The ultimate marker of sporting achievement is participation in the Olympic Games. Qualifying for the Games in any discipline bestows upon a competitor the status of being among the elite of the world.
When they started the Games almost 2,800 years ago, the ancient Greeks had as their guiding philosophy that it was not so much the winning that mattered but taking part and discovering the best in oneself. To this day, that remains the Olympic creed.
But because our daily lives are characterised by an obsessive competitiveness that requires us to defeat the next person by any means possible, this simple, profound and timeless lesson is lost until Eliud Kipchoge emerges from among us to illustrate in the most dramatic fashion the real essence of its message: winning against oneself is all that matters.
Its reward is living in a state of arrival. In contrast, winning against others is a state of endless endeavour. Its guaranteed outcome is living in perpetual want. You will never succeed because there is always one more opponent to defeat. And another one. Ad infinitum. The result is having a hole in the heart and a hunger that shall never end.
Eliud Kipchoge is a man who has arrived. His friendliness and humility and his gentleness to a fault, speak of a man who has nothing left to prove. He is the quintessential anti-celeb who is all substance over style, thoughtful and not bombastic and whose manner is honest, simple and direct and therefore has no layer of subterfuge for us to strip in order to reach the real him. What you see is what there is, end of story.
He is the multiple champion of the pre-eminent race of the Olympic Games – the marathon. He is the men’s world record holder and now he has become the first human to run the race in less than two hours. In competition with the best marathon runners of the world on his way to becoming world and Olympic champion, he had attempted to run the sub-two hours but came short.
His world record of 2:1:39 set at Berlin was more than one and a half minutes away from the target. And in the Nike Breaking 2 Event in Monza, Italy, he came within 25 seconds. The man who lost a marathon only once – to countryman Wilson Kipsang in 2013 in a then world record of 2:03:23 – clearly knew that he had within himself to make history. His marathon average has been 2:03:42. It was about time to make the big move.
On May 6, 2019, marking the 65th anniversary of the day Roger Bannister of Britain clocked 3:59.4 to become the first human to run the mile in four minutes, Kipchoge’s team announced it would attempt a sub two-hour marathon. The plan of action laid out to achieve this elicited many negative reactions. It was dismissed as a stunt, a publicity gimmick and an inconsequential event since it wouldn’t make the official records anyway.
The rotating pacemakers and delivery of hydration by bicycle to save time and even the special running shoes were cited to disparage the challenge.
The one I found most curious was the absence of competitors; Kipchoge was going to run against himself! I thought: But isn’t this the very heart of the lesson he is teaching us? If nothing else, isn’t this the sole and most precious take-home lesson from this massive international collaborative effort?
Yes, all those extraordinary measures were put in place for the run. But did anybody take time to consider just how extraordinary this attempt was?
Athletes measure time in seconds; in fact, sprinters do it in split seconds. To shave two or three seconds out of a distance race is a remarkable feat. To attempt to remove 1min 39sec from a world record so as to run a sub two-hour marathon is to venture into life threatening territory. You need to be very, very sure of what you are doing.
So, don’t ridicule Paul Tergat for his assertion in 2013 when he is reported to have said: “Take it from me today; forget about it, it will never happen. It is impossible.” He was wrong but neither he nor the rest of us could contemplate the determination of those who believe, those who dare and those fascinated by the yet unseen capabilities of human beings and are willing to direct the material and intellectual resources available to them to make new discoveries. Tergat’s best marathon time was 2:04:55.
Before the race, Eliud Kipchoge talked about the first humans on the moon and on Mt Everest. It is just as well so that we can take into account the huge and painstaking preparations, including simulated test runs, before the team members were confident that the risk could be undertaken. We can add as well that these days, it is routine to board an Airbus A380 aircraft and take its safety for granted. But we forget that during that plane’s first flight, the test crew wore parachutes ready to bail out and abandon it in case things went wrong.
To do something new can be risky and unpredictable. The makers of Ineos 1:59 Challenge took every care possible in their quest for the record, leaving us many lessons that will last us the rest of our lives. Sometime in the future, running the marathon in under two hours in an ordinary race could well become routine. Eliud Kipchoge has shown the way by safely demolishing a great mental wall. But to do that, we must remember that any attempt to accomplish something so difficult was never going to be safely tried using a conventional manual.
What, then, are the main lessons to come out of this extraordinary effort? For me, as stated earlier, it is that the competitor resides within oneself and not out there.
The best of myself will come out of me and not from the futile pursuit of others. To run the greatest race of his life, Eliud Kipchoge competed against himself and not others – and that leads to the next lesson.
To bring out the best of yourself, you need collaborators and not competitors. The 41 pace setters, the nutritionists, the coach, the physiotherapist, the sponsor, the air crew, the domestic staff, the family, friends – indeed Eliud Kipchoge’s entire universe – were single-minded of one thing: to break the record.
In any undertaking in life, we must create a similar environment for ourselves. This means that every project that requires the participation of others, once understood by all concerned, must take on the character of the Ineos 1:59 Challenge. It has to be all hands on deck and any person not committed to the mission should ship out and make his or her contributions elsewhere. This applies especially to those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
The words of some cynics are enough to turn morale into vapour, leaving a group gasping for breath. Great leadership skill is needed to tap into the creative talents of team members and to allow for candid expression of ideas without allowing the project to lose focus and degenerate into bedlam where everybody checkmates everybody.
I thank Eliud Kipchoge for what he has done for the people who aspire to improve their character. What a leader he is as an athlete and as a man. Every once in a while in the course of our lives, our weary eyes turn away from the drudgery of our existence to behold an uplifting spectacle.
Such was what Kipchoge gave us in Vienna on October 12, 2019. For one short morning, our attention shifted to the streets of the Austrian capital where he and his pace setters were running in perfect choreography but each striving to find the best of themselves.
Their singular mission was to help make history. By so doing, they also encouraged us to look for the best within ourselves in whatever in life we were doing. They inspired us to go further and to rise higher.
When finally this race is finished, they won’t compile a tally of all the people we defeated by rearing more cows, camels and chickens nor will they make a roster of those we left on the wayside with our impressive collection of academic certificates and national honours. They won’t write the names of those we left cursing after we successfully overlapped them on our roads and felt good about it.
They will just write what we did and leave out the names of those we supposedly defeated in a spirited but illusory and ultimately meaningless competition. They will praise us if we had set a good example to those left behind or play gymnastics with words because the dead, however odious their conduct in life, are somehow excused from taking with them some home truths to the other side.
One day long ago, a headmistress was taking me through the end of term academic results. She had with her the results of all three terms and some continuous assessment tests. When I remarked that the class was led by the same girl, she said: “To us that doesn’t matter. What matters is individual improvement. If a student is improving her scores consistently, her rank in class is not an issue. But if she is dropping in her scores, even if she remains at the top, that is a matter of concern to us.”
Indeed. The only competition worth taking part in, never mind superficial appearances, is competition with oneself. And the self is a formidable opponent. With the best collaborators he could assemble, Eliud Kipchoge competed against himself and became the first human to run the marathon in less than two hours. We are fortunate to call him our own and to give ourselves the chance to try and follow his great example. He is a giant of the 21st century and on his shoulders the dreams of many people, young and senior, will take flight for generations to come.
I thank my faithful readers for staying with me throughout 2019. This being the last instalment of this column this year, I take the opportunity to wish you and your families a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.