On June 11, 1978, Dutchman Jos Hermens paced Kenyan Henry Rono to a world record in the 10,000 metres at the Leichtathletik-Zentrum Wien (Vienna Athletics Centre).
The Kenyan legend clocked a new world best of 27 minutes and 22.05 seconds on a track which still stands today at the tree-lined Prater Park in the heart of the Austrian capital.
Last weekend, some 41 years later, Hermens, 69, was back at The Prater, this time not for pacemaking duties, but to conjure up a rich ensemble of pacemakers and orchestrate one of mankind’s greatest ever sporting performances.
In a nation that’s the birthplace of the world’s best ever classical music composers — Wolfgang-Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn — and the permanent residence of another, German-born Ludwig Van Beethoven, Hermens and his team skilfully composed Kenyan world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge’s historic sub-two-hour run in the iconic 42-kilometre distance in the Austrian capital.
Kipchoge, 34, crossed the finish line at Meireistrasse in one hour, 59 minutes and 40.2 seconds, with a crowd estimated by Viennese police at 120,000 cheering him on throughout the 90 per cent straight, 9.6-kilometre circuit that had a net gradient change of 0.06 per cent, thus offering the best recipe for speed and precision.
Hermens is now the chief executive and founder of Global Sports Communication, the athlete management company that boasts Kipchoge as one of its clients. Based in the small city of Nijemegen, in The Netherlands, Hermens’ stable also handles the interests of, among others, Ethiopian legends Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie, and multiple Kenyan cross country and world half marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor.
How the idea was hatched
Hermens described Kipchoge’s performance as “epic” and narrated how the idea of breaking the two-hour barrier was hatched in 2014.
It was, basically, Nike’s answer to Adidas after three Adidas-sponsored athletes – Dennis Kimetto, Patrick Makau and Wilson Kipsang – all broke the world record in a three-year blitz between 2011 and 2014, all wearing the famous Adidas Boost racing shoes.
“We actually started planning for this in 2014 after Dennis Kimetto broke the world marathon record, and he was the first one to run a sub-2:03 time,” the silver-haired Hermens explained.
In December 2014, the sub-two project was then started in partnership with sports and exercise science professor Yannis Pitsiladis and Ethiopian marathon legend Gerbselassie, himself a former world marathon record holder.
“We went to Nike and Nike adopted the project, and so in May 2017 we had the event in Monza and Eliud just missed it (by 26 seconds).”
Hermens says the exclusive Monza run, which wasn’t open to the public or media but was live-streamed on Nike’s website, taught them three key lessons.
“First, there were no crowds in Monza and we had a fantastic crowd today (in Vienna). Eliud really needed the crowd. Second, the humidity here was much, much better than Monza, and the other problem in Monza was with the drinks, he needed to get more carbohydrates. And, third, today we had a 100 per cent score in getting the fluids and carbohydrates to Eliud, which we were handing out from a bike.
“We knew this course was going a little bit downhill and we were giving the drinks there, but in Monza we had a problem as we were giving the drinks uphill and he couldn’t drink enough.”
Kaptagat for his pre-race training
Kipchoge could have chosen to train anywhere in the world, from the high altitude of St Moritz in Switzerland to the grandeur of Oregon, home of his shoe sponsors Nike, but Kipchoge settled for Kaptagat on the border of Elgeyo-Marakwet and Uasin Gishu counties, which he describes as “the best place in the whole world for distance running training.”
Flanked by farmlands, dusty trails and the tranquillity of the Kaptagat Forest, Kipchoge endured a Spartan life away from his wife Grace and children Lynn, Griffin and Jordon, and churned out up to 200 kilometres in training each week under the watchful eye of his coach of 19 years, Patrick Sang.
At the camp, run by Global Sports Communication (GSC), Kipchoge had a group of about 30 athletes for company, with the athletes spending Monday to Saturday putting in the hard work before breaking on Sundays for prayer and brief reunions with family.
“The camp is like a second home to the athletes,” Sang said in the build-up to Vienna. “It’s free of distractions.
“When the athletes are in camp, they also get technical skills and medical support, which they don’t have at home.”
Kipchoge always appreciates his training group.
“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time,” he says, and adds, philosophically: “100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one per cent of the team.”
The training in Kaptagat is interspersed with speed work on the track in Eldoret. Basically, it’s a well-choreographed repertoire of gym work, easy runs, fartlek sessions, track workouts and long runs.
Peter Nduhiu, Kipchoge’s long-time personal physiotherapist, has been on hand to take care of the legend’s fitness, recovery and ensure he’s injury-free, with 10-minute ice baths twice a week part of his prescription.
“We had a long period of preparation, preparing the muscles, taking care of the risks that could bring in injuries and taking care of those little things that could pop up during training, and in general making Eliud cope with the training stresses,” Nduhiu explained in Vienna on the eve of the Challenge.
