Portrait of a Master: How Eliud Kipchoge wrote his name in history.

Eliud Kipchoge’s record breaking race in Berlin was decades in the making. This wasn’t a flash in the pan or a fortunate race in the right conditions, rather it was the fulfilment of a lifelong commitment to the marathon, executed flawlessly. To best understand the 33-year old’s 78-second revision of countryman Denis Kimetto’s 2014 2:02:57 world record run, it is vital to first understand Kipchoge as an athlete.

Following Kipchoge’s 2016 London Marathon victory, Oxford University extended an invitation to Kipchoge, inviting him to speak on his career, training philosophies, and experimental performance at Monza race track during Nike’s ‘Breaking2’ project at the prestigious Oxford Union.

Oxford Union’s halls have previously played host to the likes of the Dalai Lama and Albert Einstein. The magnitude of the occasion was not lost on Kipchoge, who provided an articulate, purposeful speech. Kipchoge described the mind as the most important tool in racing, highlighting the role his self-belief played in attempting to break 2 hours for the marathon.

In Kipchoge’s most telling moment of his talk at Oxford Union, he paused to paraphrase author Stephen Covey, “Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your emotions and your passions. That’s a fact.”, repeating the phrase for emphasis.

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Kipchoge is a living example of his favourite philosophers. As the most dominant runner of his time, Kipchoge has earned in excess of $2 million US dollars in recent years. Living and training in a nation where the average annual wage is $1200 US Dollars, one might expect Kipchoge to lead a lavish existence in a personalised training camp.

However, throughout a training block Kipchoge resides in Kaptagat, a village 40 kilometres east of Eldoret, the location of Global Sports Communications (GSC) training base, housing 20-30 athletes at a time. Inside a basic single-bed dormitory lies the Olympic marathon champion, responsible for completing allocated household chores (including toilet scrubbing), drinking tea and quietly reading the works of Aristotle, Confucius and businessman Stephen Covey.

Kipchoge is a husband and father of three, but above all of that he is an athlete that prioritises a level of unwavering focus. Committing entirely to the marathon distance, his visits home from the GSC camp are sparing, often seeing his family once a week.

 

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“Only the disciplined ones are free in life. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your emotions and your passions.

That’s a fact.”

At this point, I’d encourage fans to take a moment and think of another sport’s generational great, one of the most dominant athletes in history, who could similarly be found sweeping the floors of the team training complex. In this environment, Kipchoge displays an unparalleled commitment to the training environment, as evidenced by his prophetic explanation of his living situation, “Remember in sport, what you have is Hero’s formula. If you are a hero, then you have a formula and that says 100% of myself is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team, and vice versa. 1% of the team is nothing compared to 100% of myself, and that’s the meaning of teamwork.”

As rhetorically queried before, you may see a pattern emerging, one would be hard pressed in finding a fellow Olympic champion who freely references a 2,000 year old Greek mathematician from memory…

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Sunday’s Berlin Marathon victory was the product of over a decade of discipline, as Kipchoge was forced to cover the final 17-kilometres alone, drawing upon the composure and experience that the world first saw in 2003 when he claimed the 5000m World Championship at 18.

Kipchoge’s personal training partner, Sammy Kitwara of 58:48 half-marathon fame (and a 2:04:28 marathoner), withdrew unexpectedly at the 14 kilometre mark despite being assigned to run to 30 kilometres. Bernard Kipkemoi’s disappearance at 15 kilometres left debutant pacer Josphat Boit in a seemingly disastrous situation. A 59:19 half-marathoner in his own right, Boit grit his teeth and forged onward, delivering Kipchoge through halfway in 1:01:06, a mere six seconds outside the requested target.

As noted by broadcast commentator Tim Hutchings, the loss of pacemakers this early in proceedings may have signalled the end of a world record bid for less experienced athletes. At the time of Kipchoge’s pace team woes, Wilson Kipsang was 30 seconds in arrears with a flock of three pacemakers, one of whom continued to 30-kilometres, a substantial perceived advantage.

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Pundits around the world suggested such an unexpected series of errors could unsettle Kipchoge. Sammy Kitwara was selected specifically due to his major marathon experience, having run 2:05:15 as recently as 2017. The implosion of such a hand-picked group was highly unusual, given the chosen pacemakers train alongside Kipchoge under Patrick Sang’s tutelage. A close personal connection and familiarity is surely required to trust teammates to maintain such a daunting pace with metronomic accuracy.

Surviving valiantly to 25 kilometres, a 5-kilometre section in 14:28 was too much for Boit and he was forced to let Kipchoge go. At this point Kipchoge entered truly uncharted territory, eclipsing the 30-kilometre mark in 1:26:45, 28 seconds faster than his own world record split from the 2016 London marathon, 53 seconds ahead of Kimetto’s 2014 world record performance.

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A marathon world record requires measured patience, as an athlete often runs within themselves in the early stages of a race, the relative ease of marathon pace often proving a deceptive enemy as the finish line beckons. The final 17-kilometres of the Berlin marathon were nothing short of a masterpiece, as Kipchoge grinned ear-to-ear, unleashing a phenomenal series of splits. The ghosts of past mishaps were banished as the greatest marathoner in the world arrived at 35-kilometres in 1:41:12, and 40-kilometres in 1:55:32. His consecutively faster 5-kilometre splits of 14:28 and 14:21 placed Kipchoge on the precipice of one of the greatest athletic feats in sporting history.

Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 was composed in audacious fashion, a negative split of 1:00:33 following an opening half of 1:01:06.

A reserved man, Kipchoge allowed himself a rare moment of unbridled joy whilst crossing the finish line, raising his arms skyward before placing his hands on his head in utter disbelief, racing toward his coach Patrick Sang. The pair embraced as the appreciative crowd roared, Kipchoge cemented as the undeniable master of the marathon.

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His next step was faintly hinted at in post-race interviews, suggesting a return to Berlin will be at the forefront of his mind.

When quizzed further on the topic, Kipchoge remarked “My plans are a blank piece of paper. I normally go by one plan at a time and my plan was to run the Berlin marathon. Now, I will take some time to myself for recovery. I have a family, so I spend time with them. I like reading some books to get some stories from around the world.”

If Monza and Berlin have taught us anything, Kipchoge’s magnum opus on asphalt may still lie ahead of us.

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