The 38-year-old is the undisputed king of marathon running but he has plenty of goals left as he reaches the twilight of his career
Marketing professionals would call it “cut-through”. The rest of us would probably call it just being famous. Whatever term you choose, for such a slight man, Eliud Kipchoge is beginning to possess an extraordinary amount of power.
The Kenyan, who has become king of all he surveys in the marathon running world, is bringing levels of attention to his sport in ways not really seen since the days when Usain Bolt bestrode the sprinting scene.
He wasn’t even running at this year’s London Marathon, yet still Kipchoge’s presence was the dominant one. Even if he hadn’t been on hand to offer advice to runners at the pre-event expo, give out medals at the mini marathon and then the full showpiece event the following day, it was still his recent achievements which dominated the majority of the chatter… certainly around the elite races.
If you’d asked the average sports fan who they thought likely to be charging down The Mall in first place it’s virtually certain that few could have named a single one of the main contenders. But, even if they might not know Kipchoge’s name either, they are certainly aware of “that guy who broke the two-hour barrier”.
Whatever the purists might say about the pre-conditioned time trial where Kipchoge clocked 1:59:41 in Vienna three years ago, it has changed attitudes around marathon running. “No human is limited”, was the oft-repeated phrase around that project. It remains, Kipchoge says, his proudest achievement to date because it has caused a collective mindset shift, not least in himself.
It captured the imagination and set the clock ticking on when (not if) that barrier will be broken in a conventional big city marathon in the future. “Absolutely, it is possible,” he tells AW without hesitation. “I can confirm that.”
The quirk of the rejigged post-pandemic calendar which meant London remained an autumn race for one more year resulted in this edition falling in the immediate aftermath of Kipchoge adding another chapter to his growing legend.
No one has run around the British capital route faster than he has, but Berlin’s even speedier route is fertile ground for him. The 38-year-old had won there three times previously and broke the world record there in 2018 by running 2:01:39. His first taste of the race, back in 2013, had been when he came second to the now disgraced Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:23, which was then the fastest time ever.
There were bold noises emerging from the Kipchoge camp this time, something which doesn’t tend to happen without good reason. Some doubted what he might be able to do – he isn’t getting any younger, after all – but the world wanted to know.
“I didn’t delay my long run [to watch that day],” said British international marathon runner Charlotte Purdue. “But one of my training partners, Stewart McSweyn, ran with his phone so he could tell us what was happening. I think he had about one per cent battery left, though, so we had to rush back to see the finish.”
It was worth the effort. In Germany, Kipchoge went flying through the halfway mark in a breathtaking 59:51. It was around one minute faster than he had planned to go and meant the second-half pain he had to battle through was very real but, still, as he broke the Brandenburg Gate finish line tape, the world record had been lowered by an eye-popping 30 seconds. Even the double Olympic champion looked surprised.
The whirlwind of attention which followed is in stark contrast to the spartan, almost monastic existence he leads when training back in Kenya. At home, he might still be in charge but he is also one of the team and will do his fair share of chores around the Kaptagat training base in the Kenyan highlands. Everywhere else, he is running royalty.
Even in recovery mode, there was still lots to do and he was whisked to London for the aforementioned string of engagements and appointments.
We meet in a hospitality area on The Mall just as some of Britain’s most promising youngsters are about to put themselves through their paces in the Mini Marathon. Emerging from an entrance at the far end of the room, it’s the presence of accompanying publicists, management and a camera man which signals he is on his way. Even security guards were present at his expo appearance.
Kipchoge is known as a man of few words, which has only added to the intrigue around him and makes his growing fame all the more remarkable. Whereas Bolt’s athletic talents were perfectly allied to his gifts as a showman, Kipchoge’s serene, understated approach instead tends to let his deeds do most of the talking.
When he does speak, it is usually to impart a carefully considered nugget of wisdom. A wide, flashing grin is not usually too far away, either – even early on a Saturday morning in autumnal England as he greets me with a warm handshake.
The smile is very much evident when I ask how he celebrated his Berlin brilliance.
“I had a long call with my family at home,” he says of speaking to his wife Grace and their three children. “They sent me some videos of them standing and cheering as I crossed the finishing line.”
What do his daughter Lynne and sons Griffin and Jordon make of it all?
