Eliud Kipchoge is the first man ever to run a marathon under the 2 hours barrier. It happened this October, 2019, in Vienna. The Kenyan achieved a time of 1:59:40. It is the new symbolic world record and made history with a milestone once believed to be physiologically unattainable.
As a runner myself, once I heard about Eliud’s staggering performance, I didn’t believe it immediately. To run a marathon under 2 hours (which was Eliud’s whole purpose), he had to run sustaining an inhuman pace over the entire mileage. I honestly don’t know how much I’d resist at such a high speed, but certainly not for too long. So how is this possible for a human?
Well, Eliud Kipchoge is the runner version of free-soloing beast Alex Honnold, when he climbed El Capitan (a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park of about 3,000 feet from base to summit along its tallest face) without a rope attached to prevent him from falling and die. To achieve this level of mastery, they both had to exceed perfection, with no human error or limitation whatsoever.
Something similar to a perfectly engineered machine. A combination of great genetics, high talent, rock-solid mindset, and extreme physical preparation to surpassing physiological boundaries. Eliud, like Alex Honnold, had to leave the realm of humans to achieve such performance. Here is what I discovered!
Modeling: optimal marathon performance based on physiological factors
Michael J. Joyner is an American anesthesiologist and physiologist who researches exercise physiology. He published a paper stating that if a runner had a perfect running economy and huge VO2 max and an enormous lactate threshold, in theory, he could run in 1:57:58. You can see the paper here. So according to Michael, it was humanly possible to run a marathon under 2 hours, but under absolutely perfect circumstances.
Let’s see what VO2 max and lactate threshold is:
“VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. It’s a combination of how much oxygen-rich blood your heart can pump and the muscle efficiency in extracting and using the oxygen. Since oxygen is critical to running fast, your VO2 max is the single best measure of running fitness.” (source: Oxygen For Life)
In other words, as exercise intensity increases, so does oxygen consumption.
“The lactate threshold is the maximal effort or intensity that an athlete can maintain for an extended period with little or no increase in lactate in the blood.” (source: lactate.com)
These two main factors are significant, and genetics play a role as well. For endurance, besides the maximal oxygen consumption, the so-called lactate threshold, the efficiency is as critical (i.e. the oxygen cost to generate a give running speed or cycling power output).
But there is a lot more than just that. The Italian physiologist Mosso who was interested in fatigue associated with manual labour, noted: “It is not will, not the nerves, but it is the muscle that finds itself worn out after the intense work of the brain”. Mosso also commented that “fatigue of brain reduces the strength of the muscles” (DiGiulio et al. 2006).
“The body, however, does not readily use fat alone as a source of energy; disturbances may arise in the metabolism; it will be necessary to feed a man with carbohydrate as the effort continues. Such feeding will be followed by digestion; disturbances of digestion may occur – other reactions may ensue. For very long distances the case is far more complex than for the shorter ones, and although, no doubt, the physiological principles can be ascertained, we do not know enough about them yet to be able further to analyze the curves.’ These comments and the work of Scandinavian physiologists in the 1930s set the stage for the concept of carbohydrate loading and a number of dietary and feeding strategies that have been shown to delay fatigue.” (Christensen, 1939; Sherman & Costill, 1984; Murray, 1998)
Inhuman Split Pace/Mile
I have to show this video from Athlean-X to demonstrate how fast his speed was:
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When you stop and think what @kipchogeeliud just did, and break it down like this – it becomes even more unbelievably impressive than it already was!! A sub-two hour marathon time! That means he was running at a 13mph pace! Here’s Jesse trying to keep up. Problem is…after 20 seconds he was wiped. Try doing this for another hour and fifty nine minutes. Just insane! Much respect brother! Now, Jesse can we discuss that Forrest Gump running form?? #eliudkipchoge #amazing #twohourmarathon #runjesserun #lookslikeforrestgump #imnotasmartman #running #jeffcavaliere #teamathlean #athleanx
That is a sprint pace for most of us. I am a former swimmer, and also run a lot of mileage every week throughout the trails of my nearby mountains. I am used to running on rough terrain and for distances higher than 20 and even 30 kilometers. And honestly, I don’t know how many minutes I’d last at Eliud’s world record-breaking pace. Probably not many! Let me put it this way. Kipchoge is his competition. Before the challenge, he stated:
“It’s not about competing; it’s not about anything else. It’s about making history; it’s about changing the way human beings think”.
