WHEN race commentator Steve Cram announced “this is not normal” midway through Sunday’s London Marathon it was something of an understatement as Eliud Kipchoge, the most dominant performer the distance has ever seen, was finally looking mortal.
An hour later, Kipchoge trailed home eighth in a time six minutes slower than his own world record and over a minute adrift of Ethiopia’s Shura Kitata, who won the race after a spectacular sprint finish in two hours, 05.41 minutes.
The Kenyan had finally cracked just under three miles from the end, later saying he was suffering from a blocked ear that affected his breathing and cramp in his hip, but refusing to blame the cold, wet conditions for his poor run.
It was no surprise that he looked slightly bemused as he tried to articulate what had happened, having never previously experienced what almost every other marathon runner at every level has – a bad day at the office.
His record over the distance almost defies belief.
Kipchoge won his first race in Hamburg in 2013 and later that year suffered what was, until Sunday, his only defeat. It can hardly be described as a failure, however, as Wilson Kipsang needed to run a then-world record to beat him.
After that, Kipchoge embarked on an extraordinary streak of 10 straight wins, all in top-level races. His times, undoubtedly helped by developments in shoe technology, edged downwards until he smashed the world record in Berlin two years ago with 2:01.39. The only time he has recorded a slower run than Sunday’s was his 2:08.44 in the tactically raced 2016 Olympics, where he took gold.
After that, he fell 26 seconds short of becoming the first man to break the two-hour barrier in Monza, but came back even better prepared in Vienna last year to clock 1:59.40 – a time not recognised as an official record due to it coming in a closed race with in and out pacemakers. When Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele came within two seconds of his world record a year ago the juicy head-to-head between the only two men to go under two hours, two minutes was teed up for London in April.
That race was cancelled due to COVID, however, and organisers scrambled to put on Sunday’s event on a 19.6-lap course in a London park, only for Bekele to withdraw on Friday with a calf injury.
Kipchoge’s fifth London title appeared like it may be a formality, but from the start he was unable to impose himself in his usual way. The conditions were horrible but there was a pack of 11 runners still together when they reached the halfway point in a dawdling 63 minutes.
Everyone watched and waited for the favourite to make his move, but it never came. And while his game face is usually inscrutable, this time there were hints of distress.
The rest of the lead pack had by then realized that the race was going to be won in a time that they could all manage and, for once, they weren’t competing for the minor medals.
The moment of truth finally arrived just under three miles from the end when the pace picked up slightly and Kipchoge was spat out the back.
After the race, wearing gloves and a huge padded coat, Kipchoge said: “It’s not the end of the world that I can’t win – that’s sport. If you’re beaten, you don’t go to a tree and hang yourself.”
He said he would return to training and a probable assault on the Olympics next year, but at 35, will he ever rediscover the speed, let alone the aura, that has enabled him to rule the event for more than a decade?
As Sunday showed, there is a hungry pack of younger Kenyans and Ethiopians who will now toe the line not just believing, but knowing, that the great man can be beaten. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.