Losing just doesn’t seem to exist in Eliud Kipchoge’s vocabulary. Having achieved almost everything in athletics, the 35-year-old world marathon record holder is looking for fresh challenges.
He has the Olympic marathon title, the world marathon record and is the first man to run the marathon in under two hours.
It’s now about doing it all over again, and there could be no fresher challenge than the prospect of the Kenyan legend coming up against the second fastest marathon runner in the world, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele.
And this was the big news in the last week when organisers of the London Marathon announced that the pair would come head-on at the year’s race in the English capital on April 26. The prospects are mouthwatering.
Kipchoge shattered the world marathon record, clocking two hours, one minute and 39 seconds at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.
And on the same streets of the German political capital, Bekele, 37, came within just two seconds of the record, running 2:01:41 last September.
But Kipchoge, who became the first man to dip under two hours in the marathon, running 1:59:40 in Vienna last October, is happy to deal with the pressure that comes with a Bekele duel. And he has already said he wants to do ‘something special’ in London.
“I don’t want only to win, but to achieve. You can define ‘achieve’ on your own,” he said in an interview last Tuesday at the NN Running Team/ Global Sports Communication camp in Kaptagat, Elgeyo-Marakwet County, his “home” for the last 17 years.
Just what makes him special?
“My element is what makes me the best,” he responds. “Talent plus passion equals to element… I have passion in sport and that’s what drives me.”
Kipchoge’s mental strength makes him stand head and shoulders over the rest, dominating distance running consistently since 2003 when he won the 5,000 metres gold medal at the Paris IAAF World Championships.
“It’s about setting my priorities right and knowing what I will be doing day in, day out,” he explains.
“All in all, I respect the training and I do the training in the ideal time and over the ideal distance.
“Every season I try to do my best. I always challenge myself,” he adds, and transitions to his philosophical self when asked what he does differently each season to stay at the top, maintaining that no season is the same.
“It’s the same system but different times, different days, different months, different years… 2018 is not like 2019 and 2019 is not like 2020. A night is not like daytime.
“If today you are doing a long run for two hours on a Thursday, you won’t do the same next year… today is the 14th and it’s a Tuesday. Next year, January 14th cannot be a Tuesday. It will be a Wednesday... it’s a different thing.”
The father of three, whose wife Grace Sugut and children Gordon, Griffin and Lynn were at the finish line in the epic INEOS 1:59 Challenge in Vienna last October, has religiously kept a diary, jotting down significant daily occurrences.
On the day of this interview, his entry read 16 x 10, referring to the morning speed work session where he and NN Running Team colleagues’ focused on running 1,600 metres 10 times on the track in Eldoret.
“If you don’t write things down then you will be empty,” he explains.
“I need to put down everything to show the next generation that I was well organised, I know what I’m doing and I love what I’m doing.
“It’s like going to class and not taking notes. They say ‘ink it and you will remember it.’ So I’m doing that for the future generations.”
AVID READER OF BOOKS
Kipchoge loves pressure, and isn’t distracted by the focus on him conquering obstacles.
“Pressure is really huge. When you perform well, there’s more pressure on your shoulders.
“There’s the pressure from somebody who is wishing you well, and there’s also the pressure from someone who is pressing you to perform. It’s both ways. I always want to stay normal. The pressure should be there but I don’t want to put it in my mind.”
Besides a solid training regime, Kipchoge’s mental strength comes from reading. He’s an avid reader of books. All sorts of books. Inspirational, business… all sorts.
“I don’t repeat books. When it’s over I put the book in my library, and if I really need it again, then I can go back to the library and get it.”
His current choice is The Infinite Game, an October, 2019 release by British-American author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek.
“It’s a really interesting book about sport as an infinite game and it’s about how you look at how you should handle sport compared to doing business,” he offers a sneak peek.
