Eliud Kipchoge becomes first person to break two-hour marathon time

Eliud Kipchoge made history on the streets of Vienna this morning
Eliud Kipchoge made history on the streets of Vienna this morning Credit: Reuters

Beating his chest triumphantly as he crossed the finish line barely out of breath, Eliud Kipchoge knew he had provided proof. Proof that humans are capable of running a marathon in less than two hours and proof that the impossible is, in fact, possible.

Irrespective of any misgivings surrounding the circumstances of his time trial run in Vienna on Saturday morning, Kipchoge had managed something truly astonishing - something that will go down in the history of man’s greatest achievements. Where were you when Kipchoge ran a marathon in one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds?

The dilemma comes in knowing this was not simply the physical brilliance of a man who is undoubtedly the greatest marathon runner in history, but also a feat of technology. While it succeeded in captivating an audience worldwide, for many this was not sport but a science experiment conducted by people with self-serving interests.

The chemical company Ineos, owned by Britain’s richest man Jim Ratcliffe, had spent a reported £15 million on the event and every element was conducted with such military precision it was impossible not to be impressed.

From the Prater park road which was relaid in recent weeks, to the bright green grid projected by laser from the pacing car and ensuring a near-perfect even speed; from the flawless mid-run changeovers in pacemaker personnel, to every steward being equipped with a broom to sweep away any falling leaves; from the meteorologists who narrowed down an initial eight-day window to a precise 8.15am start time, to sending Kipchoge’s used bottles to a nutritionist for in-race analysis. Nothing - absolutely nothing - was left to chance.

Eliud Kipchoge was flanked by pacesetters throughout the race Credit: Reuters

At the centre of it all was one humble man from Kenya. Kipchoge, 34, had always been adamant he did not care that this would never count as an official world record due to the manufactured nature of the event. He already holds the official marathon world record of 2hr 1min 39sec - not to mention the Olympic title and numerous major marathon victories - but this was a chance to do what no other person had ever managed. He achieved it with such ease it is natural to wonder how much quicker he could have gone.

“I am the happiest man to run under two hours to inspire people, to tell people that no human being is limited,” said Kipchoge. “You can do it. If you believe in something and put it in your mind and heart, it can be realised.”

Kipchoge’s day had begun with a 4.50am alarm call before a breakfast of oatmeal and plenty of time to prepare mind and body for the task ahead. It was, he said, “the hardest time in my life”. A day earlier, the president of Kenya had called to wish him well and his wife and three children had travelled to Vienna to watch him run for the first time in his illustrious career.

That pressure dissolved as soon as the gun went. Unlike a conventional race, which ebbs and flows due to the unpredictable nature of sport, this feat remained strangely static throughout. Until the moment Kipchoge broke free to run alone in the final few hundred metres, nothing deviated from start to finish.

There was Kipchoge, dressed in white and wearing prototype Nike shoes, flanked by seven black-shirted pacemakers in arrowhead formation to shield him from the wind. There were support personnel cycling by his side, ear pieces attached, in constant contact and ready to hand deliver fluids direct to Kipchoge so he need not veer even a metre off course. There were also thousands of fans who had flown around the world to line the streets and watch history being made. It was enthralling - a lesson in how to turn one man’s marathon run into so much more.

Courtesy of the pace car, the speed barely changed throughout. The quickest kilometre was run in 2min 48sec; the slowest in 2min 52sec. It did not just happen by chance. Precision was the order of the day.

Then there were the shoes. The existing version of the Nike Vaporfly trainer is so effective that international runners sponsored by other companies have attempted to hide the fact they are wearing them by drawing over the Nike branding. With their carbon plate and huge foam midsole, they have been described by some as legal doping.

Consider that Kipchoge was wearing a previously unseen version still in its testing phase. New, even more advanced, technology. Perfectly legal of course, but a total game changer - arguably the single greatest innovation in long-distance running.

But for all that, a man was still required to fulfil the task. One human had to take all that technology and careful planning, and harness it to achieve the impossible. Kipchoge was that person.

“It’s superhuman really,” was Ratcliffe’s verdict. “I can’t believe he did it. Remarkable that we’ve actually pulled it off.

Eliud Kipchoge celebrates as he prepares to cross the finishing line Credit: Reuters

“There are no guarantees in sport. A two-hour marathon is meant to be unachievable. It’s almost unbelievable that anyone can do that.”

When Roger Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute barrier for the mile 65 years ago, he did so with the aid of pacemakers in what was a race by name only. Interestingly, because of the help he received, he would later rank the achievement as insignificant in comparison to his other triumphs. Yet his feat is still hailed by people who were not even alive to see it.

What Kipchoge achieved on a chilly Saturday morning in Vienna will be as well.