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Eliud Kipchoge’s Road to Becoming The Greatest Marathoner Of All Time

The fastest-ever marathoner officially earned the title of world record holder with his awe-inspiring 2:01:39 victory at the Berlin Marathon

With simply awe-inspiring splits of 61:06 and 60:33, Eliud Kipchoge set a new world record of 2:01:39 at the Berlin Marathon on Sunday morning. The 33-year-old Kenyan is the first man to run under 2:02 in an officially-ratified marathon race and broke Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 world record by a previously unimaginable margin of 78 seconds.

“I lack the words to describe how I feel,” he said to press after the record-breaking run. “It was really hard [during the last 17 kilometers] but I was truly prepared to run my own race. I had to focus on the work I had put in in Kenya and that is what helped push me.”

What makes the record even more impressive is that Kipchoge—heralded as “the sport’s philosopher king” by Scott Cacciola of The New York Times for such introspective, inspiring quotes as “the best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today”—did most of the work on his own.

Two of his three pacemakers, Sammy Kitwara and Bernard Kipkemoi, dropped out shortly after 15 kilometers. Kitwara was expected to take Kipchoge through 30k, but could not manage the pace.

Instead, Josphat Kiptoo Boit was the last rabbit standing. The 22-year-old set his half marathon personal best at 59:19 earlier this year; he and Kipchoge crossed halfway less than two minutes off that pace, including a mind-boggling 5k split of 14:18 from 15k to 20k which would be the fastest of the race. Boit held on for another 5k (14:28 split) before leaving Kipchoge to battle through the last 10 miles solo.

“It was unfortunate,” Kipchoge said, “but I had the belief and I was really ready for Berlin. I had to push by my own.”

At 30k, Kipchoge was on pace for exactly 2:02:00; another 14:18 split dropped his projected final time down to 2:01:49. He wavered a bit after that, but put on a brilliant final surge through the last 2,000 meters—averaging 4:29 mile pace—to cross the line in jubilant glee, an uncharacteristic show of emotion from the usually stoic distance runner.

With the run, Kipchoge captured his ninth consecutive marathon win and tenth career victory, including top podium finishes at the Rio Olympic Games and seven World Marathon Majors. His sole loss on the circuit was at the 2014 Berlin Marathon, when he earned runner-up honors behind Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:23 world record run.

This Sunday in Berlin, Kipsang was a well-beaten third in 2:06:48 behind Kipchoge and Amos Kipruto (2:06:23). The secondary pace group for Kipsang and Kipruto was never a factor against the machine that is Kipchoge.

Kipchoge earned his place in history with his nearly spotless racing resume and a 2:00:25 effort at the Nike-sponsored Breaking2 event in Monza, Italy last May. That run was not eligible for IAAF world record ratification due to irregular pacemaking. So, Kipchoge was the fastest man ever—but he record an equal time in condoned conditions?

His races since then included wins at the 2017 Berlin Marathon (2:03:32) and 2018 London Marathon (2:04:17) but weather conditions—rain in Berlin, heat in London—prevented the Kenyan from challenging Kimetto’s 2:02:57.

But with perfect weather conditions, it all came together.

No one has chopped that much time off the marathon world record since the 1960s. It’s hard to know what to think of Kipchoge’s mark, or, whether it’s even as impressive as his Breaking2 attempt.

Whether Kipchoge is able to further improve the official world record eventually or not, he certainly deserves his crown as the greatest of all time. Yet, fittingly enough, another world record quietly went down on Sunday afternoon as a Frenchman named Kevin Mayer broke Ashton Eaton’s world record in the decathlon by 81 points. His total of 9,126 points makes him the third man in world history to crack the 9,000-point barrier.

It wasn’t so long ago that Eaton—a two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion—was pronounced and believed to be the greatest athlete of all time.

All this is to say that records are meant to be broken. And champions will always inspire the next generation. Kipchoge has made his mark, but 2:01:39—and perhaps even 2:00:25—is not the end of the road.