Kipchoge religiously spends weekdays at the Kaptagat camp, some 24 kilometres from his Elgon View home in Eldoret, breaking for the weekend on Saturday to spend time with his family. And even while on a “break” in Eldoret, he throws in a Sunday morning run before heading to Church. A devout Catholic, he’s mostly at Mass at the Eldoret Cathedral.
“I just eat, sleep, read and talk to these guys,” he describes his daily life in the camp while pointing at his training mates who include world half marathon record holder Geoffrey Kamworor, his heir-apparent.
He doesn’t miss the prime time television news and is also an avid fan of English Premier League football club, Tottenham Hotspur, which has Kenyan captain Victor Wanyama on its roster.
“I see humanity in Tottenham,” he describes the side he has supported for four years now. “They are not only footballers, they are human beings… and Wanyama is also there.
“I was attracted by how (former Spurs coach Mauricio) Pochettino was handling the team, bring people like Harry Kane from down to up…”
Despite his massive riches, Kipchoge — whose talent was discovered by 1992 Olympic steeplechase silver medallist Patrick Sang — is not a show-off and doesn’t fancy driving around in expensive SUVs like other global sports stars.
“I don’t envy people with big cars, helicopters and everything… that’s their life,” he reacts.
“What I want is to inspire someone… I don’t think I need a one million-dollar car to drive around.”
To Kipchoge, Sang, who has guided him for close to two decades now, is more than a coach.
“Patrick is important to me because he discovered my career, he has nurtured my career and he has managed my career for that long,” he says of his village mate from Kapsisiywa, Nandi County.
“Patrick is my sports coach and on the other hand he’s my life coach.” After breaking the two-hour barrier in Vienna, Kipchoge predicted exciting times ahead in distance running and, indeed, Brigid Kosgei (2:14:04), Kamworor (58:01) and Rhonex Kipruto (26:24) have since shattered world records in the women’s marathon, half marathon and 10-kilometre road race, respectively.
“Record are made to be broken,” he responds. “Records will always be broken if you get the right people and the right people to mentor the athletes and tell them that they should challenge themselves and build their careers, and know that it’s not just about winning, but running a fast time, breaking a world record, breaking a course record…
“If all athletes understand that and feel hungry for that, then world records will be broken.”
Kipchoge has won 12 of his 11 marathons, his only defeat coming in the hands of compatriot Wilson Kipsang at the 2013 Berlin Marathon.
And even then, Kipsang won in a then world record time of 2:03:23.
That Kipsang was last week suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit for violating anti-doping regulations sent shock-waves throughout the world.
And Kipchoge doesn’t have kind words for drug cheats.
“It’s unfortunate,” he reacts to the rising Kenyan doping cases.
“People should have a clean career. They say the moment you are on your death bed, you will be killed by guilt.
“There’s no point explaining and convincing (that one is innocent).
“Explaining and convincing means that you are guilty. I convince by training hard and going to a race.”
The sub two-hour run in Vienna obviously took its toll on Kipchoge, but he’s confident he has recovered well and ready to do “something special” in London in April.
OLYMPICS MARATHON RACE
“I recover very well, although this time (after Vienna) it was different from other years, but I treated it in a positive way and a human way which has actually allowed me to come back for training.”
Kipchoge relishes the upcoming marathon challenge with Bekele in London. “Sport is about competing with anyone. I’ve raced with him several times,” he says of Ethiopia’s multiple world and Olympic champion and record holder whom he defeated to win gold in the 5,000m at the Paris IAAF World Championships in 2003.
“If you want to appreciate sport, then you also have to appreciate defeat,” he adds, philosophically.
Finally, his thoughts on the Olympic marathon race following the shift from Tokyo to Sapporo due to high temperatures expected in the Japanese capital?
“It’s a simple thing. Everyone will be running in Sapporo under the same weather, in the same course at the same time, breathing the same air…
“It will be OK for Sapporo to host the marathon races for men and women and also the race walk.”
Definitely, we’ve not seen the last of distance running’s G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)!