Eliud Kipchoge proved why his unique cocktail of physical and mental strength is a huge asset when he chalked up his eighth win in nine marathons by securing victory in a rain-soaked 44th Berlin Marathon on Sunday.
The 32-year-old Kenyan’s winning time of two hours, three minutes and 32 seconds was outside the intended world record, but nonetheless saw him reaffirm his status as arguably the best marathon runner of all time.
Especially after his five-star challengers, defending champion Kenenisa Bekele and former world record holder Wilson Kipsang, ran out of gas midstream to deny fans what was expected to be an epic push past the historic Brandenburg Gate finish.
Bekele withdrew at the halfway mark with his manager Jos Hermens saying the rain and cold conditions affected his muscles, pretty much the same reason Kipsang also withdrew at the 30-kilometre mark, his agent Gerard van de Veen saying the former world record holder experienced muscle cramps and “could barely move.”
Interestingly, Sunday’s race was run against the backdrop of Germany’s parliamentary elections that saw the polls open simultaneously with the start of the marathon.
Christian-Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel was tipped to win a fourth term in office against a feeble challenge from the Social Democrat Martin Schulz who trailed the iron lady of Germany in latest opinion polls by 13 percentage points.
And while Schulz was struggling to catch up with Merkel, Kipchoge faced a huge challenge from the unlikeliest of contenders, free-spirited 26-year-old Ethiopian debutant Guye Adola who dared the king until the 40-kilometre mark before succumbing to inexperience to finish second in an amazing time of 2:03:46, the fastest time for a first-timer in the marathon.
Kipchoge and Adola were so dominant that they finished almost three minutes ahead of third-placed Ethiopian Mosinet Geremew (2:06:12).
The build-up to the race in the German political capital was exclusively tailored towards a world record run, with the three designated pacemakers — Sammy Kitwara, Gideon Kipketer and Geoffrey Rono — detailed to cross the halfway mark in one hour and 45 minutes, exactly one minute faster than the 61:45 that Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto crossed the 21-kilometre mark on his way to setting the current world record of 2:02:57 here in 2014.
But overnight rains and a humidity of 98 per cent ruined the party.
“The wet and slippery roads meant that it was difficult to run faster,” Kipchoge said.
Gladys Cherono completed a Kenyan sweep winning the women’s race in 2:20:23 in a carbon copy of the 2015 edition in which she and Kipchoge took the titles. Kipchoge’s winning time in 2015 was 2:04:00 which he achieved despite the in-soles of his Nike shoes popping out, while Cherono won in her personal best 2:19:25.
“My aim was to run a personal best, 2:18 something, but the rains and difficult conditions made it impossible, but I’m happy with my win, nonetheless,” said the Eldoret-based Cherono.
Iten-based Prague Marathon champion Valery Aiyabei was happy with her third place finish, in a personal best time of 2:20:53, Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga (2:20:41) splitting the Kenyans.
Only last May, Kipchoge fell just 26 seconds shy of becoming the first man to run the marathon in under two-hours, clocking 2:00:25 in a specially organized race in his shoe sponsors Nike’s “Breaking2” project. And yesterday, he fell 36 seconds outside Kimetto’s “legal” world record, near-success that motivates him to keep going.
“The world record is still on the top of my mind,” he said.
Kipchoge, 32, was his philosophical self, drawing positives from the Monza and Berlin races. “Before Monza, scientists spent time in the lab and concluded that man will only run under 2:00 in the marathon in 2075,” Kipchoge said. “Then they said the human being can only run 2:00 in 2055, and I proved them wrong. I even have a friend in India who said he would die before someone runs 2:00, which I did in Monza.”
It was all about getting physically and mentally ready for the Olympic champion after the Monza challenge to have a go at 2:02:57 in Berlin.
“The race had mental, physical and environmental challenges, and the entry of Adola — the unknown runner — into the mix made things more complicated,” Patrick Sang, Kipchoge’s coach and mentor said at the finish line.
“Our challenge as Kipchoge’s technical people was to cross over from Monza and prepare for this race, and to make sure that he didn’t get mental fatigue. Coming into Berlin the weather was good and although rain was forecast, we didn’t expect it this morning (yesterday).”
With the lead pack crossing the 21km mark in 61:29, against the intended 60:45, Kipchoge knew it was always going to be difficult, and matters were made more difficult with the no-holds-barred Adola hanging onto the Kenyan’s coat-tails going into the 40km mark.
“When someone comes from nowhere, you’ve got to have a second plan, and I tuned my mind towards winning because we were already out of world record pace,” Kipchoge said.
“I had to concentrate on the blue line (the shortest distance) as it was the only way to catch up with Adola after which I focused on the last two kilometres and on winning.”
Kipchoge was inside world record pace after five kilometres, clocking 14 minutes and 28 seconds against Kimetto’s 2014 pace of 14:41, but dropped as he crossed 10km to 29:05 against Kimetto’s 29:23.
The Olympic champion stepped up the pace to hit 15km in 43:44 vs Kimetto’s 44:09 at this stage, and was still on target after 25km (1:12:50 vs Kimetto’s 1:13:07) and 30km (1:27:24 vs 1:27:37).
That was when Kipsang dropped out and Kipchoge started hurting, dropping to 1:42:04 at 35km, chasing Kimetto’s 1:41:47 at this stage.
“It was at the 33, 34 kilometres that I knew it wasn’t going to be possible to break the record as I’d fallen behind by over 30 seconds,” Kipchoge analysed, adding that at this point, it was just safe to target an outright win.
Kipruto would drop back at 29km before Kipsang wilted to quit at 30km where the leader Kipchoge went through at 1:27:24.
The last pacesetter Kitwara dropped out alongside Kipsang leaving the battle in the last 12km to Kipchoge and Adola.
"This was my hardest marathon ever since the weather wasn't conducive for a World Record," said Kipchoge. "The grounds were slippery because of the rains."
Kipchoge said that Adola's challenge in the last 10km surprised him but he had to concentrate to win the race.