I’m going to come right out and say it: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya is the greatest male distance runner—not just marathoner—ever to set foot on this planet. His marathon record—11 starts, 10 wins, an Olympic gold medal, and the world-record—combined with his achievements at shorter distances—two Olympic track medals, world titles in other disciplines, and some of the fastest times in history from 3,000m through the marathon—put him in rare company. Sure, you could make an argument for Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele, or maybe Emil Zatopek or Paavo Nurmi, but none of those men have had the range, consistency, or dominance in their primary event quite like Kipchoge has over the past 16 years. And sure, maybe its recency bias or the influence of our current social media generation coming through here, but none of those other men have captured the interest and imagination of runners and non-runners alike quite like “The Boss Man.”
Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 clocking in Berlin on Sunday should win sports performance of the year, if not the decade. (You can watch the final stretch here.) The best marathoner in history is now the fastest marathoner in history, posting a mark I genuinely don’t think we’ll see broken for quite some time. He broke the world record by 78 seconds—78!—and finished almost five minutes ahead of countryman Amos Kipruto. His splits: 61:06 at halfway, then 60:33 to close it out. That’s 4:38 a mile, or one hundred and five continuous laps of your local high school track at 69 seconds a pop, or cranking up the treadmill to 13 miles an hour for just over two hours (chances are yours doesn’t even go that fast). How long could you have hung with him? Fourteen years ago, at my absolute best, I would have made it about 4K (my 5K PB is 14:39). Right now, maybe 1500m with a thorough warmup and slight tailwind. The average person couldn’t go 400 meters. It’s mind-blowing—and lung-bursting, for that matter—to say the least.
Of course, the performance is already being called into question by those who insist Kipchoge must be cheating and with good reason: many mind-blowing feats over the years—in running, cycling, swimming, baseball, etc.—that seemed too good to be true in fact turned out to be too good to be true. So, like it or not, you can’t fault someone for being skeptical when an athlete does something that defies comprehension, as Kipchoge did on Sunday. (And if you’ve been reading this newsletter long enough, you know that I’ve been cynical regarding certain athletes and performances more times than either of us care to count.)
But on this occasion, I’m choosing to celebrate Kipchoge. I’m choosing, based on what I know about him, his character, his training and racing history, and who he associates with, to believe that he’s gone about his business the right way. I’m choosing to anoint him a global hero during an era when so many athletes have been proven anything but one.
To understand why, read this excellent profile on Kipchoge that Scott Cacciola of The New York Times wrote before the race. It paints as consistent a picture of the man that I’ve read previously and heard from others who know him personally (I don’t) and have spent time with him both at and outside of training camps. Humble, hard-working and honest, Kipchoge “doesn’t play games,” according to Bernard Lagat. “The guy is fierce, and he’s not afraid of anyone.”
Kipchoge has also been consistently great on the grass, track, and roads since he won the junior race at the world cross-country championships in 2003 and beat Hicham El Gourrouj on to win the 5,000m world title the same year. He’s posted fast times from 1500m to the marathon and his progression has been steady through the years. Not coincidentally, he’s also been working with his coach, Patrick Sang, since 2002. Watching the two of them embrace after the finish line in Berlin—Kipchoge sprinted right into his arms upon breaking the tape—made me grab a tissue. Sixteen years of trust, work, and sacrifice went into that one moment and it was beautiful. (Seriously, watch this if you haven’t already.) Amazingly, he hasn’t suffered a major injury his time as a competitive athlete—just watch him run: that is what running should look like—which means his training has built upon itself year over year for 16 years. That is a magic a combination for success if there ever was one.
And while it can be easy to get wrapped up in the enormity of Kipchoge’s physical performances, I think what truly sets him apart is his mind. Listen to him speak. He’s playing the mental game on a completely different level than everyone else. “Mental fitness plays a big role during competition,” he told the Oxford Union Society last November. “If you don’t rule your mind, your mind will rule you. That’s the way I think about this sport.” If you need further proof, just watch how Kipchoge handled himself when his pacemakers all clocked out of work earlier than expected on Sunday. He wasn’t the least bit rattled, despite the fact that he had to forge ahead for the final 45+ minutes with no one else around.
Lastly, Kipchoge surrounds himself with good company. Neither Sang, his representatives at Global Sports Communications, or his training partners from his camp in Kenya have been tied to doping allegations, much less busts, which is both worth noting and keeping a close eye on moving forward.
Of course, I know none of this actually proves Kipchoge is clean, and naysayers like to harp on the lack of testing in East Africa and prevalence of Kenyan positive tests in recent years. I can respect that stance and it’s certainly a valid one. And yet others will point to Kipchoge’s magic shoes, his special sports drink, and other variables that have been optimized in his favor as the x-factors that have led to his out-of-this-world performances. Fine. I understand the disbelief and the need to explain what many feel was/is an impossible feat. But what if, at the end of the day, as Alex Hutchinson wrote for Outside, it was all Kipchoge? What if we were simply watching the greatest distance runner of all-time painting his masterpiece in real-time? What if we were witnessing the greatest feat of human endurance in history? Of course, no one can answer these questions with any real certainty—such is the nature of sports these days, sadly—but that’s what I’m choosing to believe. Because if I can’t believe what I’m seeing every once in a while, what’s the point of staying up until 2 in the morning to watch?