Kenyan distance runner Eliud Kipchoge was born in 1984, when the world record in the men’s marathon stood at 2:08:05. Today, he holds the world record at that distance, having pared the time all the way down to 2:01:39. That achievement, not to mention back to back gold medals at the Tokyo and Rio Olympics, have inspired many to declare Kipchoge the GOAT (greatest of all time) in the marathon.
Kipchoge is known for his humility, but when pressed about what makes him better than his competitors, he concedes, “I think the difference between me and other marathoners is the professionalism. I am a real professional as far as running’s concerned,” he tells Deadline. “I follow what is required in sport. I really work hard. Even if I don’t feel like waking up I still wake up and just push myself. That’s what I mean by professionalism.”
Professionalism, and almost superhuman speed and endurance were required when Kipchoge set about breaking a barrier once thought impossible: running a marathon in under two hours. His effort to achieve that fabled mark, at a special event in Vienna in 2019, is told in the new documentary Kipchoge: The Last Milestone, directed by Jake Scott. The film, available now on demand, documents all that went into preparing for the race–from Kipchoge’s training regimen to the work of scientists, nutritionists and coaches assembled to help him reach his goal–and the race itself.
Scott struggles to find comparisons in human history to Kipchoge’s monumental undertaking.
“Before the race in Vienna there was some discussion and some parallels drawn between this attempt and landing on the moon. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a bit far fetched,’” the filmmaker recalls. “And then I watched it. As I witnessed what went into this and understood better the physical demands, the mental demands, the emotional demands… I couldn’t shake the understanding that this was comparable to a man landing on the moon.”
The film is transparent about the special conditions of the race which made the run ineligible for the record books: Kipchoge ran with a rotating group of elite pacemakers in a Y-shaped formation that minimized wind drag on him; a carbohydrate-rich drink was delivered to him by someone on a bicycle so that he didn’t lose steam grabbing water from a table, as happens in typical races; the course was modified to make it as even as possible, and Kipchoge wore a specially-designed model of Nike Vaporfly running shoes, which have been shown to improve long-distance runners’ performance.
Still, Scott and many others view Kipchoge’s feat as akin to Roger Bannister becoming the first human to run a sub-four-minute mile, back in 1954.
“I think Roger Bannister is a great one to look back to in terms of the milestone and the achievement. When everybody thought that was impossible, it was done,” Scott notes, “and then several people quickly followed [with sub-four-minute miles]. Nobody’s yet done the sub-two hour marathon, apart from Eliud.”
Kipchoge ran Vienna at an incredible 13.2 miles per hour; he covered every 400 meters on average in 1:08:06. The task required an extraordinary ability to endure pain mile after mile as he looped around the Hauptallee. As one physiologist notes in the film, “Actually, [Kipchoge’s] biggest asset is his mind.”
Most people’s thoughts stray when they run. Not Kipchoge.
“On the run I’m trying to [maintain] focus,” he explains. “I’m trying to forget all the things that might disrupt my running style and my thoughts are always on the road… I’m trying to understand the energy in my body and how the muscles in my legs are feeling. My mind’s actually on every kilometer—Am I in the right [pace], am I at the right time? What I’m trying to say is this: I’m trying to bring my mind, all my mind actually, to the race and try to keep away the interruptions.”
For Scott, the key challenges were creative and technical—how to capture the action as Kipchoge ran, given that a cocoon of pace setters surrounded Kipchoge, somewhat shielding him from view.
“In Vienna I realized that we couldn’t get around the pace car and then the pacemakers to see Eliud from the front, so we had to rely on the live broadcast [camera people], who did really well, I thought. It was very hard to get into a position to see Eliud close,” Scott remembers. “We obviously didn’t want to obstruct or get in the way. I kept looking at Eadweard Muybridge [the pioneering 19th century photographer], actually, and his motion studies… and thinking, ‘That’s the thing: you’ve got to go into a profile.’ I think when we were in profile on the Hauptallee [course] there we were able to really see subtle degrees of emotion or of mental state, at least perceive it.”
Most people think of long distance runners as engaging in a very solitary practice. But the film shows the degree to which Kipchoge approaches marathoning as a team sport—in training and in the Vienna race.
“One of the values that drives my career is teamwork,” Kipchoge says. “I believe a team is a group of people trusting each other, not a group of people who are [just] staying together… It’s in our mutual interest. You cannot perform as high as you want if you don’t have somebody else to push you. So we push each other and that’s where teamwork is coming in. In the future, the marathon will be a team sport. Running will be a team sport. It’s no longer an individual sport.”
Kipchoge finished his Vienna marathon in a time of 1:59:40. After the race, he said, for him, the achievement was about inspiring others.
“I am the happiest man in the world to be the first human to run under two hours and I can tell people that no human is limited. I expect more people all over the world to run under two hours after today,” he said. “I wanted to run under two hours and show human beings can do a good job and lead a good life. It shows the positivity of sport. I want to make the sport an interesting sport whereby all the human beings can run and together we can make this world a beautiful world.”