This past weekend, two athletes made history in the marathon—but should their achievements give us pause?

Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei after winning their respective races at the 2019 London Marathon on April 28, 2019 (Richard Washbrooke/Xinhua/Alamy)
Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei after winning their respective races at the 2019 London Marathon on April 28, 2019 (Richard Washbrooke/Xinhua/Alamy)

Last September, when the Kenyan distance runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the world record in the marathon in Berlin, his time of 2:01:39 injected renewed urgency into the debate about when the first man might break the magical two-hour barrier. (In the late 2020s or early 2030s, I predicted when I wrote about Kipchoge’s record here last year.) It appeared to be an achievement reserved for a future generation of athletes—until Kipchoge dispensed with all the speculation this past weekend when, in an exhibition staged in Vienna, Austria, he clocked an astonishing 1:59:41. No doubt inspired by his historic performance, Kipchoge’s countrywoman Brigid Kosgei laid waste to the women’s world record of 2:15:25 the following day, running 2:14:04 in Chicago. In quick succession, the two Kenyans had produced a seismic transformation of the marathon, prompting a reassessment of the limits of human endurance.

Fittingly, this news extended beyond the running fraternity: most notably, Barack Obama tweeted his congratulations to the two athletes. Kipchoge, by all accounts gracious and likable, responded that he would like to meet the former president to discuss how to make the world a “running world,” because a “running world is a peaceful world.” The man, his sporting career nearing its inevitable conclusion, clearly has ambitions outside athletics.

The lasting image from the event in Vienna is of Kipchoge, after breaking clear from his V-shaped phalanx of pacemakers as the finish line loomed, pointing to the crowd in triumph while betraying none of the fatigue expected from such an outsize effort. It looked almost too easy, as if he had tapped into some Matrix-like dimension that temporarily freed him from the constraints of the known world. His pacers included some of the best distance runners today, who had happily repressed their own egos to help him make history; they trailed him to the finish line, fist-pumping and cheering like members of his fan club, then lifted the man himself onto their shoulders as the celebration commenced. The scene conjured images of Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile, another mythical barrier that had seemed to stand resolute against so much human striving and suffering, until finally one man broke through.

Kosgei’s performance may not have shattered some fabled barrier, but it was no less revolutionary. The previous women’s record, held by the Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe, had stood since 2003. It was considered untouchable, another mark for a future generation of athletes to chase; no one had come within a minute-and-a-half of it. But then Kosgei surprised even herself, never wavering under the strain of her historic pace through the windy streets of Chicago.

Kosgei and Kipchoge deserve all the glowing tributes, the odes to the indomitability of the human spirit, and the other metaphors that have described their record runs (the moon landing, for example, or sending a mission to Mars). Yet both performances come with an asterisk, or at least some caveats. Kipchoge’s time is not officially a world record: the Vienna exhibition, sponsored by Ineos, a British chemicals company, relied on illegal pacemaking, the other athletes rotating in at frequent intervals, all of them further shielded from the wind by a silver Audi that flashed a green laser beam on the road to mark the target pace. Kipchoge’s earlier time of 2:01:39 remains the official mark.

There’s also the question of the shoes. Kipchoge and Kosgei both wore a prototype version of Nike’s Vaporfly Next%, the latest incarnation of the Vaporfly 4%, so-named because it reportedly boosts running economy by four percent; nobody yet knows the advantage conferred by the improved version. When I wrote about Kipchoge’s Berlin record last year, I had wondered how much more progress could still be made in shoe design. The answer appears to be, a lot. The new Nikes have undoubtedly contributed to faster times for the athletes wearing them. So how much of Kosgei’s and Kipchoge’s improvements can be attributed to their newfound fitness and their mental fortitude, and how much can be attributed to the shoes? Are Nike’s designers the true champions here?

It would be naïve not to raise one additional caveat: doping, which has cast an unfortunate pall over athletics, especially because the testers have long lagged behind the cheaters (Marion Jones, the American sprinter, passed countless tests before a whistleblower helped expose her malfeasance). Kipchoge and Kosgei have the misfortune of achieving greatness in an age when every significant performance attracts skepticism. Are athletes exhibiting a normal progression, or are their sudden improvements suspicious? Do they have a coach or agent who has worked before with known cheaters? (This happens to be true of Kosgei’s agent; Kosgei denied doping after Chicago.) Absent improved testing and protocols, those who know the sport intimately are largely left to decide, based on the prevailing circumstantial evidence, whether they think Kipchoge and Kosgei are clean, or whether we should even care—if doping is indeed rampant, why not just dispense with a strict ban and create a level playing field that way? No actual evidence links Kipchoge and Kosgei with any illicit substances, and unfounded speculation should, I hope, not undermine our ability to revel in their sublime performances. Making sense of the sporting landscape has grown ever more complicated, alas, and only time will tell how significant these breakthroughs really are, to what extent they will reshape the marathon.

Let us return to Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile, in 1954. His training was rudimentary by today’s standards—he squeezed in workouts around his studies as a medical student. So, too, were his track spikes, which little resembled modern lightweight marvels. The Iffley Road oval in Oxford, the site of his achievement, was then made of cinders, not some responsive all-weather surface. The shadow of doping never sullied his career. Comparing performances from different generations is a fraught business; we may overly value the new-new thing or harbor a sentimental attachment to the athletes of the past. But it seems fair to say that there’s a pleasing clarity to Bannister’s achievement, that as a momentous, moonshot feat of running-related endurance, Sir Roger still reigns supreme.

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Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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