“My daughter is 15 now and understands clearly what is going on,” he adds. “The boys have a little bit of an understanding of what the win means. The boys are showing that they love running but I will be giving them autonomy to choose the sport they like.”
They will have a good teacher, should they decide to go into the family business. Kipchoge, one of four siblings who were raised by their mother after his father died when he was young, has been coached since he was a teenager by Olympic steeplechase medallist Patrick Sang and admits he learns something from every race and every training cycle.
There is nothing complicated about what he does. Hard work, plenty of rest and writing everything down are the foundations upon which his career is built.
“Simplicity is a recipe for success,” he adds. “That is what keeps you on the course.
“I get a real plan – one plan only – and work on it to make sure I achieve it. If I don’t achieve it then I go back and set the plan again.”
Rarely, however, does he fall short. Kipchoge has only been defeated twice in his marathon career. There was that loss to Kipsang nine years ago, while the 2020 London Marathon, at which he had an ear problem, saw him finish eighth. These are the exceptions to his utterly dominant rule.
What does he think sets him apart?
“I think it’s the professionalism that I’m showing in the sport. I am really treating running as a profession and as a career.”
Many of his rivals would argue that they, too, are doing likewise, but Kipchoge’s approach helps him to develop the mental armoury he has become so well known for possessing.
“When you are doing the right things in the right way then your psychological path is really strong.”
It means that, when things don’t go to plan and, for example, he goes roaring through a halfway split too quickly, panic doesn’t set in.
“I was not disappointed when I saw the times,” he says of his opening in Berlin. “That was actually a huge motivation for me. I went through the half marathon in under an hour, which is good. It meant I would not miss a world record.
“Also, to run a half marathon in under an hour and still feeling well is a good sign that running a normal major marathon in under two hours is possible.”
One thing Kipchoge has not had to contend with in many of his performances has been other contenders. So often victory is assured miles in advance and it usually ends up coming down to a battle between him and the clock.
Is that how he likes it or would he not prefer to see a threat emerging, someone to key off, work with and, fundamentally, battle against?
“I always run my own race. I always treat myself as the best. I always say that if anybody wants to run my race as well then he is welcome and we will journey together.
“When I am standing on the start line of a marathon, I have it in my mind to run my own race and what I am doing there is crucial for the end of the race.”
I can imagine few of the current crop of athletes lining up to accept the invitation. While there are “a lot of athletes in the pipeline who will be doing well [in the future]”, Kipchoge currently sits in a league of his own when it comes to the marathon. He lets out a hearty laugh, though, when I ask if he’s aware of just how intimidating his standards are. “We move together,” he says when the chuckling stops.
Kenenisa Bekele, whom Kipchoge acknowledged as being the greatest distance runner in history, is the man who has come closest to reaching the same standards over 26.2 miles. Time, unfortunately, seems to be running out in terms of being able to see a true clash between these titans.
The Kenyan is certainly aware that he is being lauded as the best marathon runner the world has ever seen. Asked if he views himself that way, too, he insists that is for others to decide, alluding to the fact that he knows he can’t do what he does without the help of those around him.
“I appreciate the sentiments of the people,” he continues. “I am an African and my mentality is different. You cannot shave yourself. You need to go to the barber shop to be shaved. Another person can see you and elevate you to the standard of the greatest of all time. I respect what people have been saying and if they have decided that I am the GOAT then I’m happy.”
That doesn’t mean he is about to ease back, however. Now is the time to recover and think but there is clearly more to come.
“Another Olympics is on my bucket list, running all six marathon majors is also on my bucket list (since this interview Kipchoge has announced he will run the Boston Marathon in April) but for now I have no plan. I just want to get back to training, to recover and make sure that I rest well.
“It’s a new challenge every day. I have never mastered it. After Berlin I need to relax and then start again from zero. It’s a new challenge and I want to work on it to lift myself.
“The inspiration I want to instil in people is still my driver. When people get inspired by what you are doing, then they can be inspired to push limits because they are seeing you doing the same. That’s a positive thing. It’s what makes me get up in the morning and want to push my limits, too.”
No sooner has our interview ended than a slightly startstruck mother hesitantly steps forward with her young son for a picture. It isn’t long before something of a queue begins to form. It isn’t just the world’s best athletes who want to get close to Kipchoge.
» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine