Three years ago, Nike launched an effort called Breaking2 to help three world-class distance champions attempt to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. That effort fell short by 26 seconds.
But the runner who came the closest, world record holder and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, still believed it was possible. And on Saturday, in another highly orchestrated effort, Kipchoge did what once seemed like fantasy: he ran a marathon in 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds.
1954 Roger Bannister breaks the 4-minute mile— INEOS 1:59 Challenge (@INEOS159) October 12, 2019
1969 Neil Armstrong walks on the moon
2009 @UsainBolt runs 100m in 09.58
2019 @EliudKipchoge runs a sub two-hour marathon#INEOS159 #NoHumanIsLimited pic.twitter.com/HMXnxRohE3
The event, dubbed the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, was bankrolled by a British billionaire. Kipchoge competed against the clock and the limits of human potential, and no one else. He ran on a perfectly flat course in Vienna in perfect weather. Nike tweaked their NEXT% marathon shoes for the run. Kipchoge had a small army of Olympic-caliber pace runners rotating in and out throughout the lapped race. An electric pace car with laser marks showed him the ideal route for the necessary pace. And in a change from Breaking2, there were spectactors: not just hundreds of thousands watching the livestream, but tens of thousands of people in Vienna to cheer Kipchoge on.
Lasers, high-tech shoes, dozens of human pacers, no competitors, a perfect course in perfect conditions: this was not a normal marathon (insomuch as any marathon is normal). But that does not cheapen the achievement. Everyone involved — most of all Kipchoge, the best marathoner in the world — worked together to accomplish an unbelievable goal using the best resources at their disposal. Human potential remains undefeated.
Ignore any suggestion that Kipchoge’s feat doesn’t count because of the bells and whistles of his attempt, or because this wasn’t a group competition. This was less an achievement for one person — though it absolutely should burnish Kipchoge’s legacy — than it was for humankind. From the material scientists working on the shoes, to the physiologists managing Kipchoge’s in-race nutrition, to the world-class runners (including the legend Bernard Lagat) who paced Kipchoge through the 26.2 miles, to the strategists who determined that a ‘V’ formation for the pacers would be more effective than the diamond formation used in Breaking2, to the folks who bankrolled the effort, to Kipchoge himself: this was an example of humans finding a limit and destroying it. Mission accomplished.
What great achievement wasn’t a group effort, anyway? Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon by himself. Roger Bannister had pacers for his first 4-minute mile. Magellan didn’t even finish the historic circumnavigation for which he’s known! Few notable victories, even the most seemingly individual triumphs, are not group efforts, really.
Of course, in a technical sense, 1:59:40 isn’t an official world record because of the lack of competitors. But Kipchoge holds the world record anyway at 2:01:39. The next step will be to replicate this performance — or get even closer to the 2-hour barrier — at a sanctioned race.
Can Kipchoge or another runner (like Kenenisa Bekele) do that soon? Maybe.
Can humans ever do it? Absolutely.
The hope here is not just for elite marathoners, but for the people who Kipchoge inspired to stare the impossible in the face and reject the idea of limitations. Kipchoge reminded us that what may seem impossible can always be conquered with enough human ingenuity and force of will.