Sometimes I like technology, in this case because YouTube is going to be invaluable in explaining how Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge calmly sliced through Sunday’s London Marathon, covering Her Majesty’s 26.2 miles in 2:03:05, the second fastest (by eight tiny seconds) marathon ever run on a record-eligible course. He’s won six of the last seven marathons he’s run, all quicker than 2:05:30.
(#AllKenyansAreDoping theorists are asked to take their broad, ignorant generalizations and meet me a few paragraphs down for a shin-kicking.)
The ugliness of this world—dudes with guns, scarring acne, fish intestines—is all temporarily swept away by Kipchoge’s run. Truly a thing of beauty. I can speak for lumpy people wearing running shoes everywhere—when oxygen deprivation reaches a certain point, and my grip on reality has quietly slipped away such that I’m thinking, I am strong, I’m an athlete, and I could glide along like this forever—the video below is cued up in my overheated cranium.
Bear in mind, before these final miles, the 24 prior were all completed in similar fashion, within a couple seconds of 4 minutes 41 seconds per. Or, in somewhat human terms, which you can attempt, about 17 seconds for 100 meters (the straight of an outdoor track), done about 420 times without stopping. Kipchoge’s worthy opponent, Stanley Biwott, in the orange vest, shows some wear, bobbing about the head and flailing about the arms. But our efficiently designed man—5'6", 115 pounds—is like a good cocktail: neat and effective. It takes less energy to move a small body over the tarmac.
It’s easy to forget, from his serene facial expression, flowing gait, and admirable control of bodily fluids, that you’re watching something that only two humans, ever, in the history of legs, have done. The tricky part to really categorizing this phenomenon is that running is not like other feats that few people have done, like Chinese acrobatics or hucking off the north side of K2. Almost all people have run, at some point in their lives, and run very fast. Run like the wind. Running is so universal that to be accurate, what’s depicted above requires a different word, a new word.
Having established that few people in my neighborhood can do the activity that Kipchoge is demonstrating, let’s visit a neighborhood where in fact lots of folks can do a pretty good approximation: Iten, Kenya.
This video is courtesy of Evan Scully, who is super out there on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. The fun starts about 1:24 in. Kipchoge is not part of this group, but it’s representative of any number of training groups being chased around dirt roads at thin-and-a-half feet of elevation. Some things to note in the segment above:
- The great herds of guys starting out this brutal workout, 8 x 4 minutes, the 4 minutes being done at a brisk 4:30 per mile pace. This is the environment that produces a runner like Kipchoge. It’s motivating to have a lot of pals out there at dark-thirty, and it’s motivating to try and keep up with the group, and it’s motivating to see first-hand that this brand of suffering will bear fruit—the guy bashing it out next to you is a World Champion, for example.
- That even from a moving vantage point, these guys are hauling ass. According to RunnersWorld, Kipchoge’s go-to workout, longer and more marathon specific than the one demonstrated above, is 13 fast three-minute surges with one minute steady between. He does it once a week as part of his weekly 130 miles.
- If any of these guys slowed down a tiny bit, they’d be under the wheels, and yet, around 3:31, “Thees ees too slow. Eef you do like that, the training ees useless,” yells the Italian coach, loving the horn. At 7:36, the coach bellyaches that dogs, cows, and farmers on the road have no respect, and at 7:49, he pounds on the dashboard to emphasize something. It may or may not be relevant that Kipchoge is coached by a less voluble Kenyan, Richard Metto.
- Living by the beep. The coach beeps, they speed up; he beeps again, they slow down. No thinking, just doing. In his 2012 book, Running With The Kenyans, Adharanand Finn points out that non-Kenyans use their watches to measure, analyze, and calculate their pace. Kenyans, he noted, don’t analyze. They speed up and slow down until they get to the end of the route. Then they stop. “Afterward, no one could honestly tell you how many intervals he’d run. Each session is forgotten as soon as it is done.” The ability to focus on the task at hand—running hard until the next beep—without overthinking or dwelling on performances is something Kipchoge practices every day in training, and can then reproduce when it’s time to hit 4:41 miles until he runs through the tape.
