Not too snappy a game in Chicago last night as the NFL’s “nobody-plays-preseason-games-anymore-and-it-shows” 100th season kicked off with a 10-3 snoozer between the league’s oldest rivals, Da Bears (3) and the Green Bay Packers (10). Hopefully, there will be more action in six weeks when the Bank of America Chicago Marathon starts its 43rd running.
When it was first announced that Kenya’s remarkable Eliud Kipchoge would forego another Abbott World Marathon Majors season to make a second attempt at a solo sub-2 hour run over 42.2 kilometers – staged as an exhibition under non-record eligible conditions – I expected that the AWMM men might be less than thrilled. After all, Kipchoge already tried this gimmick two years ago in Monza, Italy rather than defending his London Marathon title from the year before. And of course he got close at 2:00:25.
At the same time, the six Abbott events are trying to build a brand. And so far they have done a pretty good job of it. But when the unquestioned top athlete in their field decides to take his talents off their grid and perform in a pure exhibition instead — Like if Serena Williams decided not to play the U.S. Open in order to stage a Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs type exhibition, how would the WTA feel about it?
So when I called and asked Chicago Marathon executive director Carey Pinkowski what he thought about the possibility of having Eliud Kipchoge make his 1:59 attempt near the same date as his Marathon, I expected some pushback. Instead, the kid that still exists deep in the DNA of the onetime sub-9:00 high school two miler out of Hammond, Indiana and Villanova All-American came through.
“What does he have left prove in the sport?” asked Pinkowski rhetorically. “He’s created an interest you wouldn’t traditionally see that connects back to the sub-4 mile by Roger Bannister. For those not paying attention, he’s brought interest that wouldn’t be there. He’s testing human capacity.”
Well now. That’s mighty understanding of you.
“I was on a panel with Tom Grilk (director Boston Marathon) and Peter Ciaccia (former director NYC Marathon) before the Boston Marathon, and the first question was ‘can Kipchoge break two hours?’. The first question! So I think it’s a positive thing.”
Yes, but won’t that attempt take the focus away from what’s happening in Chicago?
“He’s got the world record in the traditional format. He has set course records and taken on everybody. I believe he can do it. Toni, you know better than anyone, you put fields together and wind up with somebody being sick, somebody else doesn’t get a visa. This (1:59) format creates optimal performance. Tuesday night, let’s go! We go on Sunday October 13th come hell or high water. But this thing you could do at the optimal time to fit the athlete.”
Perhaps some of Carey’s understanding comes from sharing Kipchoge’s shoe sponsor.
“I was in Monza, Italy the day before the (Nike-sponsored) Breaking2 attempt in 2017. The night before it was a little warm. Then it got cooler and overcast and then dead still, and they said ‘let’s do it’.
“The World Marathon Majors are points of time on the calendar. Kipchoge is the greatest of all-time, but can he do a sub-2 under perfect conditions?”
In all the talk about a sub-2 hour marathon, the only runner experts consider as having a chance has been Eliud Kipchoge. Pinkowski looks back and wonders what if.
“I asked Sammy Wanjiru after he won Chicago for the first time (2009, 2:05:41), ‘how fast could you go in Chicago?’ He looked at me. ‘If the pace was perfect and the weather and my shape were perfect, I could run 2:01:45.’
“That was 10 years ago. With this format, you can adjust the day of performance to the athlete and intersect peak performance with perfect conditions. This format is taking the variables out of the equation.
“You know how it is, we all watch weather 10 days out. This guy (Kipchoge) has won Olympic gold in less than top conditions. He’s had his insoles come out of his shoes in London and still won. If we could rotate pacers in and out in Chicago and Berlin…Holy moly! The magnitude of it!
“Too bad we never get these guys together, Eliud and Kenenisa. Imagine if Sammy Wanjiru was still around? He be at his apex and we could be having a completely different conversation.”
Yes, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele is headed to Berlin on 29 September where he set his personal record in 2016 at 2:03:03. As to why this sport can’t foster head-to-head rivalries between its top athletes is a subject for another day.
But the fact that an exhibition is creating more buzz than the top events on the calendar has to be considered less than ideal in advancing the game as a public spectacle in and of itself. What do you doing next after Kipchoge gets his sub-2?
But what Kipchoge’s 1:59 attempts also prove on a smaller scale is how much of a lifelong fan of running excellence Carey Pinkowski is, even when the gimmick competes against his own event in the process. That, itself, is pretty impressive – unlike Da Bears offense last night.