The team that ran in front of him as pacers (runners follow or stay with the pacer, to ensure that they’re running at their desired speed), are world-class runners. They helped him keep a steady, consistent run to finish under 2 hours. Imagine that 10 people on Earth can run a marathon in under 2 hours and 5 minutes. And Kipchoge is the fastest!
His pace was 13.1mph (4:34 minutes per mile). That’s lightning fast! The team of pacers didn’t only keep Eliud at a steady pace. They provided shelter against wind. More so, the group followed a fully electric car that projected a laser guide showing them the paceline.
Kipchoge ran in Vienna only an hour behind his time zone in Kenya, which means that his body clock was perfectly synced.
At this level, absolutely every detail had to reach perfection. That involved a team as he said:
“It takes a team. It takes dedication. It takes belief. Together we have worked, and we have sacrificed. We have become champions, record holders, teammates, and family. We have won, we have lost, and we have grown. What does it take to bridge 26 seconds? What does it take to break the impossible? It takes a team.“
Eliud’s Training Camp
The world’s most excellent long-distance runner kept himself very consistent lately by setting the world record last year for a marathon and winning the London marathon too. The therapist who ensured that Eliud’s body is in peak performance stated that he is very dedicated to the program. He knew what he had to do and handled the whole preparation as expected. He got many massages, therapies, even cold water baths to prevent any injury.
Eliud wasn’t alone in the training camp. A whole squad trained with him, side by side all the time. And the numbers are almost unbelievable, up to 140 miles a week. That’s 225 kilometers covered every week, cumulating up to 5 marathons every week for months on end. They trained a lot on trails at an altitude of 2400 meters, where the oxygen level is lower, and that helped him improve his performance at lower elevations in Vienna. Here, the course was almost entirely flat, close to sea level, where he had plenty of oxygen around.
They didn’t only run distances rather more reachable by car. But they had to keep Kipchoge run at least 4:35 per mile pace, or other said, 13.1 mph.
In Vienna, it was Kipchoge’s second attempt to break the 2 hours barrier. He failed in the first. When Michael Joyner got interviewed, he said he could have done it the first time, in 2017 if it had been 5-10 degrees cooler.
His training camp was in Kaptagat, Kenya. And maybe you’d expect from the world’s best runner to train on a brand new athletic field. In reality, they didn’t live in comfort whatsoever nor they had too much technology around to distract them. There was an entire crew united under the same goal as a family.
His food was traditional — nothing fancy to post as Instagram daily. In the video, you can see him drinking tea, eating bread, rice, potatoes, beef, and even Coca Cola:
He stood and trained in the camp for six days a week. One day off to visit his family. In the training camp, everybody seems to be friendly and supportive with each other. They held gatherings among themselves to show gratitude for the hard work and dedication. It indeed was a team effort.
Maybe the other vital factor to take into consideration is the pair of shoes Nike specially designed for him. But let’s not think for a second that the Kipchoge is a byproduct of highly developed technology. He is the best because of his choices, environment, hard work, dedication, genetics, influence, and lastly, because of the technology.
Kenya Produces The World’s Best Runners
Eliud Kipchoge isn’t the only Kenyan champ out here. Kenya produced more world-class winners than any other nation.
They don’t train on up-to-date athletic fields. To go and see Lionel Messi at his training in Barcelona, you can only do it under strict supervision. In Kenya, you get inside on the athletic field, and you can watch the world’s best runners in action. If not, you can find them running on the trails of their country.
They behave very supportively with each other. A champ is training side by side with the junior division. This way, they get motivated and also keeps the champ grounded, reminding him where he belongs, within his mates. A positive and humble atmosphere is present there. Their mission is to win and support their families by providing through elite results in athletics.
Media isn’t there to mess their focus. They don’t have distractions like Facebook, Instagram, and so on. They attempt school and get the education, then they train twice a day, having the support of their families behind.
The climate and life itself are made for outdoor activities in Kenya. They don’t stay inside of a home. Many of the kids are good runners before they even start athletics as a disciplined sport. They usually run to school, go back home in the afternoon to eat, and back to school again. These kids may run miles every day to deal with life stuff.
Also, many of them come from poverty and small villages. They have to walk to get food, water, or light a fire. Life isn’t easy for them, and this could be the reason why they are so dedicated and hard workers. They had to cope with rough situations since they were born. Their coach doesn’t need to motivate them.
I don’t know about you, but these people don’t complain and still provide results that are remarkable and make history. I have a deep appreciation and respect for them. Thank you Eliud, thank you Kenya, keep delivering! We are watching.