The Sub 2 Hour Marathon was finally beaten by Eliud Kipchoge in 2019 – here’s the inside story of the man and the team who broke the impossible…
When Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3.58.60 in Oxford, England on 6th May 1954, the once-believed impossible feat of running under four minutes for the mile was accomplished. This captured the imagination of the athletics world during the post war era, and showed the world that the limits of human performance could still be explored.
One year earlier, Jim Peters became the first man to run under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon and it wasn’t until 1969 before Derek Clayton finished under 2 hours 10 minutes. So nearly 40 years after that, the prospect of running under 2 hours for the marathon distance was keeping the running community fascinated.
In winning the Berlin marathon on 16th September 2018, Eluid Kipchoge smashed the existing world by an unbelievable 1 minute and 20 seconds, crossing the line in 2:01:39. The time was impressive, but a year before that, Kipchoge had run even quicker!
He was part of Nike’s Breaking2 Project, a promotional event showcasing the Nike Vaporfly 4% shoe as the secret weapon in breaking the 2-hour barrier in the marathon. The race was held on 6th May 2017, on a Formula One track in Milan, Italy. That day he was joined by Eritrea´s Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia.
They were joined by a group of world-class athletes acting as pacemakers. Kipchoge was the fastest of the three and won the event by over 6 minutes. He narrowly missed dipping under the magical 2-hour mark running a 2:00:25.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Kipchoge announced that he would try again to become the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon. The announcement was made on 6th May 2019 by the multinational chemicals company Ineos, and that they would be the principal sponsor of the event.
It was fitting that the attempt was announced 65 years to the day of the first ever sub four-minute mile.
The event was to take place in Vienna on October 12th, 2019 and with the help of a multi-skilled backroom team, Kipchoge was confident he could do it: “Monza opened many doors. It gave me the confidence to run a world record.” (source: BBC Sport)
If at first you fail, try try try again….
In 1954, on the morning of his attempt to break the 4-minute mile, Roger Bannister woke up, and seeing the grey skies and the strong wind, he was concerned. In his attempt to achieve the unthinkable, he knew that he needed ideal conditions. But the weather started to clear up that afternoon and when he toed the line, the wind had subsided to near perfect conditions.
With the advancement in technology over the past 60 years, Kipchoge didn’t have the same concerns. There was a team of sports scientists working behind the scenes and every factor was being carefully considered to ensure he was given the best possible chance of achieving his dream.
One of those sports scientists was American Robby Ketchell. He had previously had a career as a professional cyclist and was currently working with Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) under the guidance of David Brailsford. Having been involved in the 3-time winning of the Tour de France, he was well versed in their philosophy of “marginal gains.”
Sub 2 Hour Marathon – The Preparation
As the old adage goes: ““Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
One of the reasons that Vienna had been chosen was because its time zone was close to that of Kaptagat, Kenya, where Kipchoge trains. This limited the effects of jetlag on Kipchoge and meant that his sleeping and eating routines were not significantly impacted.
The race was run over 4.4 laps of a flat 5.97-mile course in Prater park with the route consisting of two 2.67-mile stretches and two small loops at each end. The course took Kipchoge down Hauptallee that runs through the park and it is lined with tall trees and therefore reducing the impact of wind.
However, despite this Ketchell went a step further.
He became obsessed with finding a way of reducing the potential impact of wind, and using his knowledge of aerodynamics, he came up with a novel approach.
Having run numerous trials on a computer programme, he finally settled for the optimal shape for the group of pacing runners – an inverted V.
Ketchell stated that: “It is actually the inverse of how birds fly and from the best of my knowledge it is not used in any other sport, industry or animal world.” (source: BBC Sport)
There were 41 pacemakers (who rotated twice each lap), including Nicholos Rotich from his training group, Bernard Lagat (who had beaten Kipchoge to the 5000m world title in 2007), and Norwegian superstar Jakob Ingebrigtsen. They were arranged in this inverted V shape. Kipchoge was at the bottom of the formation with two of the pacemakers running behind him.
