efficient. Watch the below clip of Kipsang sprinting the last mile of the 2011 Frankfurt Marathon, which he won in 2:03:42. His head does not bobble; it stays relatively smooth. His arm carriage is low, even though he's nearly sprinting, meaning his upper body is relaxed, helping propel him forward, rather than tensing and hindering forward movement.
8. He ran the final 10K in 29:10. That's ... very fast. The first 20 miles were covered at relatively pedestrian 5:05 minute/mile pace, partly due to the 31 mph wind, either head on or quartering. Even at 18.6 miles, he was on pace for a 2:13:04 finish time. Turning south back into Manhattan from the Bronx, with the wind for the first time, coincided with the critical point in almost all marathons when the long run ends and racing begins. Kipsang had spent many of the early miles tucked in the pack, but he went to the front at 20 miles and dropped the pace to 4:50/mile. And kept going from there. Twenty-one miles, 4:41; 22 miles, 4:37; 23 miles, 4:35 (ouch), and so on, covering the 26th mile, out of the park and onto Central Park South, with only Lelisa Desisa for company, in a blistering 4:33. That's where speed and endurance come into play.
9. He's patient and cool under pressure. The thought occurs to experienced and inexperienced marathoners to make hay while the sun shines: If I feel good at halfway, why not pick up the pace a bit? Kipsang has run 2:03:23, or about 4:42 per mile, so the pace up until 20 miles must have felt frustratingly slow. But he said in the post-race press conference, he was very cognizant of the effect of the wind and the difficulty of the course (in comparison to Berlin's flat, windless course), and exercised extreme patience. The flip side to patience is aggression. In the final 385 yards, after Columbus Circle, both Kipsang and Desisa were being as aggressive as possible, but Kipsang's attack was more controlled. Ross Tucker, of Science of Sport fame, tweeted a delightful Vine of Desisa's last attempt to squeeze by Kipsang, throwing elbows left and right. You can see Kipsang say something to Desisa, and I asked him later what he said: "I said, 'What's wrong? There's plenty of space here.' And then I thought, Now I go." In the heat of battle and utter exhaustion, getting bumped might have thrown off his form or his balance, or distracted his mental focus. But it did not. Kipsang calmly shifted into turbo, still uber smooth, and accelerated away from his broken rival.
Photo credit: Getty Images