It must be said, London Marathon organizers designed their flat, fast course and their phalanx of hired pacemakers with the Kenyan method of unthought running in mind. There was no need for Kipchoge or any of the other top runners to strategize about surging or worry about hills. Pacers were hired to lead the pack through 10K, halfway, and up to 30K at a pace that Kipchoge and other favorites had requested. No thinking, just doing. The difficult part, no doubt, was finding runners not actively competing in the race who were capable of running close to world record pace for even half of the way. By the time the last pacemaker stepped off the course at 30K, Kipchoge was rolling, just had to keep going until the end. Not that it was easy, but certainly something he’d done before.
Something else that helped the 31-year-old champ boom through the Queen’s backyard is the accumulated knowledge and fitness from the previous 15 years. His IAAF resume is mindblowingly long, wide-ranging, and consistently stellar. For example, the 3:33 1500 meter posting. It’s unusual that a marathoner would have even run 1500 meters professionally, to say nothing of putting up a time that would top most U.S. 1500 meter specialists. This points to Kipchoge’s patient, methodical approach of developing speed and strength first on the track, and later applying that knowledge to the marathon. Many young runners now, impatient for a big marathon payday, are skipping the track and going immediately to that more lucrative event, but Kipchoge’s London performance argues persuasively for the traditional route.
Distance running in Kenya is a legitimate career choice, and by far the most lucrative, so there’s a large number of junior executives. Training runs are all-comer affairs, in which anyone is welcome to show up at the appointed spot and give it a go. It’s a free, democratic and self-selecting process, unlike the U.S. equivalent members-only practice sessions with the same five or six teammates. The Kenyan system affords great opportunity, and great frustration.
Gather round #AllKenyansAreDoping people. You’ve seen a tiny slice of the highly motivated talent in Kenya. There are three spots on any Olympic marathon team, on any World Championship team, and masses of runners pretty able to fill them. In this video alone, four or five unknowns hung with steeplechase star Jairus Birech. Nameless wraiths can almost stick with Eliud Kipchoge and Stanley Biwott, if they’re having a good day. It’s this second-tier-by-a-kneecap bunch who are soooo close to stardom they can smell it. Crap, they’re doing the same workouts as an Olympian. Josephat Sumguy is living on noodles and hope, while Kipchoge has a big house and family and cows, the whole bit. The 40 doping positives Kenya has identified are, by and large, Josephat Sumguys, looking for that little edge.
Uber-talented guys like Kipchoge are, in my humble estimation, not doping. Why would he? Even in a ridiculous talent pool like Kenya, Kipchoge is above and beyond. Add in the fact that he had a long and successful career on the track before moving up to the marathon—he’s been a world class talent for at least 13 years. Dopers either get caught or burn out long before that. Doping is definitely a problem in Kenya, as Canadian Reid Coolsaet said of his January 2016 training trip there, at about 5:15 in this video.
But it’s my undocumented opinion that doping in Kenya is mostly the purvey of second-tier runners, motivated to try pharmaceuticals for the same reason Americans are—they need a leg up against the truly otherworldly talent of guys like Kipchoge. I’m not justifying, but in Kenya, unlike the U.S., the competition is much more intense (hundreds of guys for three spots), the stakes higher (one major marathon win can be the difference between grinding poverty and a life of ease), and up until very recently, PEDs were easy to come by and hard to catch.
I’ll complete my fanfest of the Greatest Of This Time (GOTT) by turning from minutes and miles to intangibles like integrity, humility, and discipline.
According to RunnersWorld, the self-made millionaire leaves his luxurious home and family for three months to prepare for a major marathon like London in the spartan dorms of a training camp. The camps were established as a way for penniless up-and-comers to live and train communally, as Kipchoge did when he first embarked on his running career. Like any other camper, he shares a tiny, bare room, is up at 5 a.m., does chores as assigned—chopping vegetables, weeding the garden, cleaning toilets—washes out his kit between twice daily runs, and hits the sack at 9 p.m. I could not find video of the living quarters, but the clip above, starting at 0:33, shows Kipchoge and other campers on the roads around Kaptagat. Where is the gym? The physio room? The pool? The juice bar? Kaptagat is no Nike Oregon Project:
Kipchoge is soft spoken, sincere, direct. The guy who is, to my mind, the world’s best distance runner, says simply: “I’m looking forward to something better than what I have been running. That’s my thinking always.”
Go out and get some exercise.