His 36-year-old face has the creases of an older man. His smile has a light to it. His lean body speaks of a rigorous life. He talks like a philosopher from the hills.
“I want to run a beautiful race,” he said last week. Who knows what this means. But it’s too late, he’s gone.
Tick-tock. The clock goes.
Pad-pad. His shoes speak.
Eliud Kipchoge isn’t a runner, he’s an hypnotist. He makes your eyes flicker to the clock, then to his legs. This is a dance with only one move. Forward. The Kenyan doesn’t think in words. Only seconds.
It’s Sunday, 18 April, and Kipchoge is striding down a runway in the NN Mission Marathon at Twente Airport in the Netherlands. Parked planes peer at this wing-less Kenyan bird.
Kipchoge has a gravitational pull which is hard to explain. He compels you to watch by seemingly not doing much. In 125 minutes, you could watch The Great Dictator, or witness a three-set, clay bloodfest, or get through most of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. But for 125 minutes (2:04.30 on this day) Kipchoge will do nothing but run. He will not talk, smile, emote or shoulder anyone. He will simply run a loop again and again and you might pour yourself a vodka, and chat with a visitor, yet you can’t quite look away for two hours.
In those 125 minutes, he will make you think of streams, gene pools, meditation, flight, savannas, mechanics, thin air, cadence, pain, breathing and mathematics.
Rob De Castella, the former world record holder, once told me he lost roughly 50 toenails in his career. Kipchoge’s pedicurist is unavailable for comment but there was this story from 2015 in Berlin when both the insoles of his shoes started slipping out as he ran and later he said “there are blisters on the left foot and my big toe is cut, with lots of blood”. Still he finished in 2:04. Yes, bloody fast.
Kipchoge does not look fast except that he does not slow. When he timed 2:01.39 in 2018 and broke the marathon world record, his first 5km was in 14:24 (for comparison, the Indian national record for 5k is 13:29) and his last 5k split between the 35km and 40km mark was 14:20. It is too fast to even make sense.
At Twente Airport, he starts with gloves on and a hat. Eventually they will be discarded, tossed aside like water bottles, for marathoners are among the world’s great litterers. But then he leaves everything, and everyone, behind.
There are no crowds at this race, no curling roads, hills, buildings, rivers, it is just man and flat road. But on YouTube people are tuning in to watch, from Myanmar, Philippines, Brazil, from Russia, Latvia, Indonesia, from Bahrain, Poland, Vietnam, because there’s no place where people don’t run. On 13 April next year, you can even take part in the North Pole marathon. Polar bears might wave.
Marathons have a lovely shape. At the start the pack resembles a ball of wool and then slowly it unspools, till sometimes all you have left is a long string of runners. They need to beat each other or at least best a clock. Some will do it. Some might crawl over the line. Some might halt for a beverage as the local favourite, Georges Touquet-Daunis , did at the 1900 Olympics. He stopped for a beer after 12km, decided it was too hot, and declined any invitation to continue.
Almost no Olympic event—which is where Kipchoge, the defending champion, is headed in July—has such an eccentric history. There is time in the marathon—as a quick reading of David Wallechinsky’s The Complete Book Of The Olympics reveals—for brandy en route, chases by dogs, illegal rides in a car and unconscious runners by the roadside.
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One runner lost 10 pounds, one winner was offered a loaf of bread every day for an entire year and Emil Zátopek chatted with fans along the route. Abebe Bikila won in 1964 just 40 days after an appendectomy and Frank Shorter reportedly celebrated in 1972 with a few gins in a bathtub. Kipchoge probably prefers porridge.
The Kenyan loses marathons about as often as Rafael Nadal is body-slammed into the European dirt, but in October 2020 he came eighth in the London marathon and had to calm a correspondent by saying, “It’s not the end of the world.” But it is a new world and in his final pre-Olympic marathon, he wanted to restore order to it.
At Twente Airport, Kipchoge is one of three runners in front and they move in a tight V. Men learn flight formation from birds. He is too polite to puff and is part of a unique clan of athletes who make the difficult seem effortless. Enjoying running requires small acts of imagination. All runners hurt, sometime, somewhere, so what about him? Where does he put pain? Does he have second winds? Third? Should we name one after him? How many miles are there in his legs? Enough to go to Mars and back?
I had no fascination for the marathon beyond its history, till Haile Gebrselassie forced us to follow his smile down the road. Now Kipchoge is taking us further, insisting that there’s space for long-form poets in a short-attention-span planet, telling us there is more to sport than mere explosion. If you haven’t ever seen him run, take a long look at him like you might at a painting. Eliud Kipchoge in motion is a masterpiece.
At Twente Airport, his legs work like oiled pistons and even as he runs there’s a stillness to him. Only what needs to move moves. At the end, he is alone, in front, untouched, running as if he never sees a finish line, hoping that his beautiful race is never over.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.