Marathon king on a mission to break ‘impossible’ record

Sunday February 12 2017

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the men's Marathon race of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Athletics, Track and Field events at the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 21 August 2016. PHOTO | EPA

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the men's Marathon race of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Athletics, Track and Field events at the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 21 August 2016. PHOTO | EPA 

By PETER NJENGA

Most sports scientists say running the 42-kilometre marathon in under two hours may not be possible any time soon.

The prediction is that this could perhaps be achieved between 2041 and 2050, based on the progression of the marathon race since 1998 — a period within which man has shaved off just three minutes and eight seconds to the current mark of two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds set at the Berlin Marathon by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in September 2014.

But one man believes the world does not have to wait until 2050 to break the sub-two-hours barrier in the ultimate endurance race.

“This effort won’t require a robot or superman drilled to perfection by scientific faith and medicine, but a good, time-tested human heart, blood and sheer resolve,” says Eliud Kipchoge, one of the best marathon runners in the world today.

On a date to be announced soon this May, in a location probably in the United States or Europe, Nike, the American sportswear giant, will help actualise its “Sub-two” marathon dream. And Kipchoge is the man to do it, they believe.

In a project known as “Breaking 2 Mission to Mars”, which started two years ago, the Americans have the sole purpose of breaching the two-hour marathon barrier this year.

If Kipchoge’s attempt is successful, it will be the most significant moment in global running since Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minutes mile in 1954.

Since winning the 5,000 metres gold medal at the 2003 World Championships, Kipchoge has remained the most durable and successful athlete in Kenya today. PHOTO | EPA

Since winning the 5,000 metres gold medal at the 2003 World Championships, Kipchoge has remained the most durable and successful athlete in Kenya today. PHOTO | EPA

It will be a record that will probably be celebrated for decades, and a milestone perhaps equal to man landing on the moon.

Last November, Nike recruited 32-year-old Kipchoge for this mission. He is the only unbeaten marathon runner since 2013, having won the Chicago, London and Berlin marathons and crowning it with gold at the Rio Olympics last August.

Kipchoge was born in Nandi County and was discovered by Patrick Sang, a former Olympic 3,000 metres steeplechase silver medallist who is currently, fittingly, the sports executive in the county government.

Also in the project with Kipchoge is Zersenay Tadese, the world half-marathon world record holder from Eritrea, and Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, a two-time Boston Marathon champion. 

SPORTS SCIENTISTS

Kipchoge says they were invited to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, US, to unveil the “Mission to Mars Project” and were subjected to the best medical examination and tests science can provide. The project’s team brings together designers, scientists, coaches and statisticians who have kept the location of the race secret.

Some say breaking this record can only be possible on a Formula One circuit, which is flat with few corners and televisually attractive with as many as 100 filming cameras to beam to a global audience of more than one billion people across the world with thousands watching from the stands.

“It will be exciting,” Kipchoge tells Lifestyle.

Last month, Nike sent a Hollywood filming crew to Kipchoge’s training base in Kaptagat, Elgeyo-Marakwet County, along with more than 20 sports scientists and medical equipment to monitor Kipchoge and produce a docu-drama that tells a gripping story of endurance. 

“A gas mask was fitted to test my volume of oxygen (VO2 Max),” says Kipchoge, a former world champion in the 5,000 metres on the track.

“I’m able to ingest during prolonged exercise, conversion and exhaust of carbon dioxide from my body and volume of air intake in my lungs in a simulated environment at all levels on a treadmill,” explains Kipchoge.

He adds: “They tested my running economy, or how efficient I am at moving my body down the road.”

Eliud Kipchoge (second left) with other athletes at Global Sports Training Camp in Elgeyo-Marakwetlast week. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

Eliud Kipchoge (second left) with other athletes at Global Sports Training Camp in Elgeyo-Marakwetlast week. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

Nike appears to be on course to beat scientist Yannis Pitsiladis involved in the “Sub-2 Project”. The scientist identified the Dead Sea as the ideal course for the sub-two hour marathon record attempt where altitude is below sea level and the location has about five per cent more oxygen.

