One by one his biggest rivals slipped away, lost in the murk and the mist of an autumnal Berlin morning, until the only opponent Eliud Kipchoge had left was an unheralded Ethiopian, Guye Adola, running his first marathon – and a ticking clock.
Then the unthinkable happened. With five miles to go and the official world record of 2hr 2min 57sec still in his grasp, the greatest marathon runner in history began to wobble. A gap of a metre to Adola became five, then 20. The world-record attempt was gone, and so – it seemed – was an unbeaten record stretching back three years. It was the athletics’ equivalent of a celebrated heavyweight champion being dumped on his pants in the 10th round by an unheralded no-hoper.
But that was merely the first act of the drama. Over the next two miles Kipchoge slowly clawed himself back, only for Adola to blast off again. The Kenyan smiled, although it looked suspiciously like a grimace, and stubbornly went again. Finally, in the 25th of the 26 miles he drew alongside his rival before scooting clear to win in 2:03.32.
At his training camp in Kenya, where Kipchoge takes his turn to clean out the toilets and draw water from the nearby well, his fellow runners call him “the boss man”. Once again he lived up to his billing.
Fourteen seconds back was Adola, who at least had the consolation of knowing he had run the fastest time by a marathon debutant.
Meanwhile, those of us watching were again reminded of athletics’ most essential truth: it is not times, or world records, that really matter but the thrill and unpredictability of the race and chase; of seeing athletes fire up or combust when thrown into the bunsen flame of competition.
Scientists talk about Kipchoge’s high lactate threshold and exceptional VO2 max, which allows his body to more easily transfer oxygen into energy. His pedigree, too, is indisputable: a 2003 world championship gold over 5,000m as an 18-year-old and a full selection of Olympic medals from 2004, 2008 and 2016.
Yet he repeatedly stresses the power of his mind too. “Marathon is life,” he says. “It’s not about the legs, but it’s about the heart and mind.”
Even when his muscles started to scream and break down in the final miles, Kipchoge’s demeanour was that of a running monk, deep in concentration, his head apparently in a different place. Kipchoge could teach Amarillo Slim a thing or two about maintaining a poker face.
His stoicism under fire also brought to mind the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami describing the intense pain of marathons in his memoir-meditation, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – of feeling “like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder – my body felt like it was falling apart and would soon come completely undone”.
Murakami believes that “muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible” and so you have to show them who is boss by challenging them and ignoring their screams of discomfort.
Utilising the power of the mind might sound a bit hokey – if that was all it took we would all be simultaneously rich, world-beaters in our chosen field, and contenders for the Nobel peace prize.
However, in a fine piece in the New York Times, Alex Hutchinson, a scientist and writer, suggested that while he had “sneered at the bromides of self‑help for as long as I’ve known them”, watching Kipchoge up close had made him think differently.
As Hutchinson explained, some physiologists now believe “that your subjective sense of effort, rather than the metabolic state of your muscles, is the final arbiter of your limits”.
“When you feel that it’s impossible to continue, it is,” he wrote. “And consequently, anything that changes your sense of effort alters your limits.”
So telling yourself that everything is fine, rather than you are dying mid-race, can extend endurance – as long as you believe it. Such thinking helped Kipchoge run a marathon in 2:00.25 in the Nike-sponsored Breaking2 project in May, an attempt not deemed legal because an arrowhead of pacers substituted in and out to help him, and again during his darkest moments in Berlin.
However, no amount of self-talk was enough to push him to a world record in Germany. It was not for a want of trying, mind. With Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang and the Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele in the field, along with a lightning-fast course, the bookies made the chances of it being broken as high as 66%.
But that was before the elements spat in the athletes’ faces. It is impossible to know how much the rain, wet roads, 90% humidity and warmer than ideal temperatures cost Kipchoge, but it is not unreasonable to suspect it was more than the 36sec he needed to surpass Dennis Kimetto’s best.
There will be other attempts, of course, most likely starting with the London marathon in April. Then again, having won eight of nine marathons in his career and with an Olympic title to his name too, Kipchoge does not need a record to prove he is the greatest 26.2‑miler in history. His performances tell you that already.