Sports nutritionist and biochemistry expert Armand Bettonviel was also a critical player in “Team Kipchoge”, modifying the legend’s diet to ensure he was in optimal shape on race day.
He needed to first establish the exact day of the Challenge to meticulously conjure up bespoke nutrition for the champ.
“I could not extend it very much because he would start to put on weight from having more fuel, and that would not enhance his performance,” he said.
He further explained that, in the build-up to the race, consuming 100 grammes of carbohydrates “could result in Eliud’s weight increasing by 400 grammes due to water retention.”
The main challenge would then be to ensure Kipchoge was well hydrated during the race.
Innovations in pacemaking
Innovations in the pacemaking simulations also improved a great deal from the 2:00:25 Monza run, with 41 pacemakers in all involved in Vienna, headed by USA’s Kenya-born multiple world and Olympic champion Bernard Lagat.
A constant pace of two minutes and 50 seconds was set in order for a sub-two-hour time to be realised. This means Kipchoge was to run each 100 metres in 17.05 seconds or 200m in 34.17.
The pace would compare to running 400m in one minute eight seconds, or 800m in two minutes 16 seconds.
He would cover 5,000m, 10,000m and the half marathon in 14:13, 28:26 and 59:59, respectively.
A group of seven pacemakers ran with him in turns, five in the front in a ‘V’ formation to block him from the wind, and two behind him to even the pace.
Above all, a zero-emission Audi e-tron electric car was ahead of the pack, beaming green laser lights onto the tarmac and reflecting the required pace for the pacemakers to follow.
The weather challenge
To ensure the Challenge was run under the best possible conditions, the weather team worked from three different forecasts.
The first was used to decide when Kipchoge should travel to Vienna, the second to pick the day of the event and the third to pick the precise two-hour window “for optimal conditions on the day.”
Scientist Robby Ketchel was tasked with finding the venue that would have the best chance of getting the perfect weather, working with Walter Zwieflhofer, a meteorologist with the INEOS TEAM UK sailing team.
“We wrote a bespoke tool that went out and searched the weather data from stations all around the world,” Ketchel explained.
Vienna was eventually selected “because it offered the best chance of getting the right environmental conditions, along with other parameters, like time and zone.”
Vienna temperatures for October were forecast as between 6.4 and 14.3 degrees Celcius, with an average humidity of 79 per cent, wind speed of 9.1 kilometres per hour and precipitation of 0.33 millimetres, the right mix for a record-breaking run.
The shoe he wore
While Hermens didn’t want to give too much away about the Nike shoe that Kipchoge wore last weekend, the Dutchman agreed that a lot of work had been put into its research and development.
The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoe was reportedly fitted with a plate and some foam that provided extra cushion.
“Look, I remember when Haile Gebrselassie, Patrick Makau and Dennis Kimetto broke the world record five, six times, they were all using the Adidas Boost shoe,” argues Hermens, a former Dutch 10,000 metres champion.
“We were then complaining to Nike that the Nike shoes were not good, because the Boost would give you more energy back when you hit the ground.
“Those days Adidas had a better shoe. But now, perhaps, Adidas has a better shoe. It’s part of the process, like producing better cars, better televisions, faster computers… there’s no secret about it.”
Technology behind the special pace car
According to Peter Vint, the INEOS 1:69 Challenge’s performance team manager, the use of the pace car was the only way to ensure an even pace was maintained.
“Anyone who has ever run a marathon will know just how hard it is to run the whole distance at the exact same pace,” explains Vint. “And while elite athletes are very much better at it, a marathon distance run in just a few seconds under two hours requires exceptional accuracy.”
With Kipchoge traditionally going faster and slower in his marathons, Vint’s team was tasked with ensuring his consistency.
“The problem is that any variation in pace can cause energetic demands that are more difficult to deal with than having a steady pace,” he explains. “And it’s a well understood edict of distance running that the fastest times are set when the pace is even.”
Vint’s team wasn’t taking any chances. They argued that the cruise control systems (settings that enable a car travel at a constant speed) were not 100 per cent accurate.
“Very few cars have an accelerator resolution that can give you better than 0.1 kilometres per hour. If you extrapolate that over the course of a 42-kilometre race, that ends up being seconds of time that are left unaccounted for,” he explained.
Briefly, if the pace car ran 0.1 kilometres per hour too slow over two hours, it would have meant that Kipchoge was going to clock 2:00:34.3, a “big enough error to derail the entire Challenge.”
Vint’s team was then to get Kipchoge over the line in 1:59:50, with The RML Group, a high performance automotive engineering company, hired to deliver that precision.
They chose the Audi e-tron, a fully electric SUV with plenty of space for equipment and zero emission.
Kipchoge, his pacemakers and the car were all fitted with transponders that were read at each kilometre to provide accurate feedback on split times and speed.
“This allows the car to apply a further correction as it travels around the course,” explained Chris Francis, head of the Powertrain division at RML Group’s headquarters in Wellingborough, UK.