The “Sub-2 Project” has set aside 2019 as the earliest time a marathon runner will be able to break Kimetto’s record and dip under two hours.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Nike’s chief rival Adidas AG has also been working on a similar effort.

“The Adidas project is at least two years in development and has already yielded a prototype of a running shoe which is being developed by Adidas athletes, including Kimetto.”

In Oregon, Kipchoge says, the scientists paid particular attention to oxygen intake, volumetric capacity of the lungs, carbon dioxide exhaust, blood pressure and the capacity of the heart to handle extreme human body pressure subjected to the most punishing tests.

“The verdict was that I’m ready to attempt the unknown through faith by believing in myself,” says Kipchoge at his new home for the next five months at Global Sports Communication athletics Camp in Kaptagat, about 30km north-east of Eldoret.

Contrary to common belief, Nike, who are also Kipchoge’s kitting company, will not be taking the project’s team away from the local training facilities, nor employ special coaches or medics.

“My preparations will be done here in Kaptagat in my standard training regime. I won’t tell you that I will train for 1,000km, but I cherish the challenge. I will go to the gym and improvise in between,” he says of his mission to prove scientists wrong. 

By any standards, if Kipchoge decided to quit running today, his family will be taken care of with his career earnings. Money, he says, is not the motivating factor.

Since winning the 5,000 metres gold medal at the 2003 World Championships, Kipchoge has remained the most durable and successful athlete in Kenya today.

Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge fetching water. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge fetching water. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

SUSPENDED CELEBRATIONS

Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in USA, predicted in 1991 that it was possible to finish the marathon in 1:57:58. But numerous experts on the opposite end of the argument said two hours would not be breached until sometime between 2028 and 2041.

To show how serious Kipchoge is, on December 29 last year, he suspended his New Year celebrations, completing a 30km training session.

This run will be a twice-a-week regime followed by a 40km weekly run, speed work and a gym work out.

And he won’t be watching past race videos during his free time as he believes this “is a distraction.” Instead, he will follow a schedule, which includes watching news and reading more books after finishing his current one, Robert Maxwell, Israel’s Superspy by Gordon Thomas.

Lifestyle’s date with Kipchoge is at 5.30 am, at the official launch of the mission in Kenya. This is without fanfare.

True to character, Kipchoge is right on time, acting as the sentry at the gate to receive athletes who do not live in the school dorm-like facility.

Kaptagat is nestled at 2,400 metres above sea level, with temperatures at six degrees centigrade on that day.

Kipchoge is wearing a body-hugging long sleeved T-shirt, running vest and shorts. Joining him is Augustine Choge, the latest marathon running convert, and more athletes emerging one by one from the darkness. In the end there are 31 of them.

For today, they will “take it easy” with 30.5km of running through established trails in Kaptagat Forest “to loosen the muscles,” their leader says, starting a 5-to-1 countdown followed by take-off at 6:11 am.

Our driver James Njoroge reasons that we should give them a five-minute head start before driving behind them. It is a terrible miscalculation as the rough road does not allow us to drive beyond a 20kph speed. How and when the leading pack disappears after the second corner remains a wonder. Worse still, we take the wrong turn and veer off the course for 20 kilometres.

Some 144 minutes later Kipchoge, 2012 Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda and Choge emerge from the forest to stop the clock at 7.58 am.

Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge lifts makeshift weights at Global Sports Training Camp in Elgeyo-Marakwet. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge lifts makeshift weights at Global Sports Training Camp in Elgeyo-Marakwet. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA

The next five athletes follow 13 minutes later and back markers at 8.28 am.

By then the temperatures have soared to eight degrees centigrade, still very cold, but a slight improvement. 

