The Greatest, Fakest World Record

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History’s best marathoner has broken a mythical time barrier. But it doesn’t count as a world record.

By Paul Bisceglio

Early
yesterday morning, in a misty park in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in
less than two hours. His time, 1:59:40, is the fastest any runner has ever
covered 26.2 miles. Kipchoge carved two minutes off his own world record and
became the first marathoner to break the two-hour barrier.

At the
event, branded the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, the performance was heralded as a
radical, historic leap, his “Neil Armstrong moment,” as one announcer said.
Indeed, Kipchoge himself—a soft-spoken 34-year-old Kenyan who dulls the pain of
distance running by smiling mid-competition—has
repeatedly equated his feat to reaching the moon. That comparison is
audacious on the scale of human achievement, but in the galaxy of running, it
might actually be an understatement. Running’s original moon landing, the
sub-four-minute mile, took place back in 1954. Yesterday, Kipchoge launched
running to Mars.

Like the moon landing, Kipchoge’s run was a technical
achievement that required unprecedented planning and support. In fact, it was
so heavily engineered that his new time will not count as a world record.
Kipchoge ran the fastest time ever over the marathon distance, but for heated
reasons that get at the heart of the sport, he did not run a marathon.

One hour
and 59 minutes is fast in a way that’s difficult to comprehend. Despite the
formidable distance, Kipchoge ripped through each mile of his run in about four
and a half minutes. This speed would feel like an all-out sprint to almost
anyone who could keep up with him in the first place. To sustain this
blistering pace, Kipchoge ran under conditions that had been painstakingly and
exclusively arranged to push him beyond the two-hour barrier. The INEOS 1:59
Challenge was not a race by any strict definition: It was simply Kipchoge,
joined by a rotating phalanx of pacesetters, rocketing along the pavement
against the clock.

The
planning that went into the event was a fantasy of perfectionism. The
organizers scouted out a six-mile circuit along the Danube River that
was flat, straight, and close to sea level. 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.)

Kipchoge
himself came equipped with an updated, still-unreleased version of Nike’s
controversial Vaporfly shoes, which, research appears to confirm, lower
marathoners’ times. He had unfettered access to his favorite carbohydrate-rich
drink, courtesy of a cyclist who rode alongside the group. And the event’s
start time was scheduled within an eight-day window to ensure the best possible
weather. The whole thing was as close as you can get to a mobile marathon spa
treatment—if going to a spa were paired with the worst discomfort of your life.

Such an
extensive level of support, combined with the fact that Kipchoge wasn’t
actually competing against anybody, pushed the event outside of official
marathon conditions and prevented his performance from counting as a true
record. The organizers were fully aware of this; the event, as Outside magazine
aptly referred to it, is perhaps best understood as an “exhibition
marathon.” It was a time trial, albeit one that had been scienced to an almost
entirely unrivaled level. The only professional marathon competition that has
resembled it was 2017’s Breaking2, a much-hyped Nike campaign that put
Kipchoge and two other athletes on an Italian motor-racing track under similar
top conditions. They all failed at breaking the two-hour barrier, but Kipchoge
got close enough to convince INEOS, a U.K.-based chemical company that owns
several sports franchises, that two hours could be broken with just a little
more optimization.

But
with great optimization comes great controversy. Looked at one way, the INEOS
1:59 Challenge is a straightforward testament to how money can buy anything,
including a branded sub-two-hour marathon. INEOS, which is owned by Jim
Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, appeared to spare no expense when it came to
either the groundbreaking science or the marketing blitz leading up to the event.
“As 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,” the running commentator Toni
Reavis wrote before the event. “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.”

Corporate
sponsorship is, of course, nothing new in sports, but when it arrives at the
marathon with a monomaniacal focus on time, it rubs against the nature of the
race itself. The 1:59 Challenge was less about Kipchoge exhibiting new
abilities than it was about improving the marathon’s running conditions. But
the marathon as it is popularly run is not really designed for records in the
first place, precisely because of its shifting variables. It would be hard for
a race organizer to design an ideal 26.2-mile course that would still attract
spectators, entertain competitors, and net enough money to justify a race’s
costs. (Imagine running a major marathon on an indoor track.)

By
necessity, then, the marathon has resisted optimization. Different cities have
different courses that are known for their unique challenges. Berlin has
become the go-to race of late for official world records, but while that
course is flat and fast, no one thinks it’s the ideal marathon path. (In fact,
Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei set a jaw-dropping new women’s world
record this morning in Chicago.) Presciently, the journalist Ed
Caesar wrote in Two Hours, a 2015 book about the future of
marathoning, that the only way to pull someone under the two-hour mark would be
to manufacture a marathon entirely for the purpose of speed. Kipchoge’s new
time suggests that part of the reason no one had broken two hours until
yesterday is that marathoning simply hasn’t prioritized it.

“It’s
meaningless,” the sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis said of the new record in
an interview with The Times of London. Pitsiladis
was once a vocal advocate of sub-two attempts, but according to the running
website Letsrun.com, he recently tried to pull together a marathon that
sped runners down a mountain, so that he could point out that two hours can be
broken with relative ease under extreme enough conditions.

And
yet, and
yet
—the most compelling counterpoint to a cynical view of the
performance is Eliud Kipchoge himself. Among a pack of mostly Kenyan runners
who have recently pushed marathoning into a golden age, Kipchoge stands head
and shoulders above the rest. He is the distance’s Michael Jordan, an
era-defining and Kelly Clarkson–loving talent whose credentials—which
include an Olympic gold medal and multiple big-city-marathon titles, on top of
the official marathon world record—were secure well before yesterday.

If
INEOS had found a way to usher any lesser runner beyond the two-hour barrier,
its hyper-calculated efforts could easily be dismissed as too contrived to
merit admiration. But perfect conditions and unavoidable INEOS logos can’t
diminish Kipchoge’s magic. At the heart of the spectacle was still one of
history’s most extraordinary athletes, flexing his skinny legs and giving the
world yet another opportunity to behold him. Kipchoge’s performance was not
necessarily better than some of his other great feats,
but it’s hard to argue that it was any worse.

Yesterday
leaves marathoning with a paradox. The INEOS 1:59 Challenge was indeed a brazen
defiance of the marathon’s spirit. It was also a triumph of humanity. As the
science of running continues to improve and new technologies creep in, that
tension is only going to grow.

In a
televised interview after he crossed the finish line, Kipchoge offered some
characteristic platitudes: Running can make the world a more peaceful and
beautiful place, and he wants to inspire people to get outside and move. But
there was a glimmer in this invitation. He said he wants to inspire his
competitors to move, too—to join him in what is now marathoning’s most
exclusive club.

He
didn’t really have to break 2 to motivate them, though. Two weeks ago, while
Kipchoge was merely dreaming of landing on the moon, a legendary Ethiopian
distance runner named Kenenisa Bekele arrived on Berlin’s famously fast course
and dropped a 2:01:41—two seconds away from Kipchoge’s official world record.

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