This was supposed to be a magical year in distance running, led by the sport’s warrior poet, Eliud Kipchoge.
In the past few years, Kipchoge has emerged as the embodiment of all that is beautiful about running — the Kenyan is wise yet ageless (in fact his actual age is the subject of much debate). In interviews, he’s plain-spoken and unpretentious, yet seems to transmit subtle profundities in simple conversations. His successes feel honestly routed in a one-to-one meritocracy that is unobtainable in virtually all other facts of life. Even though he is the only human in history to run a marathon in under two hours, his accomplishments seem mostly as if they are products of his monk-like lifestyle, work ethic, and modest demeanour, more so than his obvious genetic gifts. And his Yodaesque aphorisms (known as Kipchogeisms) cut elegantly through all of life’s bullshit and excuses, decluttering and laying bare truths that we often try to complicate and evade. Eliud Kipchoge is best summed up by one of his trademark marathoning strategies: when he feels pain late in a race, he chooses to calmly smile.
Going into 2020, it felt like Kipchoge was on the precipice of fully decoding the cypher that is the marathon, and was about to reveal how we, too, could be more Kipchogesque, and thus a more perfect version of our running selves. This year was supposed to be about further revelations in running, and the greatest of breakthroughs.
In April, Kipchoge was planning on facing off against his fiercest rival, Keninisa Beleke, at the London Marathon. The race was billed as a showdown to determine the greatest runner of all-time. The hype around the announcement last winter felt like a once-in-a-generation heavyweight fight—the two fastest marathoners in history, both at the peak of their powers, racing each other on the centrestage. It was billed as a moment that would elevate one of these two runners firmly into mainstream consciousness. Surely, Kipchoge would challenge his own world record, and there were even whispers of an attempt at a sub-two-hour marathon on a legit course. And then Kipchoge was planning on following up that race with the marathon at the Tokyo Olympic Games in August. It was all going to be so thrilling to behold. It seemed predetermined would yet again recast what is possible in the marathon.
There was a sense that, if Kipchoge could yet again deliver flawless performances in London and at the Olympic Games, he’d not only define himself as the best marathoner in history, but also perhaps the single-most dominant athlete ever. He was going to become the next Jordan, Serena or Messi.
Of course, none of that ended up happening. (At least, not yet.)
But through it all, Kipchoge’s presence is arguably more vital to the running community now than ever before. Sure, he didn’t set any world records in 2020, and didn’t even win the London Marathon when it was finally held on a closed course in October. Watching him fall off the pace in the final kilometres in London was more shocking than if he’d have run a sub-two hour marathon. That rather ridiculous expectation reveals just how much we rely on him to be great.
But even in defeat, Eliud Kipchoge is our sport’s greatest ambassador. He lost with grace and dignity, and was thoroughly comfortable revealing that, yes, he is in fact a mere mortal like the rest of us. In 2020, we learned many painful yet important lessons, including that even Eliud Kipchoge can have a bad day.
I would argue that his newly revealed fallabilty makes Kipchoge an even more compelling figure to cheer for — because now we know that, like us, he can make mistakes, have a bad run, and, as he will no doubt prove in 2021, persevere.
“If you want to enjoy sport,” Kipchoge said as he visibly trembled at the rainy post-race interview after he finished eighth in London, “You have to accept the results.” As with everything he seems to say, “sport” or “running” or “the marathon,” can be easily substituted with “life.”