Berlin and a man named Kipchoge

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge wins the 2017 Berlin Marathon   | Photo Credit: Reuters

This Sunday, all eyes in the world of running will be focused on Berlin.

And on a small, wiry, almost perpetually smiling Kenyan who answers to the name of Eliud Kipchoge.

At stake, if the weather stays as cool and rain-free as is forecast for the German capital city, is the prospect of a new world record (WR) for the marathon.

For the 33-year-old, arguably now considered the greatest ever marathoner after having won nine of the 10 marathons that he has raced in since his debut at the 42.195km distance in 2013, the possibility must be truly exciting. He needs to shave just nine seconds off his personal best time to own the record.

And what better venue than the BMW Berlin Marathon, where the combination of a flat, fast course, a pack of top-flight pacers and ideal autumn weather has ensured that the event is now regarded as the undisputed WR marathon race. Its claim to fame cemented by the fact that the last six successive world records for the distance, for men, have been set on the course: since Kenya’s Paul Tergat, in 2003, knocked a good 43 seconds off the then best time to run the marathon in under 2 hours and 5 minutes for the first time ever. His time, 2:04:55.

After witnessing the record being broken twice more in that decade — in 2007 and 2008 by the incomparable Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie — Berlin saw the time being progressively improved upon thrice in the current decade, with the prevailing record of 2:02:57 set by Dennis Kimetto, another Kenyan, in 2014.

Chasing a dream

Kipchoge himself is quietly upbeat about his prospects, tweeting on August 6: “Working hard to make my 4th @berlinmarathon one to remember” and more recently on September 5 saying on his Twitter feed: “It’s only a crazy dream until you do it” along with a photo poster of him in a running singlet and super-scribed with a caption: “Don’t be the fastest runner in the world. Be the fastest runner in history.”

And as someone who has actually run the specific distance in an astonishing 2:00:25 as part of a controlled, specially designed project to try and break the 2-hour barrier last year, Kipchoge has every reason to exude confidence.

The reigning Olympic and 2018 London marathon champion, who will be defending his title at Berlin, has only once been bested at the distance in a race. And that was in his maiden year of marathon running and at Berlin, where fellow Kenyan Wilson Kipsang left him 42 seconds adrift and in second place as Kipsang ran a WR time of 2:03:23. Kipsang too will surely be nursing his own ambitions of setting a new WR by turning back the clock on his younger compatriot on Sunday. The 36-year-old, who had to agonisingly drop out of last year’s rain-soaked race in Berlin at about the 30km mark, is yet to make a podium in 2018 after his first and second place finishes respectively at the Tokyo and New York marathons in 2017. With a best time of 2:03:13 (run in 2016), Kipsang will likely ensure that Kipchoge stays focused on his own pace as the two hopefully reprise one more famous duel across the streets of the German capital.

Recent phenomenon

Interestingly, the domination of this sport by African runners, more particularly from the two East African neighbours of Ethiopia and Kenya, is less than two decades old.

According to the marathon records acknowledged by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), one of the earliest registered best times for male runners dates back to 1908, when an American, Johnny Hayes, ran the distance in 2:55:18 at a race in London. Over the next 44 years the time taken by athletes to complete the punishing run gradually shrank, till in 1952 Jim Peters of the UK set a new record of 2:20:42, more than 30 minutes faster than Hayes’ time.

Barefoot in Rome

However, it wasn’t until 1960, at the Rome Olympics, that an African runner first set a world record. Running barefoot, the then unheralded 28-year-old Ethiopian Abebe Bikila created history by winning the gold in a time of 2:15:16. And four years later in Tokyo, a now shod Bikila not only defended his Olympic title successfully but again set a new WR, this time of 2:12:11. But it has only been since Tergat’s run at Berlin in 2003 that the WR has remained firmly in the grip of either a Kenyan or an Ethiopian.

To the uninitiated, marathon running doesn’t seem an ideal spectator sport as one watches lean (almost skinny), loose-limbed runners pound a city’s roads with metronomic efficiency for a little over 120 minutes.

Even for many of those who have experienced the sheer physical and mental demands of running the gruelling 42.195km, the idea that the elite men run this distance in just a couple of minutes more than two hours, and in the case of the women in about 2 hours 20 minutes, can be fairly mind-boggling.

But the experience of watching some of the great marathon duels of recent times can be actually nail-biting.

Take the case of the 2016 Berlin marathon, where the Ethiopian 10,000m WR holder Kenenisa Bekele stuck close to Kipsang for a large part of the race before making his move around the 40km mark. Once he had overtaken the former marathon WR holder, Bekele’s finishing mastery from his days on the track took over as he effortlessly switched gears to ensure that Kipsang never got a chance at catching him over the next two-odd kilometres, winning in an impressive 2:03:03. His time was a good 10 seconds ahead of the Kenyan.

Or last year, again at Berlin, when a 26-year-old Ethiopian debutant at the distance, Guye Adola, found himself wanting for experience. Having made his break from the lead pack a tad too early, the long-striding Adola found himself lacking that key final reserve of energy to fend off Kipchoge as the veteran Kenyan effortlessly hauled him in and moved ahead decisively, a little past the 40th kilometre. Still, Adola’s 2:03:46 ensured him a place in history as the fastest ever marathon run by a first-time finisher.

To be sure, besides the glory of etching one’s name in the record books for all time, the winner stands to pocket a tidy $2,50,000.

But record or no record, when the starter’s gun goes off at 9.15 a.m. in Berlin on Sunday, both Kipchoge and Kipsang and all the other elite athletes will have but one thought in their heads — to make sure there is no one ahead of them when they cross the iconic Brandenburg Gate and sprint the last metres to the finishing tape.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 3:00:13 PM |

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