By Max Lemmon
Before Roger Bannister, the four minute mile was seen as an insurmountable athletic frontier. Since 1913, mile times whittled down closer and closer to four minutes, until finally in 1954, Roger Bannister ran a 3:59.4 mile. Here was another instance of humans pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible. It would go down as a revolutionary moment comparable to the moon landing.
Nowadays, a sub-four-minute-mile is impressive but not outlandish. More than 1,400 male runners have broken four minutes with 10 being in high school. Bannister had his day, but in typical human fashion, we are not satisfied. Enter Eliud Kipchoge, the new greatest runner in history.
On Oct. 12, Kipchoge, a marathon runner out of Kenya, ran a marathon in one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds. The two hour marathon, like the four minute mile, was a frontier that many thought would be impossible to achieve. In order to run 26.2 miles in under two hours, one would have to maintain a pace of four minutes and 34 seconds per mile, or thirteen miles per hour. To put into perspective how ridiculous that is, the average human running pace is 18.23 miles per hour, and the world record mile time is three minutes and 47 seconds. To run at a constant pace of 13 miles per hour, a pace that would already make a very fast mile time, for 26.2 miles is absolutely mind-boggling.
Kipchoge was born on Nov. 5, 1984, in Nandi County, Kenya. He came from a family of farmers and routinely ran two miles to school every day. At the age of 16, he met Patrick Sang, a former gold medalist in steeplechase, who became his coach. Throughout the 2000s, he was known as a prolific 5,000 meter runner, winning many medals and setting many records. It was not until 2012 that Kipchoge made the switch to marathon running, which has since become his defining race. He quickly became a household name, winning various prestigious marathons and half marathons on his way to setting the marathon world record in 2018 at two hours, one minute and
In almost unprecedented form, Kipchoge had become the world’s best hope to break two hours. In 2017, he ran the first assisted sub-two-hour marathon in the Nike Breaking2 project. He barely missed the mark, running it in two hours and 25 seconds, running literally a second too slow per mile.
So how did he break the barrier? Well, one look at his training camp numbers demonstrate that Kipchoge does not mess around. He averages 140 miles run per week, about five marathons. He trains in Kenya on hard dirt roads at high altitude to train his body to run on as little oxygen as possible. His team literally eats, sleeps, and runs all day,
“Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and passions,” Kipchoge said.
A tremendous amount of work and discipline went into his training, but what about the actual event? It was set on a cool morning in Vienna, on a super flat course with minimal turns to maximize running economy. Everything was perfect. He ran with pace keepers ahead of him to keep him exactly on pace, and to limit wind resistance. The pace keepers were led by an electric car driving at exactly 13.1 miles per hour and projecting a laser diagram of exactly where the runners should run. The pace keepers were switched out regularly since no one else would be able to maintain Kipchoge’s pace. Water was delivered by bike instead of at stations, and even Kipchoge’s shoes were designed specifically for the event, with carbon midsoles to absorb shock from the ground. Kipchoge’s run was a perfectly engineered to give him the best chance at beating the mark.
For an hour and 55 minutes, Kipchoge ran at a perfect pace, without any real drama, until the last mile, where his pace keepers split off to let Kipchoge run ahead alone. He basically sprinted the last mile, running a pace of four minutes and 26 seconds, beating his chest as he crossed the finish line and making a beeline into the outstretched arms of his wife. His fellow runners all celebrated with him, picking him up and parading him around with a Kenyan flag in joy.
It takes someone truly remarkable to redefine the limits of humanity, someone like Kipchoge. However, what is the limit? Surely there is an insurmountable time that humans will simply never beat. For example, running a marathon in an hour is ludicrous, but what really is the limit? It could be Kipchoge’s time, it could not be. We may never know our own limits as a species. However, if we are to learn anything from Kipchoge’s amazing feat, we need look no further than the slogan that follows his legacy.
“No human is limited.”