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Meet Eliud Kipchoge — First Man To Run Sub-Two Hour Marathon Amid Controversy

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Who Is Eliud Kipchoge? New Details On First Man To Run Sub Two Hour Marathon

For many people, simply completing a marathon is a bucket list accomplishment. More serious runners will run more than one marathon and try to beat their own personal records. Elite runners strive for gold medals and world records. One man has now broken every record ever and stretched the definition of what is humanly possible in running.

Eliud Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles in under two hours, becoming the first human being ever to accomplish that feat. The 34-year-old runner from Kenya already held world records for marathon times and has an Olympic medal but this new record is different: no one was sure it was actually possible until he did it. 

Who is Eliud Kipchoge? Read on for the incredible details. 

1. His early years

Kipchoge was born in Kapsisiywa, Nandi District of Kenya in 1984, according to Runners World. His running career started out of a rather basic routine: he ran two miles to and from school every day. When he was in his teens, he met Patrick Strang, an Olympic runner turned running coach, and Strang started training him as a competitive runner. His early competitions were at shorter distances; he was renowned as a 5000-meter racer. He started running long distances in 2012 when he debuted in a half marathon in the Lille Half Marathon in France, placing third with a 59:25 minute time. He won the Boston Half Marathon in 2013 and won the Hamburg Marathon a few months later with a time of 2:05:30 hours, a new course record. 

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2. Major race records

Once Kipchoge started running marathons, he was nearly unbeatable. Between 2014 and 2019, he won the London Marathon four times, the Berlin Marathon three times, and the Chicago Marathon once. He also has a gold medal from the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Beijing. His time of 2:01:39 in the 2018 Berlin Marathon was both a personal best and a standing world record. The prior record had been set in 2014 by fellow Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto who finished in 2:02:57.


A post shared by Eliud Kipchoge (@kipchogeeliud) on Aug 16, 2019 at 5:17am PDT

Kipchoge is the greatest marathon runner competing today.

3. The limits of human speed

The last time a human being really broke a barrier of speed was in 1954 when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes. At the time, that pace was thought to be close to impossible, although Bannister himself claimed that idea was more propaganda than science. The speed record of just over 4 minutes held steady for 9 years but Bannister posited that it hadn't been broken because World War II interrupted the natural improvement of the sport. Athletes were busy fighting the war instead of training. Bannister finally broke the barrier by finishing a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He didn't hold the record for long, however. Just 46 days later, Australian runner John Landy clocked a mile at 3 minutes 57.9 seconds. 

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4. How fast can a person run 26.2 miles?

Running one mile at a blistering pace is one thing but trying to sustain such a pace over 26.2 miles tests the limits of the human body. Elite runners routinely finish marathons in just over 2 hours and have for decades but progress is incremental. For example, the winning time for the London Marathon in 1981 was 2:11:48. In 2019, it was 2:02:37. The notion of running faster than 2 hours was an almost mythical goal, though not considered impossible. In 1991, Dr. Michael Joyner published research that estimated the fastest time for a human could possibly run a marathon was 1:57:58. The paper laid out all the factors that would have to be optimized to break the 2-hour barrier including oxygen levels, lactate threshold and running economy. 

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5. The INEOS 1:59 Challenge

Kipchoge's sub-2 marathon was the result of a sponsored effort to see if it could actually be done. The chemical company INEOS developed the 1:59 Challenge and asked Kipchoge to be the runner for it. From there, scientists and running experts set up conditions to be optimal for breaking the record. Kipchoge was the only runner and everything was set to give him the greatest likelihood of success.

The Atlantic described the set-up of the race as perfection. "The organizers scouted out a six-mile circuit along the Danube River that was flat, straight, and close to sea level," Paul Bisceglio wrote. "Parts of the road were marked with the fastest possible route, and a car guided the runners by projecting its own disco-like laser in front of them to show the correct pace. The pacesetters, a murderers’ row of Olympians and other distance stars, ran seven-at-a-time in a wind-blocking formation devised by an expert of aerodynamics. (Imagine the Mighty Ducks’ “flying V,” but reversed.)"  Biscelgio went on to share that Kipchoge wore shoes designed to maximize performance and had a cyclist riding beside him to provide him with a carb-heavy energy drink whenever he needed fuel. The event was even scheduled within an 8-day window so they could select the best possible weather for the challenge. 

In the end, Kipchoge ran the 26.2 miles in 1:59:40, besting his own world record time of 2:01:39. The Washington Post reports that as he reached the finish of the event he said he expected others to match his time now that he had proven it is possible. “It is a great feeling to make history in sport after Sir Roger Bannister,” Kipchoge said. “I am the happiest man in the world to be the first human to run under two hours and I can tell people that no human is limited. I expect more people all over the world to run under two hours after today.”


A post shared by Eliud Kipchoge (@kipchogeeliud) on Oct 12, 2019 at 1:20am PDT

The record-breaking finish.

6.  Not an official record

Because of all the bells and whistles used to ensure a sub-2 finish, this record won't be recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations. But it's important to remember that while the nature of this challenge was to optimize the conditions to get to the desired outcome, it was only possible because Kipchoge was actually capable of running that fast in the first place. 

As for whether all the assistive technology in this should take the shine off the accomplishments, Dr. Joyner tells NPR it's not so different from the conditions behind Roger Bannister's accomplishment. "Bannister had two pacers, the track at Oxford had been recently refurbished, Bannister was a medical student working on maximum human performance, and his shoes had special ultralight spikes," Joyner said. "I see many parallels between him and Mr. Kipchoge."

Kipchoge's wife and three children met him at the finish line as he became the first person ever to run a marathon in under 2 hours. 

7. The controversy

There’s no denying that this record-setting event wasn’t a traditional marathon. It was never even intended to be one; no other runners were invited to compete and nothing was left to chance. In some ways, this was as much a publicity stunt as a sporting event.

Some naysayers have suggested that Kipchoge’s record is less a testament to athletic ability than to science and logistics engineers creating an optimized course. Everything about the challenge was designed to make sure Kipchoge covered the distance in the allotted time. The course was specially selected, the terrain was modified, the support personnel were hand-selected, even the shoes Kipchoge wore were an unreleased version of Nike’s Vaporfly shoes, which are rumored to actually reduce marathon times.

Commentator Toni Reavis denigrated the event as spectacle in the days leading up to it. “[A]s much as they might like to present this as such, the first sub-2:00 marathon is not like the first sub-4:00 mile, or the first summit of Everest, much less the moon landing,” Reavis wrote.  “All those challenges carried in the public consciousness the possibility of death. This is a second chance marketing exhibition for a plastics manufacturer and springy shoes.”

Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.