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The GOAT rolls on
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 7 March 2022
Eliud Kipchoge, out on his own in the Tokyo Marathon
I picked a fine week to get back up to full training. It started with three days of constant rain, and ended with a freezing weekend run along the bleak Tiverton canal path. I sort of wished I’d enjoyed being injured a bit more - you know, the lazy mornings, sitting inside in the warm etc. It’s like when you work as a freelancer and you’re always busy, and then you get a quiet spell, but instead of relaxing into it and enjoying some downtime, you spend all the time worrying about not working.
Then again, of course, I’ve loved being back running this week. The rain meant mud, which, once you’ve got through that first puddle, and that first jarring foot soaking, makes the world a great big children’s playground to skedaddle around in. On Friday - when the sun did finally show its face - on a run with my friends Bundle and Taz, we pile-drove through a puddle of water - the colour of Donald Trump’s face powder - so deep that it almost came up to our waist. Such fun.
And really, it is great to be back, pushing the body again, working towards goals, feeling the cold blast of late winter around my ears, feeling the returning bounce of fitness, going to bed in the evening with satisfyingly tired legs.
On Saturday night, I decided to forgo some rest and to stay up to watch the Tokyo marathon. A midnight start (UK time) meant I felt very dedicated to my sport, but I was happy enough, with my feet up and some dark chocolate to nibble on.
Unfortunately the only live stream I could find was just footage of the race with no commentary. It’s strange watching sport with no sound, and you soon realise how much of the drama and intrigue is brought out by the commentators - which is why bad commentary is so painful.
At one point, the lead pack of about eight runners suddenly stopped dead on the road and started spiralling around in different directions. (I shook my sleepy head, looked at my chocolate and wondered what I was eating.) Then they regrouped and headed off in the opposite direction. It was like some sort of modern improv dance routine.
Luckily I had Twitter on hand to assist in the context, and I was informed that the lead car the runners were following had turned right, while the runners were supposed to turn left. It seemed a shame, as they had been on world record pace.
Part of the reason for the insanely fast pace was the presence of Eliud Kipchoge, the double Olympic champion and world record holder. I wrote just last week about how Kipchoge is older than he says he is, and how he may even be in his late 40s. So I’m always thinking that age will have to catch up with him eventually, and I keep predicting that his next race to be the one where he falters. But every time he proves me wrong.
And so it was again in Tokyo. One by one, the runners tailing him dropped away, like a bird shedding its feathers. I once asked Kipchoge how he had managed to drop Kenenisa Bekele in the London marathon, and he said: “In the marathon you don’t drop anyone. The pace drops them.”
This is what he does, he just holds that pace, keeps it high, and waits. Let the pace do its thing. Don’t stress. Just hold the pace. He’s like an unstoppable missile, and from the minute he hits the front, the others are just holding on for dear life.
There was a moment near the end of the race where the leaders came back past the mass field, running the other way on the other side of the road. You could see people stopping to take pictures, or just staring in awe, as the two Kenyans (by then he only had Amos Kipruto for company) strode side-by-side along the wide-open highway. It was quite a sight, like two gods of running, powerful, strong and swift.
It’s funny, because, like all top marathon runners, Kipchoge is a very small, slight man. But here in full flow, he looked like a giant.
The pace finally broke Kipruto too, and, despite momentarily going the wrong way, Kipchoge prevailed once again, running an amazing 2:02:40, the fourth fastest time in history (and Kipchoge’s third fastest). The marathon is an unforgiving event in which many things can go wrong and often do. No one in the past has ever managed to consistently dominate the event in the way Kipchoge does. It is unreal. Out of 16 competitive marathons (including two Olympics), he has won 14. In one of those two defeats, it took a world record to beat him. The other is his only blemish, when he finished 8th in London after getting an ear infection.
On top of this he ran a marathon in 1 hour 59 minutes in a controlled, non-record eligible event.
It’s as close to perfection as you can get, from a man well into his 40s. It really is mind boggling. Add to that the fact that there is close to zero doping suspicion around Kipchoge within the running world. Everybody loves him and believes in him. I have been to visit his training camp a number of times and there are no guards on the gate, and anyone passing can just walk in and say hello. The times I went they clearly weren’t hiding anything and made us tea and happily showed us around.
Kipchoge signs T-shirts as we hang out in his training camp after turning up unannounced.
Warm, open and generous, yet brilliant and unstoppable. What is his secret?
In some ways it’s the same as all the Kenyans. But even among the Kenyans, Kipchoge is unusual in just how much he retains his humility even as a superstar. Once they have made it big, understandably, many of the top Kenyan runners want to move out of the spartan training camps. They want to start businesses, enjoy life, embrace their superstar status. But Kipchoge continues to live in a training camp six days a week where he is on the cleaning rota, where the showers are a trickle of cold water, the mattresses are worn and thin, and where the only activities on offer after training are drinking tea and chatting, reading books, cleaning shoes or sleeping.
Does he just love this simple life? I don’t know. But he is acutely aware that this lifestyle is crucial to his success. That staying humble and being part of an amazing team of runners, under the tutelage of his brilliant coach, Patrick Sang, is what works for him. And he doesn’t feel the need to change anything.
When the Nike scientists came to analyse his training for the Breaking 2 project, with the express aim of marrying the “raw talent” of the East Africans with the very latest “science and tech” of Nike, they were smart enough to conclude after observing him for a few weeks, that the best thing to do would be to not change anything. That the way Kipchoge was living and training was already way beyond their expertise.
And so on he rolls, an unstoppable force. The absolute GOAT*, as they like to say on Twitter.
* Greatest Of All Time