It was a weekend of momentous events in the running world. Kenyan world-class marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier in Vienna, Austria. He completed 26.2 miles in 1:59:40—a feat that had seemed impossible, until Saturday.
The 34-year-old Olympic champion achieved his 1 hour, 59 minute, 40.2-second marathon under such tightly controlled and idealized conditions that it won’t qualify for a record book. The course was completely flat and tree-lined to block wind. The weather was as close to perfect as could be. Pacesetters—speedy racers who help a runner set and hold a perfect pace—alternated turns running alongside Kipchoge throughout the event until the very last 500 meters, when they peeled away and he finished on his own. A pace car preceded the pack of runners. It was equipped with a laser beam that projected the ideal position on the pavement, saving fractions of seconds for the runner at every bend.
Those conditions were designed by organizers of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge to maximize Kipchoge’s chance at success. But they also disqualify the event from comparison with current records—including the world marathon record of 2:01:39, which Kipchoge himself holds. Still, the result proves that it is possible for fearfully and wonderfully made human athletes to continue improving on spectacularly impressive goals.
In 1954, Roger Bannister—a British middle-distance runner—became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. In his weekend race, Kipchoge held an average pace of 4:33.5 for the 26+-mile duration. (That’s blazing fast, by the way!)
“It is a great feeling to make history in sport after Sir Roger Bannister,” Kipchoge said after crossing the finish line. “I am the happiest man in the world to be the first human to run under two hours. . . . I expect more people all over the world to run under two hours after today.”
In Chicago, another Kenyan marathoner took those words to heart. Inspired by Kipchoge’s performance, Brigid Kosgei was the winning woman at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday. She set a new world record in the event with her finishing time of 2 hours, 14 minutes, 4 seconds. The 25-year-old bested the previous mark of 2:15:25, set by Paula Radcliffe in London 16 years ago. She told The New York Times that after hearing of Kipchoge’s under-two marathon, she told herself, “Tomorrow is my day. I wanted to be the second Kipchoge—the Kipchoge for women.”
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta sent his congratulations to Kipchoge after the history-making event. He said, “Your win today will inspire future generations to dream big and aspire to greatness.”
Kipchoge says his mission goes beyond athletics. “We can make this world a beautiful world and a peaceful world,” through the “positivity of the sport,” he says.
(Eliud Kipchoge celebrates with the Kenyan flag after breaking the historic two-hour barrier for a marathon in Vienna, Austria, on Saturday, October 12, 2019. The Olympic champion and world record holder clocked 1 hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge. Jed Leicester/The INEOS 1:59 Challenge via AP)