In Vienna Oct. 12, Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles in a striking time of 1 hour, 59 minutes, 40.2 seconds, becoming the first human in history to run a marathon in under two hours. Averaging a pace of 4 minutes, 34 seconds per mile, Kipchoge achieved a sports milestone many runners deemed unattainable, a feat which will reverberate in conversations for years. And yet, this doesn’t count as an official world record.
Whether a person is physically capable of running a marathon in under two hours has been endlessly debated. According to sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis, it is a quest that requires utilizing science to entirely push the limits of human performance. Still, why does running this arbitrary distance — its origin allegedly dating back to 490 BCE with a soldier running approximately 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the defeat of the Persian army — in a certain amount of time have the sports community up in arms?
The course Kipchoge ran was designed to optimize speed with ideal weather conditions and flat ground protected by large trees to reduce wind exposure. The pacers ran in a V-formation ahead of Kipchoge to reduce drag, and a car drove alongside him with a laser indicating the ideal positions to run on the road. Nike created special shoes for the simulation, which were designed with a carbon fiber plate in the midsole to increase the energy return with each strike on the ground. With all this applied, Kipchoge broke his own world record by nearly two minutes.
Although Kipchoge’s talent is undeniable, his time in Vienna does not reflect performance in an actual racing competition; rather, it is a simulation of the most perfect and controlled racecourse. Besides the over 40 world-class pacers that ran with him, Kipchoge was the only runner actually completing the marathon. The simulation was sponsored by the British petrochemical company INEOS, whose intention was to create the most ideal running environment to increase the chances of finishing in under two hours. Kipchoge already held the world record for running a marathon, with a time of 2 hours, 1 minute, 39 seconds. According to INEOS chairman Jim Ratcliffe, Kipchoge — who Ratcliffe considers the best marathon runner ever — is the only athlete in the world who had a chance at beating the two-hour mark.
I disagree with Ratcliffe. Even though this was not an official race, Kipchoge’s time will instill the necessary motivation for other runners near the two-hour mark to push themselves further. Roger Bannister immediately springs to mind; in 1954, he was the first person to run a mile in under five minutes, breaking a barrier of similar importance. Bannister, too, was told that this was an obstacle that could never be overcome, yet his persistence and hard work made him victorious. Three years after Bannister’s record, 16 people ran sub-five-minute miles.
Kipchoge and Bannister have both demonstrated how setting your mind to achieve a goal, regardless of a lack of support from others, can help you overcome barriers many would say are out of reach. Granted, the racing conditions provided to Kipchoge are not accessible to everyone, but what I hope to see in the following years are generations of runners gaining self-confidence through Kipchoge’s dedication to excellence. As discussed in my sports psychology class, confidence is the largest determining factor between successful and unsuccessful athletes. One large source of confidence is vicarious experience, which explains the motivation gained by the 16 athletes who ran sub-five minute miles after Bannister.
The under-two-hour time barrier has now been broken, and similar to the aftereffects of Bannister, I expect to see records set by inspired runners in years to come. Kipchoge deserves the recognition for being the first to do so.