When Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, wearing special shoes crafted for the occasion, with runners to pace him, ideal conditions for running ensured within a city park, bested the marathon tape under two hours this weekend in Vienna, he achieved what had once been considered humanly impossible.
The naysayers were not long in emerging from the woodwork. This was not an official record, they said, as it had not been achieved in competition, and the IAAF did not recognise it.
They pointed out that he had been guided by green laser beams shone onto the road and helped by 41 world class athletes choreographed into rotating teams of pacemakers The pacemakers were divided into teams of seven, with five forming an inverted arrowhead in front of Kipchoge and two more behind him and running in stints of 4.8km. They peeled away in the last kilometer, allowing him to finish the race twenty seconds short of the second hour, hands raised in triumph, waving at an adoring crowd.
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For the critics, this kind of a record, notwithstanding how significant, when done outside the confines of a competition, under ideal conditions, was almost impure in its essence, and hence a blot on the purity of the marathon race and the memory of the first marathon runner who had started it all in Ancient Greece.
But is Kipchoge’s achievement actually less than it's being made out to be? Does it actually fall short of being one of the greatest breaches of the physical and psychological barriers that limit humans, because it was held outside open competition, enjoyed favourable conditions, and was not blessed by the IAAF?
Before we strive to address these questions, it is perhaps worth asking how traditional and how pure is the marathon itself?
Legend has it that Pheidippides, an Athenian courier, was sent to Sparta to request help when the Persians landed at Marathon in ancient Greece. He then ran about 240 km (150 mi) in two days, and then ran back. He was then requested to run again the 40 km (25 mi) to the battlefield near Marathon and back to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon. He did it, uttered the words, ‘We win’, collapsed, and died.
While this is a good story with plenty of romance in its telling, it’s almost certain that it never really happened. Herodotus, who is credited with the story, never wrote about such a person.
This is the reality — there was indeed a battle of Marathon and a Greek victory, but there is no such run recorded in Greek history, and no such runner.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, using every ounce of his French romantic strain and perhaps aided by a desire to market a good story, had included the marathon race from Marathon to Athens as the crown jewel of the first modern Olympics in 1896. For good measure, the committee he headed even held the first version in Greece.
Legend was thus to become a tradition.
In 1896, when Greek water carrier Spiridon Louis won the first marathon ever held, he finished in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. But the distance he ran was 40 kilometres, following the path taken by his mythical Athenian colleague.
It would be left to the British (who else?) to standardise the distance at the London Olympics in 1908. But since Marathon was a few thousand miles away, the British decided to ‘standardise’ the distance with what must be said to be a fairly random measure, being the exact distance between Windsor Castle (the starting point of the London race) and the finish line inside the White City stadium.
This then is the history of the marathon - a race touted as the continuation of a great tradition, perpetuating a myth of a run that never took place, run originally over a distance that was arbitrarily changed by the British 12-years later, and then ‘standardised’ for ever more.
Since 1896, the race has been run over every imaginable kind of surface and weather - on flat desert plains and over inclines, in the European cold and in the debilitating heat of Qatar, assisted by and struggling against the wind. In short, there never has been a ‘standard marathon’, not recently, and never in history. Kipchoge’s achievement then fully deserves to be compared to some of the greatest human barrier breaking feats in athletics history.
Since 1896, the race has been run over every imaginable kind of surface and weather - on flat desert plains and over inclines, in the European cold and in the debilitating heat of Qatar, assisted by and struggling against the wind. In short, there never has been a ‘standard marathon’, not recently, and never in history.
Kipchoge’s achievement then fully deserves to be compared to some of the greatest human barrier breaking feats in athletics history.
On 6th of May 1954, running the distance of a mile, at Iffly field, Oxford, Roger Bannister breasted the tape at 3:59.4, breaching the 4-minute mark, not considered humanly possible until then. The new sub-four minute mark that had never been imagined, would only remain in the record books for another 46-days. It may not be well remembered, but just like Kipchoge’s Vienna marathon, Bannister’s Oxford run was designed specifically to let him try and achieve a sub-minute mile. Helping him, were two pacemakers.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, an even less imagined physical barrier would be breached. American long jumper Bob Beamon, took off on a normal trajectory as he had done every training day, and landed two feet beyond the mark any human had ever touched before. Beamon’s mark of 29 feet 2.5 inches stood for over two decades until Mike Powell bested it in 1991. Exactly how incredible Beamon’s jump was at the time is evidenced by the fact that it had to be measured manually because the equipment used had not factored in the possibility of that extra two feet.
Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge made history, busting the mythical two-hour barrier for the marathon on a specially prepared course in a Vienna park. With an unofficial time of 1hr 59min 40.2sec, the Olympic champion became the first ever to run a marathon in under two hours.
A similar situation would arise at Montreal in 1976 when a teenaged Romanian gymnast and her trainer stood stunned after a brilliant performance staring in disbelief at the electronic scorecards showing that Nadia Comaneci had scored merely 1 out of a possible 10. A few seconds later the judges stood up in unison to announce that Comaneci had become the first gymnast in the history of the sport to score perfect tens. The imagination of the equipment makers once again, had not kept pace with possible reality.
Whenever such seemingly insurmountable marks are put behind us, in every case it has been the triumph of mind over the body, not one body over another. Each one of these athletes may have been competing with others when they achieved the seemingly impossible, but the barriers they breached were done alone, conquering their personal demons, refusing to acknowledge the impossible, and striving every moment so they could stand atop their private Everest.
This weekend in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon alone, just as the legendary Pheidippides had purportedly done more than two thousand years ago. The news that he brought us of the triumph of spirit over body, deserves to be greeted no less joyously than the tidings of Greek victory that Pheidippides carried.
Alongside Beamon’s two feet that changed the paradigm of how far mankind can leap when it truly tries, Kipchoge’s might just be the most important twenty seconds saved in the course of human evolution.