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Eliud Kipchoge points to the crowd of spectators as he sprints to the finish line. Photo: Jed Leicester.

It was the feat of endurance that echoed around the world, one whose seismic impact will ripple for decades, possibly in eternity. Cathal Dennehy was there to witness the magical moment when marathon history was made, and to see the impossible become possible

When the two-hour marathon barrier was finally broken in Vienna, Austria in October – albeit in highly contrived circumstances – it was no surprise the world of running, for one splendid day, seemed united in celebration. Much of that was down to the personality of the man at the centre of it all, a 34-year-old athlete from rural Kenya who, in one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds, did something so many had deemed impossible. Eliud Kipchoge: the best there’s ever been.

On course for greatness

“I have made history,” he said. “My dream has come true.”

For the Olympic marathon champion, who was already the official world record holder at 2:01:39, this had been an obsession for years. Everyone who knew the sport knew we were many years, possibly decades, away from seeing a sub-two-hour marathon in a genuine race, so if that barrier was to fall during Kipchoge’s time, this was how it had to happen.

The rules would be bent by utilising teams of pacemakers, 41 in all, to ensure Kipchoge had athletes in front of him for the duration of the attempt. Five ran in front in a V-formation, with two just behind to either side, Kipchoge at the centre of an X-shape in what was found during testing to be the most aerodynamic. 

The rules for official world records also stipulate that drinks should be taken from a table, but to save time, Kipchoge was handed his from a bike. Other than that, it was much the same, with the course within the required specifications for net elevation drop and the task ahead of Kipchoge a giant one: 26.2 miles at 4:34 per mile. 

The course – the Prater park in Vienna – was picked after a worldwide search using software to find locations with ideal parameters in temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, elevation and precipitation. 

Apart from the initial elevation drop of 16 metres on the way to the park from the Reichsbrücke bridge, the 9.6km circuit was virtually flat, with just 2.4 meters of elevation change. They called it the Ineos 1:59 Challenge, bankrolled to the tune of €15m by the petrochemical company owned by Britain’s richest man, Jim Ratcliffe. 

Heart and sole

No stone was left unturned, with much of the road resurfaced in the Prater to optimise his chances. The biggest performance gain, however, undoubtedly came from Kipchoge’s shoes, a controversial topic in distance-running, given the slew of records that fell since Nike introduced its Vaporfly 4% during its Breaking2 attempt in 2017. 

The shoe features a carbon-fibre plate to help propel athletes forward, and in April this year Kipchoge wore its latest version, the Vaporfly Next%, which was 15g lighter and featured a thicker midsole. The prototype he wore in Vienna, the Alphafly, was far more effective than its predecessors. 

And it showed. From the start, Kipchoge never seemed to have a worry, slotting in behind his pacemakers and running with the calm, composed rhythm we have come to expect. He has won 10 straight big-city marathons in a row and, such was his consistency in recent years, that he began to seem invincible.

Kipchoge’s sub-2

The shoes
By now, there is no doubt: the Nike Vaporfly shoes have changed the game of distance-running beyond recognition. While all other elite runners this year were wearing the most recent incarnation of the Vaporfly shoe, the Next%, Kipchoge was given access to a prototype that is set to become available to the mass market in 2020: the Alphafly. Nike remained tight-lipped about the composition of the shoe, but an industry insider told Irish Runner that it’s substantially more efficient than the Next%, featuring three carbon fibre blades which are layered in a far thicker midsole. 

The drinks
Shoes are not the only area where giant strides have been made in recent years. For a long time, the world’s best marathon runners relied on basic carbohydrate drinks that took considerable time to be utilised effectively when consumed during the race. But a Swedish brand, Maurten, has created a line of drinks using new technology, which means the liquid converts to a hydrogel when it reaches the stomach and as such, is utilised much faster as an energy resource. From elite marathon runners to Tour de France cyclists to Premier League soccer players, Maurten’s products are becoming the go-to, in-competition drink for the ultra-elite, with the biggest brands in the industry finding themselves out-performed by a small, Swedish upstart that has only 30 employees in total. 

The science
There is no substitute for fitness, and when Kipchoge arrived in Vienna, those around him knew he was in the best shape of his life. For that, the chief credit must go to Patrick Sang, whose common-sense coaching since Kipchoge was a teenager has seen him develop into an all-time great. But even Sang changed his methods in recent years, incorporating strength and core stability training in Kipchoge’s routine. Since 2016 Kipchoge has also worn a chip in his training shoe that collects data on his stride, pace and much more. While his diet was always healthy, with lots of organic vegetables, ugali and some free-range meat, Kipchoge began working with a nutritionist in recent years to optimise the quantity and timing of his intake. Small changes, but they added up to him taking to the start line fitter than ever before.

No limits

What unfolded over two hours of pure sporting theatre in Vienna only lent credence to that, Kipchoge staying on pace through 41km, then cranking it up as he sprinted to the finish, waving to the crowds in celebration.

Local police estimated over 100,000 people had been in attendance and the atmosphere was raucous as Kipchoge was hoisted atop the shoulders of his pacemakers, amid a sea of joyous scenes. 

“I had put it in my heart and mind that I could run under two hours and I wanted to send a message to the world that no human is limited,” he said. “The message is now in everybody’s mind, that if you put it in your heart and your mind and say it in your mouth, then it can be realised.”

In the post-race press conference, one British journalist asked Kipchoge why he appeared to be struggling at the halfway point when the half-smile, half-grimace that is usually his distress signal first appeared on his face. “It’s untrue,” Kipchoge said with a cheeky grin.

Back home in Kenya, tens of thousands had gathered in the streets to witness his historic feat on big screens, while almost a million people watched the finish on YouTube, with many more watching on TV channels around the world.

Kipchoge said he wanted to ‘rally the world, not only Kenyans’. Sport, he said, is ‘where you can unify the whole world’.

Later that night, the organisers hosted a huge party in Vienna for all those involved: athletes, agents, support staff and sponsors. While alcohol flowed and a few hundred people partied into the night, Kipchoge stayed sober and opted out early, returning to the hotel room to be with his wife and children. 

He had joined the immortals, but that was a status this modest, mild-mannered Kenyan had earned long before he achieved the impossible. This, like everything that came before, wouldn’t change him.

“I’m a believer that if you climb to one branch,” he said, “then you reach for the next branch.”

Eliud Kipchoge celebrates breaking the two-hour barrier for a marathon distance with supporters and his team Photo: Thomas Lovelock.

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