Eliud Kipchoge falls short by 26 seconds but more ‘moonshots’ ruled out

Eliud Kipchoge falls short by 26 seconds but more ‘moonshots’ ruled out
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Eliud Kipchoge is unlikely to make another dedicated assault on the two-hour marathon barrier in the foreseeable future despite coming within 26 seconds in Italy on Saturday of achieving a feat many thought impossible. The 32-year-old Olympic champion produced a bravura display of time-trial running to finish in two hours and 25 seconds – well inside the official world record of 2:02:57 set by Dennis Kimetto in 2014.

However, his time will not enter the record books because he was helped by a phalanx of 30 elite pacers, who subbed in and out of the race, which is against the official rules of the sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations.

While there will be an obvious temptation for Nike – which spent millions on marketing the attempt and the technology behind it – to try again, they now have other priorities. Matt Nurse, vice-president of the Nike sport research lab, told the Observer: “This is one particular endeavour where we have learned an awful lot about performance running, but another attempt is probably not what some other people [in our organisation] want to do.

“We are already discussing other moonshots, perhaps related to female athletes or average athletes. So it’s not one and done, it just may take a different form next time.”

Kipchoge said he was happy with his performance despite knowing that if he had run a one second a mile faster it would have carried him under two hours. “This journey has been a long one,” he said softly. “It has been hard. It has taken seven good months of preparation and dedication but I am happy to run a marathon in just over two hours.”

“We are going up the tree,” he added. “I have lifted a branch and I am going on to the next one. This is not the end of the attempt of runners on two hours.”

The Kenyan did not talk about his next target, but it is likely that he will attempt to break Kimetto’s record at a big city marathon in the autumn. On this evidence he is a near certainty.

It was still dark when Kipchoge – along with Zersenay Tadese, the half-marathon world-record holder, and Lelisa Desisa, a double Boston Marathon winner – stepped on to the Monza Formula One circuit shortly before 5.45am local time. Their target was to run each mile in an average of four minutes and 34 seconds – seven seconds a mile quicker than Kimetto had managed in Berlin.

But this was to be no ordinary attempt. With so much Nike money at stake, some of the usual rules had been bent to tilt the odds in the athletes’ favour. The race was scheduled for a time where the temperature was around 10C, just about perfect for marathon running, while the flat course ensured fewer bends than big city marathon courses.

Some of the gains were more major than marginal. At the start the three athletes were immediately joined by six pacers, who adopted an arrowhead formation behind a Tesla electric car with a giant clock timer on it. Wind tunnel studies show that this formation would help them as it saves energy. Running so close to the car would have provided far greater assistance still.

Kipchoge was also using a new carbohydrate-rich sports drink, delivered by helpers on mopeds so he did not have to slow down – another practice not allowed in major marathons.

Then there was the use of Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes, which some have suggested should be illegal because they contain a special curved plate that allows runners to roll through instead of bending toes and losing energy.

Nike has made extraordinary claims for the footwear, claiming a 4% improvement in running economy, and by happy coincidence a version of the shoes will be available in shops from next month.

Despite all this help, breaking two hours was still a massive undertaking. That much became clear after 15km (9.3 miles), when Desisa started to fall back. Just before the halfway mark, Tadese found he could not handle the pace either, which meant it was all down to Kipchoge.

The Kenyan is rumoured to have been paid up to $1m (£770,000) to skip the London Marathon and commit himself to the attempt, with another big bonus to follow if he could make history. Even though he was playing for high stakes, he still looked serene and relaxed until well into the second half of the race. Having reached halfway in 59:58, and still on course after 30km (18.6 miles), he eventually began to grind and grimace. Soon he was five seconds down. Then 10. Then 15. As a young athlete, he was fast enough to run a 3:50 mile, and in the final stages he tried to push again but there was nothing left.

Speaking before the attempt, Andrew Jones, professor of physiology at Exeter University who advised the runners on their training and nutrition programmes, told the Observer: “The variety of innovations and interventions we’ve put in place is worth a minimum of 90 seconds and a maximum of three minutes.”

Jones predicted a sub two-hour marathon was now firmly in sight. “I do believe that if you had all of the best runners in the world in the same race in perfect conditions, you could see a sub two-hour marathon and what we’ve been implementing here might get people working together to achieve that goal.”

The event may have had an artificial air given Nike had set it up as part lab test, part two-hour advertorial for its new shoes, but that should not eclipse the fact that this was one of the most remarkable and determined displays of distance running ever seen. Yes, Kipchoge fell short, but his was the most glorious of failures.


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