Just to be sure, a second back-up car with the same software as the main car was lined up on standby.
The cars were fitted with lasers that projected a formation pattern and pace line on the road to help the pacemakers stay in position. The car also had a digital LED board for Kipchoge and the pacemakers to keep track of the time.
Global reach of the challenge
Woven together under the INEOS 1:59 Challenge banner, thanks to gargantuan financial support from British petrochemicals firm INEOS and it billionaire founder-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the October 12 spectacle baffled naysayers and triggered mind-boggling statistics.
For instance, its live stream on YouTube attracted over five million views, with 49 broadcasters airing the race live to over 200 territories globally, reaching an estimated 500 million viewers.
The news of Kipchoge’s successful assault on the last major athletics barrier was covered 9,344 times by 1,081 television channels worldwide as it broke.
Organisers also say that, between October 1 and 13, there were 9,789 online press articles on the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, with a cumulative potential readership of 2.2 billion people.
The Nation Media Group was singled out for running a weekly, then daily countdown infographic in the Daily Nation, Saturday Nation and Sunday Nation over three months ahead of the Challenge.
Meanwhile, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge’s and Kipchoge’s social media channels attracted a combined 39.8 million video views and 2.6 million engagements on race day.
“As the event came to a conclusion, five out of seven top trending topics worldwide on Twitter were about the INEOS 1:59 Challenge,” the organisers added, with the main hashtags being #INEOS159 and #NoHumanIsLImited.
“While Kipchoge and the performance team were set the incredible challenge of running the first ever sub-two-hour marathon, it was our responsibility on the engagement side of the Challenge to ensure that we fulfilled Kipchoge’s dream to inspire the world and leave a legacy that no human is limited,” said Jo Grindley, head of the INEOS Team UK.
The course was carefully picked by scientists, pacemakers articulately selected by the technical team, and the Olympic champion’s routine meticulously scrutinised by
A tight routine on race day
On race day, Kipchoge had a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and drank a bottle of Maurten, a virtually tasteless hydrogel that’s quickly absorbed into the body.
During the race itself, Valentijn Trouw, the athletes’ manager at GSC, was tasked with handing Kipchoge his drinks from a bike, rather than the traditional drinks table, to ensure efficiency and cut down the crucial seconds.
In 2017, Kipchoge fell just 26 shy of target in a similar run organised by Nike under the Breaking2 banner at the Autodrome Nationale Monza, Italy’s famous Formula One race track.
Administration of drinks was noted as one area that needed improvement from the Monza experience, besides the pacemaking technique.
“The biggest difference between Monza and Vienna is that in Monza, everything was new for Eliud,” explained Trouw. “He had never been in a situation like that and there was huge pressure on him because his marathon personal best time was then 2:03, which means he had to go three minutes faster.
“Here in Vienna, he had the experience, he had set the world record (2:01:39 in Berlin last year) and had one time come 25 seconds close to breaking the two-hour mark. That experience and that confidence helped a lot to get the good outcome in Vienna.”
‘A sensational result’
On the eve of the race, officials and volunteers from the Vienna City Marathon swept the entire course, making sure not a leaf stood in between Kipchoge and glory.
And when the Olympic champion crossed the finish line with the clock reading 1:59:40.2, tears of joy flowed freely with the scientists, coaches, physios, management teams along with Deputy President William Ruto — who joined INEOS chairman and founder Sir Jim Ratcliffe at the finish line — besides themselves with joy.
Ratcliffe, Britain’s wealthiest person, with an estimated fortune of $26.85 billion (Sh2.7 trillion), had dispatched one of his private jets, a Gulfstream G280, to pick up Eliud from Eldoret and drop him in Vienna.
His massive investment in the INEOS 1:59 Challenge had paid off.
“It was sensational. I’m so pleased with Eliud. He always believed he could do it, but sometimes you never know until the day,” said Sir Jim after the epic race.
“It was a sensational result. In the last five metres when he came through to the finish line with that smile on his face, his fist in the air, he looked fabulous!
“He’s the finest distance runner the world has ever produced. A remarkable character and also a wonderful man. This is one of those wonderful moments in history. No-one will ever do it again, to break the two hour for the first time.
“You should be very proud of Eliud and very proud being Kenyan,” Ratcliffe reacted in an exclusive interview with the Nation.
Kipchoge had been elevated to immortal status, a true Kenyan shujaa.
“I think together we have gone to the moon and now we’re back down on earth,” Kipchoge summed it up after the race.
“For the last two hours we were on the moon and after breaking the two-hour barrier we’re back on earth.
“The message that no human is limited is now in everyone’s mind, and it shows that if you believe in something, put it in your heart, transfer to your mind and save it in your mouth, it can be realised,” the legend added.
Story compiled on location in Vienna with resources from INEOS 1:59 Challenge. [email protected]