“Sometimes it dips to two degrees, the lips crack, ears sting and teeth hurt if you open your mouth,” says Kipchoge.

So how will the marathoner, who stands at pole position for the record after the Rio Olympic gold that was the second by a Kenyan in eight years, plan for the big race?

“Nothing out of the ordinary. I will follow Metto’s (the coach’s) programme. Here (in the camp), we follow instructions,” says Kipchoge. As he goes to fetch his bathing water, something some fans may find strange for a millionaire star athlete, he says: “This is a training camp, not holiday resort.”

With all their global accolades and huge wealth, Kaptagat camp seems to be something of an equaliser for athletes.

“We have an understanding here (in camp) that nobody is special, junior or senior. We have taught ourselves to be one family as we were taught by our mentor, Patrick Sang, who gave me two important virtues: First, be honest and live honestly, and second, live truthfully and the rest will come naturally.”

CITADEL OF DISTANCE RUNNING

The location, complete with its pit latrines and other basic facilities, does not look like a place to prepare for a high-stakes international project like “Breaking 2 Mission to Mars”. But Kipchoge believes the camp, which usually goes quiet from as early as 7.30 pm, is the citadel of distance running and provides the perfect conditions for the big project.

Some of Nike’s athletics line products are also tested at Kaptagat by Kipchoge, who prefers to be called “Tester”. He files reports weekly on his experience on apparel and shoes for onward transmission to Nike’s development centre.

It is partly from this that Nike has developed a prototype shoe, which will spearhead the mission to break the marathon record.

Incidentally, Kipchoge was headed for a world record at the 2015 Berlin Marathon until a malfunction saw the in-sole of his designer Nike shoes pop out — but he still won the race.  The uncomfortable experience, for which the sports company apologised, turned out to be the best testing ground for the Nike Streak 6 prototype currently one of the best-selling brands, he says.

At Kaptagat, roads are dusty, bumpy and extremely slippery in wet conditions. Forests are damp and temperatures are freezing at dawn while it can be extremely hot during the day.

“I test the shoes and monitor my body’s temperature changes in various attires from vests, shorts, trainers caps and socks,” says Kipchoge.

It has been stated that special diet and monitoring is needed for the “Breaking 2 Mission to Mars” project plus scientific monitoring almost to the level of being a guinea pig. Again, Kipchoge disputes this perspective as he sips his special energy diet drink supplement from Etixx, a Dutch food company which has endorsed him.

“We are just like a school here. We shall eat rice and beans for lunch, ugali and sukumawiki for dinner and a lot of tea,” he says. 

Kipchoge believes in mineral and fibre-rich African food and says he also alternates with chapati, stew and githeri mixed with rice.

This is what is going to sustain his preparation for the mission until May. It is an exciting project for Kipchoge who says that even if he breaks the world record, that “won’t be the finishing point” of his career yet. The marathon champion trains six days a week with the exception of Sundays when he goes to church at the Eldoret Town Cathedral before passing by his home to visit his family. Like every staunch Catholic, Kipchoge always carries his rosary.

Sometimes he lifts makeshift weights for fun at the camp but on other days he goes to a nondescript gym in Eldoret town for a more structured session with his trainer Ben.

His greatest hope is that he will get moral support from Kenyans in the mission that many experts have for decades said is impossible. It is something he touched on last month during his acceptance speech after being voted the best in last month’s Safaricom Sports Personality of the Year Awards.

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I beg all of you to wish me luck as I prepare to go beyond the human limitation by involving myself in Nike project “Breaking 2” which will see me running a marathon under two hours. My journey is on till May and I invite the interested parties to partner with me in this noble journey and show the world that marathon is life and human has no limitation,” he told the audience.

Crucially, Kipchoge says remunerations for the world record, logistics and other non-competition issues will be handled by his management team, Global Sports Communication – headed by Dutchman Jos Hermens – to give him time to concentrate on his training.