Eliud Kipchoge, the best marathon runner of his generation, etched his name in history on Saturday by pushing human endurance to new levels.
On a specially designed course in Vienna’s Prater park, flanked by a rotating team of pacemakers, the Kenyan runner and world record holder became the first person to complete 26 miles, 385 yards, in under two hours.
For decades, athletes and sport scientists have debated whether any human could ever run the marathon so fast. Two hours had become a mythical barrier. Mr Kipchoge ended the debate in emphatic style, accelerating down the final straight and crossing line, arms aloft, in 1 hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds.
“He’s inspired all of us that we can stretch our limits in our lives,” said Patrick Sang, his long-term coach, as the celebrations started.
The extent of Mr Kipchoge’s achievement has already been compared to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summiting Mt Everest in 1953 and to Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954.
Mr Kipchoge’s marathon world record, set in Berlin in 2018, is 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds. Only five men in history have ever run the distance in under 2 hours and 3 minutes. On Saturday in Austria Mr Kipchoge ran considerably quicker, completing each kilometre in a blistering 2 minutes and 50 seconds.
The Kenyan’s time will not be a new world record. To achieve optimal conditions Mr Kipchoge was accompanied by five teams of seven pacemakers that rotated in and out of the time trial, contrary to the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations. But the event was not about setting an official record, it was about pushing the limits of what is possible.
Mr Kipchoge had already tried to break the two-hour barrier once before at a similar time trial in Monza, Italy in 2017. That time he missed the mark by 25 seconds.
Speaking to the Financial Times before the race from his training camp in Kaptagat in western Kenya, Mr Kipchoge said he was confident that this time he would achieve his goal.
“I trust that it is possible to run under two hours,” he said. “It is a barrier in the minds of many people but in Monza I only missed by a whisker,” he said.
That day, like most days for the past five years, he had run 17 kilometres in the morning and would complete a further 10 kilometres in the afternoon — the daily rhythm of an athlete dedicated to his goal.
“Marathon is life and if you enjoy life it is very easy to perform well,” he said. “Any step, any kilometre I am happy for it.”
Like the attempt two years before, this event has been criticised by purists who question the merits of a choreographed time trial over a conventional race. During the time trial a pacing car drove 15 metres ahead of the pack projecting a laser line on to the road to keep the runners on schedule.
But even the fiercest critic would struggle to find fault in Mr Kipchoge’s stunning physical performance. And for the philosophical Kenyan runner the objective was never in doubt. To break a mental barrier that would then encourage others to do the same.
“No human is limited,” he said, after the race, as the sweat glistened on his forehead and a broad smile lit-up his face.