Sport

RUNNING MAN

Eliud Kipchoge’s race is far from run as he aims to continue inspiring the world

Eliud Kipchoge’s race is far from run as he aims to continue inspiring the world
Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge crosses the finish line to win the men's category in the Tokyo Marathon 2021 in Tokyo on March 6, 2022. (Photo by KIM KYUNG-HOON / POOL / AFP)

The Kenyan athlete has won almost everything there is to win in long-distance running, yet his road to glory remains seemingly endless.

There are few transcendent athletes in the world, but Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge is one of them. The diminutive long-distance runner is relatable in some ways because he excels at one of the most basic human traits — running.

While most humans share the ability to accelerate from walking pace to something slightly faster, Kipchoge is able to run at a near sprinting speed for two hours. What most of us call ‘running’ is something completely different to the great Olympian and marathon world record holder.

At 37, Kipchoge should be in the twilight of his career. But a life of modesty and healthy living, a schedule that only sees him run a handful of races a year, a steely mind, a machine-like work ethic and of course genetics, mean his race is far from run.

Speaking from Cape Town as a guest of the Laureus World Sports Awards, Kipchoge is up for the 2021 male athlete of the year award. He has been nominated for the Laureus award before but never won, and after retaining the Olympic marathon title in Tokyo last year, he is among the favourites for the prestigious title.

The competition is fierce — Max Verstappen, Novak Djokovic, Tom Brady, Robert Lewandowski and Caeleb Dressel stand in his way, but Kipchoge stands apart.

For a man who has won just about everything in his chosen sport, receiving acknowledgement as the Laureus Sportsman of the Year against athletes from a wide array of disciplines, would be a crowning achievement.

“It is really important for me to win the Laureus award,” Kipchoge said. “But it’s not important for the reasons you might think. It would be important because it could inspire a child, a youth or a person somewhere. Nelson Mandela said ‘sport can bring hope where there was despair because sport speaks to everyone’.

“I want to win the Laureus award to be able to further echo what the patron of the organisation was saying. If I win it will provide a chance to inspire more people, give me opportunities to talk more to the youth. In fact, I will talk more to the human family of the world.”

Kipchoge has already done a great deal of inspiring and has also been at the forefront of testing the limits of human achievement.

‘Moon landing’

Nearly 70 years ago Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile and in 2019 Kipchoge ran the 42.2km marathon in under two hours — one hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds to be precise.

It was not a race in the true sense. It was a planned assault on a barrier of human achievement that was attempted in near perfect conditions and on a near-perfect course in Vienna with the help of pacemakers.

On that day Kipchoge achieved what seemed impossible — like Bannister 68 years earlier — in pushing the boundaries of human achievement further along a limited spectrum through a combination of science, technology, physiology and sheer talent.

It’s a limited spectrum because humans will never run a marathon in a few seconds, but we still don’t know what the ultimate barrier is. Kipchoge proved that it’s not two hours.

He represents the best of humanity in so many ways. Walking and running are the most basic of human traits and Kipchoge is the tip of a seven billion strong spear on the planet today.

Genetic superiority, social circumstances and a long heritage of running have combined to make athletes from specific pockets of Africa create new standards in distance running. Kipchoge’s record-breaking feat has recalibrated what we believe is possible.

African athletes, particularly from East Africa, have dominated middle and long-distance running since the 1960s. When Bannister clocked three minutes 59.4 seconds at Iffley Road in Oxford in 1954 to dip under the mythical four-minute mark, it was a different world.

Bannister achieved what physiologists at the time considered beyond the realms of possibility, but their data was almost exclusively limited to studies of Caucasian athletes from Western countries.

Black African athletes hardly competed in international events outside the Olympics. It was only in the 1960s that the world started to appreciate the latent running talent coming from Africa in particular.

Barefooted Ethiopian Abebe Bikila started the evolution of African middle and long-distance running dominance with marathon gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Bikila’s moonlight finish in the Eternal City, having covered the 42.2km course over Rome’s rough streets without shoes to break the Olympic record by seven minutes 47 seconds, remains one of the greatest athletic achievements in human history.

But even that has to defer to what Kipchoge did in Vienna.

Kipchoge’s one hour, 59 minute and 40 seconds run was described as the athletics’ equivalent of the moon landing or scaling Everest for the first time. The two-hour marathon barrier was broken. And it took almost as many people and as much time as the moon missions to plan and execute.

Maturity

But as Kipchoge has matured and won the titles and accolades, he’s also come to realise that his achievements can be a force for good in the world. Like a training run or a race, he doesn’t want to waste a second.

“Sport has its own unique language — sport can talk to the youth, to the woman, to the man and children in a different way. Sport is the way to go in this world,” he said.

But sport also has a lure for the elite. It tugs at athletes’ egos — even someone without any obvious arrogance or ego as Kipchoge. You don’t rise to the top of the world without self-belief and an iron will to win.

Despite his friendly and sincere demeanour, Kipchoge has made a career of crushing the hopes and dreams of his rivals. He still intends to run the Olympic marathon in Paris 2024 where the chance to become the first man in history to win three consecutive gold medals in the event.

As stated earlier, he doesn’t run often — only two marathon races a year — preferring to peak at the right moment. He won the Tokyo Marathon earlier this year and hasn’t confirmed when or if he’ll run again this year.

He’s only competed in 16 competitive marathons in his career, winning 14. He has won four out of the six ‘marathon majors’ — Tokyo, London, New York, Boston, Chicago and Berlin. Kipchoge has not won New York and Boston, most likely because he has never competed in those races.

He has stated that he wants to win them all before he’s done, which has fuelled speculation that he will compete in New York in November and Boston in 2023.

But when quizzed on his schedule, he was not giving anything away.

“Paris 2024 is actually on my bucket list — it is in the front of my mind,” he said.

“For now, nothing is planned (regarding New York). As always, I will update all of you guys about what will be rolling for the whole year in the next one-and-a-half months.

“I still actually want to run all the six major world marathons. I still want to run big city marathons, where sport is not really featured. I really want to go around the world — in North America, in Indonesia, in Thailand — just to run and to show people that sport is great. It can bring unity, it can make you healthy… it can make you think positively. That’s the only way to make our world a united world.” DM

 

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