Kipchoge wore an improved version of Nike’s previously unreleased Vaporfly Next % running shoes. It was claimed that they could improve running economy by 4 percent, with a carbon-fibre plate fitted in the large foam sole. The shoes were not banned by the IAAF, and the top 10 men in the Chicago Marathon (held the next day) each wore Vaporflys.
Even the marginal gains of having his water bottles provided by a member of the team on a bicycle ensured that Kipchoge didn’t have to slow down at the usual water stations normally used in marathons.
One of Kipchoge’s biggest complaints about the Breaking2 attempt was the lack of crowds. So, the organisers ensured that the public were allowed to attend the race.
So, with the help of a group of excellent pacemakers, advanced technology, and favorable weather conditions, he accomplished the once believed impossible, crossing the line in 1:59:40.
The average pace was 21.2 kilometers per hour, or 13.1 miles per hour (essentially, one half marathon per hour!).
Although it was the fastest marathon time in history, it didn’t count or could not be ratified as a marathon world record due to the rotating pacemakers, drink bottles delivered by bicycle, and lack of other competitors.
Directly after finishing the run, Kipchoge stated: “I am feeling good. After Roger Bannister in 1954 it took another 63 years, I tried and I did not get it – 65 years, I am the first man – I want to inspire many people, that no human is limited.” (source: BBC Sport )
How did he train for the attempt?
Kipchoge bases himself in a training camp in Kaptagat. It is 8,000 feet above sea level. Even though his wife and children live in nearby Eldoret, he chooses to live there with other athletes. The environment suits him, and it allows him to have no distractions so he can focus on the task at hand.
Related article: Who Is Eliud Kipchoge?
He describes the training philosophy and schedule as follows:
“Our life here is simple, very simple,” he says. “Get up in the morning, go for a run, come back. If it is a day for cleaning, we do the cleaning, or we just relax. Then go for lunch, massage, the 4 o’clock run, evening tea, relax, go to sleep. As simple as that.” (source: BBC Sport)
According to his coach Patrick Sang , the typical structure of the training week is as follows:
Monday am 16-21km, pm 8-12km.
Tuesday track session either at goal marathon pace – 15 x 1km (90 sec rest) in 2.50-2.55 or 12 x 1200m (90 sec rest) in 23.24-3.30 or quicker than marathon pace i.e at 3k, 5k or even as quick as 800m pace.
Wednesday same as Monday
Thursday Tempo session between 30-40km. He normally starts this one very early in the morning around 6.10am and runs at an average pace of 3.20 min/km.
Friday same as Wednesday
Saturday a fartlek session would be the norm e.g. 6 x 8 mins (2 min rest) or 10 x 4 mins (2 min rest)
Sunday easy 18-22km
Factors behind the success
According to the University of Exeter, Professor Andrew Jones (who worked as part of the team on the Breaking 2 project), there a number of things that make the Kenyan athletes and Kipchoge stand apart from the rest.
They benefit from running on a lot of undulating terrain. “Some of the physios who work with the leading east African runners will tell you when you look at their feet and their lower legs, they are extremely muscular.”
In a webinar titled “Physiological requirements of running a sub-2-hour marathon” from the European Athletics High Performance Webinar Series of 2021, he identified several critical factors.
He believed that if an athlete has a VO2 max of 75-85 ml/kg/min, is able to sustain 80-90% of that for 2 hours, and who has running economy of 170-190 ml/kg/km, then this would allow that athlete to produce a sustained marathon speed of 21.2 km/h.
Kipchoge has incredible fatigue resistance. “His VO2 max and running economy don’t deteriorate much over a period of 2 hours” – he has incredible fatigue resistance.
However, aside from the physiological element, a fast course, pacing/drafting, and favourable weather conditions are essential.
And the mental side of things of course. “He has unwavering, unshakeable confidence in his own ability and coaching, training and preparation. He dares to think beyond the current limits.” (source: Runners World)
And perhaps his life´s philosophy has led to his great success: “Living simply sets you free.”