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For decades, just the notion of completing a marathon in less than two hours was disregarded as a reality-defying undertaking.
Yes, the world record for completing 26.2 miles has dipped as the years go on. In 1908, Johnny Hayes crossed the finish line at the Olympic Games with a time of 2:55:18.
By 1967, that time clocked in at 2:09:36. In 2002? It dropped down to 2:05:38.
But to finish such a physical and mental feat in under two hours was tabbed as a threshold humans couldn’t reach.
Granted, Eliud Kipchoge might be the closest we’ve seen to a superhuman when it comes to distance running.
And ahead of his Boston Marathon debut on Monday, the world’s greatest marathon runner has his eyes set on conquering yet another course.
For the two-time Olympic champion and current world record-holder, eclipsing the Boston course record of 2:03:02 set in 2011 by fellow Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai stands as a tangible triumph on Patriots Day.
“It is very fast, but I try my best,” Kipchoge said of Mutai’s course record in an interview with The Boston Globe reporter John Powers. “I will put all my mind here, try to push myself to see what will happen.”
But given Kipchoge’s credentials, could a sub-two-hour marathon potentially be within his grasp?
“The professors in the science department are saying, ‘There is no human being who can run two hours before the year 2075,’” Kipchoge said back in 2018. “So I had to actually prove to them that I am one of them, and I can run that time.”
He accomplished the feat at the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna in 2019, completing a marathon with a time of 1:59:40.
And even though that performance wasn’t recognized as a world record due to the 1:59 Challenge featuring rotating pacemakers and other optimized conditions geared toward getting Kipchoge under 2:00:00, the 38-year-old runner has continued to inch closer to that coveted record during open competition.
In 2018, Kipchoge set an official world record at the Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:01:39. Four years later, he shattered his own mark by 30 seconds.
If there’s anyone who can break Mutai’s record in Boston — or even slip under a sub-two-hour mark from Hopkinton to Boylston Street — it’s probably Kipchoge.
But even with his accolades and stringent training, Boston presents a daunting challenge for even someone as accomplished as Kipchoge.
It’s one thing to try to wrap one’s head around completing a marathon in under two hours.
But the already monumental achievement becomes even more daunting upon breaking down the sustained level of elite performance necessary to complete it.
When Kipchoge posted 1:59:40 in Vienna back in 2019, he operated at an average pace of 13.2 miles per hour.
Essentially, he outran a number of MBTA trains operating at that pace — and didn’t break that stride for a little under two hours.
That’s far more impressive than screeching between Boylston and Park Street station in just a couple of minutes.
There have been multiple videos posted that show the chasm of skill and endurance between Kipchoge’s pace and most skilled runners. It’s a sizable achievement to break a mile in under 5:00. But Kipchoge averaged 4:34 per mile in Vienna … and did it over 26 straight times.
“There is no doubt that Kipchoge is at the top of the world for his fitness, his VO₂ max, his lactate threshold, his mental stamina,” running coach Alison Marie Helms told Dave Holmes of Runner’s World. “But what truly sets him apart is the efficiency of his stride. Just watching him run, the fluidity of it is mesmerizing. No energy is wasted.”
But even if Kipchoge is a tier above the rest of the field, Boston isn’t exactly the course where records are toppled.
Considering that the Ineos 1:59 Challenge was an undertaking specifically catered toward getting Kipchige under 2:00:00, it came as little surprise that his performance wasn’t logged as an official world record.
The Boston Marathon falls under the same designation in that any potential records set on Monday won’t be counted by World Athletics.
But while the Ineos challenge was scrubbed from the record books because of its optimized conditions, the Boston Marathon is the exact opposite.
World Athletics doesn’t etch those races into the official ledger because, well, there are too many variables at play up in Boston.
Whether it be the hilly terrain scattered across the route, the unpredictable weather that can stop even the most talented runners in their tracks, or a non-circular path through the Commonwealth that opens the door for both tailwinds and headwinds, Boston can be a slog.
It should come as no surprise that most record-breaking performances, including Kipchoge’s 2022 masterclass, have come at the Berlin Marathon — an event noted for its flat terrain.
Kipchoge will not be afforded those same luxuries in Boston on Monday.
“Berlin and Boston are two different races on different continents. Berlin is a flat course. Boston on the other hand, is uphill and needs a lot of patience and hard work to go through,” Kipchoge told Olympics.com. “Boston is unpredictable and sometimes the weather is challenging but I am trying to be all-rounded.”
It’s why Mutai’s 2:03:02 in 2011 still remains the gold standard in Boston, even as other runners like Kipchoge have posted “official” times close to two minutes below that. Since 2011, no runner has even posted a time under 2:05:00 in Boston.
While Mutai benefited from a strong tailwind throughout that 2011 race, it remains to be seen what awaits Kipchoge and the rest of the field on Monday morning.
Still, many are not counting out Kipchoge, given his body of work.
“The guy could run Hopkinton to Boston and back to the starting line before I’ve taken the right onto Heartbreak Hill,” Brian Oates, who has run the Boston Marathon for 27 years, told Runner’s World. “I mean, the guy is one of one.”
Kipchoge’s training regimen, much like his marathon performances, is usually without equal.
During his usual routine, Kipchoge runs up to 136 miles per week.
During the lighter sessions that logs with his team, Kipchoge still clears a kilometer (0.6 miles) in under five minutes. Every two weeks, Kipchoge and his staff also take part in a “long run” that totals 24.8 miles. His rest day” still includes a leisurely 12-mile run.
But even with the amount of mileage he’s tacked onto his treads, Kipchoge has augmented his training to cater to the unique challenges found in Boston.
As Kipchoge looks to topple what would be his fourth Marathon Major course record, his training in his native Kenya has centered around a 40km course designed to replicate the hilly terrain that awaits on Patriots’ Day.
“The place where I am training is up and down, so I think there is no disadvantage, but we need to put more effort now,” Kipchoge told Powers. “I trust that my normal training can cover many things. I will sit with my coach at the table and see what is necessary. I need to tell my muscles, ‘Hey, next marathon I am going will be a hilly place.’’
Conquering Boston and putting forth a record time is not lost on Kipchoge, even with the amount of accolades he’s already garnered.
“I think I will be known more, not in Kenya alone but across the world,” Kipchoge told Powers of a victory on Monday. “Boston is a rich city as far as sport is concerned, especially the marathon. It is the oldest marathon. It is the DNA of nearly all the marathons. So it is good to win Boston and naturally put my name in every mind of an American.”
Still, the Boston Marathon spares few, even the world’s best. Kipchoge and the rest of the distance-running elite could be racing in the rain on Monday. Traversing Heartbreak Hill is a far cry from what is charted out in Berlin.
There are few runners quite like Kipchoge, if any. But there might not be a tougher marathon course on the docket than the one that weaves its way toward Boston every third Monday in April.
So what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
We’re about to find out.
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