Early on Vienna’s Prater Park looked like a scene out of the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, light fog clinging to the trees half expecting a skirmish line to emerge with percussion cap rifles clattering with bayonets affixed.
Instead, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge came charging out of that mist tucked neatly into the cockpit of his squadron of low-flying reverse-V pacers following green laser lines projected on the road soft-treading headlong into history.
However he did it – pacers, lasers, drinks, and shoes – he still did it! Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance in 1:59:40.2 in Vienna, Austria at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge to become the first man ever to accomplish the feat of finishing 26.2 miles in under 2:00:00. And the world watched in rapt attention.
From Letsrun.com’s Jonathan Gault, concurrent livestream viewers peaked at 779,000 on Youtube while 4.8 million total views have been seen since. (The Red Bull Stratos space skydive in 2012 holds the concurrent livestream YouTube record at nearly 9 million viewers).
It was a simple goal but a monumental achievement, considering that it took over three years to accomplish when you add up the Nike Breaking2 Project that preceded the INEOS 1:59 Challenge. But in the end, the actual running in Vienna proved to be less of a challenge than it had been in Monza.
On Saturday, October 13, 2019, the 34 year-old Kenyan superstar was always in the assaulting position, never under assault from low fuel, fatigue, or doubt.
You kept waiting for a sign of distress, and though the YouTube commentators imagined one around halfway, Eliud dismissed that assessment in his post-race presser. “It was not true.”
Seems the close-but-no-cigar Breaking2 attempt in Italy in 2017 had given Kipchoge the confidence, while organizers and shoe designers provided the other small improvements. So much so that as the distance to the finish shrunk, I began to wonder how low he could have gone if he’d broken free of his proscribed pace of 2:50/km before the final 500 meters when he knew he had fuel to burn. But that’s a whole different story.
Of course, many people in the sport have pointed out that several asterisks must be noted beside Kipchoge’s time what with the replaceable pacers, hand-passed drinks, and laser light pace indicator. And that’s fine. But it’s also inside the bubble. To the public at-large, this was exactly what it was purported to be, history’s first sub two hour marathon.
That’s why beyond any other single thing, including the magic shoes, you have to admit that they got the right man to take up this challenge. And not only from a competency standpoint, but from a PR value angle.
Anyone who watched new women’s marathon world record holder Brigid Kosgei at the post-race press conference in Chicago yesterday realizes that PR acumen and running acumen don’t always converge. In that sense, the sport could not have found a more appealing standard bearer for the first sub-2 marathon than Eliud Kipchoge.
(Why top athletes are not given media training when everyone knows that they will be presented to the media before and after the race escapes me.
In training, athletes work on their weaknesses, not just their strengths. If media presentation is a weakness, where is the hesitance to work on it, or to hire competent translators? Is it because athletes figure they are only going to be around for a short period time, so why put in the effort? Then why don’t event officials and managers demand that athletes work at professionalizing themselves? It’s one thing to be an elite athlete, it’s another thing to be a professional athlete with attending responsibilities. Notwithstanding vast cultural differences between an athletes’ upbringing and the places they ply their trade around the world, it is a huge detriment to the sport when champions turn into ciphers when the running is through.)
Fortunately, Eliud Kipchoge is not one of those media-challenged athletes. Not only is he superbly dedicated as an athlete, but there is a depth, a spirit, and a gentlemanly mien that makes him very attractive to people from any and all cultures.
Plus, notwithstanding the maelstrom of drug controversies and bans roiling the sport, Kipchoge seems to exist in a permanent eye of calm and serenity, a Yoda-like master of the running arts.
While none of that diminishes the questions people on the inside still have regarding the technical tweaks that help shepard Kipchoge to his sub2 – how much of this was the man? How much of this was the technology? – to the general public, this was history, plain and simple.
Now it’s on to the age-old question, what’s next?Maybe it’s that sub-2:10 for women that Brigid Kosgei opened the possibility to in Chicago with her 2:14:04 world record. But shoes and pacers and lasers aside, that’s still got to be a ways off, doesn’t it?
How about we see what Eliud Kipchoge’s great Ethiopian rival Kenenisa Bekele can do now that he is supposedly serious about this marathon business. Wouldn’t that match-up be a worthy follow up to build on the new celebrity enjoyed by Kipchoge outside the sport?
It’s what everyone wants to see, the two best marathon runners going mano a mano in a sub2 shoot out. And if marathons in Dubai or London or Berlin don’t want to do it, then why not find another Jim Ratcliffe with deep pockets and a promoter’s elan, and sign it up? Maybe that’s the new look of professional running going forward, pure exhibitions rather than old-guard annual events.
Ethiopia challenging Kenya for sub2 supremacy? In East African terms, that’s running’s version of the American North and South. Maybe even worthy of a Ken Burns film.