Ian O’Riordan: Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record makes me believe but also wonder

Kenyan’s 2:01.09 in Berlin may be as close as anyone will come for a very long time

Long before the rowing started in Recice last Sunday there was coffee to be made and bananas to be munched. Some people look at you strangely when you get up at dawn to watch a 266km bike race followed by Eliud Kipchoge effectively time-trialling a full marathon, but don’t look back. You don’t need negativity like that in your life.

Actually the bike race was recorded overnight from Wollongong, south of Sydney, the venue for the 2022 World Championships. So rather than sit through the entire 226km things were eventually fast-forwarded to the last 30km, when the real racing begins.

Only by then the race was over. Remco Evenepoel from Belgium and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Lutsenko attacked off the front of the lead group, and a short while later, on the penultimate ascent of the Mount Pleasant climb, Remco – as he’s better known – attacked again, this time riding away solo.

He reached the finish without another rider in sight, two minutes and 21 seconds ahead, complete with various celebratory gestures signalling his own disbelief, perhaps others too. Aged 22, Remco is still a relative novice among the hardy men of road cycling, having spent his teenage years playing football at Anderlecht and Eindhoven, before switching to the bike in 2017.


His special talent was evidently undeniable: four years ago, still covered in baby fat, he won the junior men’s race at the 2018 World Championships in Innsbruck, attacking in similar fashion with 20km to go, having already won the time trial earlier in the week.

Remco had finished third in the time trial in Wollongong, the road race always going to be his crowning moment. In winning the Vuelta a España two weeks previous he became the first Belgian winner of a Grand Tour since 1978, now the first to add a rainbow jersey to a Grand Tour since Greg LeMond in 1989, also adding the Belgian monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this year. They’ve been calling him the Baby Cannibal for a while now, and Eddy Merckx is not arguing with that.

Achievements such as this, at such a tender age, may or may not be too real for you. Remco spent much of last season rebuilding after a horrific crash in the Tour of Lombardy in August 2020, hitting an unprotected bridge on the descent off Muro di Surmano and ending up in a ravine 30m below. He sustained a fractured pelvis and a right lung contusion, the same incident where his Quick-Step team director Davide Bramati was seen removing a suspicious white item from Remco’s jersey pocket as he lay on the ground.

The Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) investigation found nothing, and nothing about Remco’s career to date suggests it’s anything other than real and clean. Still, like so much else going on around elite professional sport these days, there is a part of you that believes and another part that wonders.

I’ve been wondering a lot about Kipchoge this week ever since he started last Sunday’s Berlin Marathon and promptly put himself well inside his own world record pace. The now 37-yea-rold Kenyan was chasing two marks here, the official world record of 2:01.39 he ran in Berlin in 2018, and the unofficial 1:59.40 he ran in a publicity stunt event in Vienna in October 2019.

Hitting halfway in 59:51, the fastest ever official half-marathon split, Kipchoge was clearly intent on breaking the two-hour barrier for real this time, without the illegal chain of Nike pacemakers and Ineos-branded cheerleading of his effort in Vienna. When the last pacemaker in Berlin dropped out at 25km he was still on target, before eventually slowing in the last 5km and finishing in 2:01.09 – still half a minute quicker than his previous world record, plenty of celebratory gestures too, almost five minutes ahead of second place.

Kipchoge now holds four of the five fastest marathon times in history, and since winning his first marathon in Hamburg in 2013, has only lost twice in 19 starts – his first defeat coming in Berlin in 2013, when Wilson Kipsang ran a then world record of 2:03.23, before being banned in 2020 for four years for doping offences.

Indeed, there are currently 50 Kenyan athletes, mostly marathon runners, suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), a national tally smaller only than Russia’s, though none we know of have any links to the Kipchoge camp. Still, much has been written about Kipchoge’s religious zeal and devotion when it comes to his training numbers, a little less around his numbers of anti-doping tests in recent years.

Like Remco, his special talent is just as evidently undeniable. It’s coming up on 20 years since I first saw Kipchoge competing in the flesh, at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, over 5,000m, when at the tender age of 18 he was running one of his first track races outside of Kenya.

Sitting midway up the Stade de France, my dad predicted the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj would win, while I predicted the Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele would, and we were both wrong. Kipchoge won in 12:52.79, still a championship record, our only real doubt then was around his age.

That’s no unfounded allegation given many East African runners are naturally uncertain about their birth dates. Or as Miruts Yifter “the Shifter” said after winning the 5,000m-10,000m at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, “men may steal my chickens, men may steal my sheep, but no man can steal my age”.

Bekele incidentally is still knocking around some 20 years after Paris, looking to win Sunday’s London Marathon aged 40, having run his best of 2:01.41 in 2019. Their longevity alone adds to their credibility, and Kipchoge has never done anything to undermine his, even if The Last Milestone documentary following his 1:59.40 in Vienna featured high praise from Dave Brailsford and Chris Froome and other masters of the marginal gains.

Park runners everywhere can relate to some of Kipchoge’s stats from last Sunday; running his first 5km in 14.14, average 14.21 for the eight successive 5km, plus change; older runners like me can relate more to his 68.9-second average 400m, or 4.37 average mile, which may or may not be too real for you.

“No human is limited,” Kipchoge always says, only what Berlin might ultimately prove is that perhaps he now is, that a month shy of turning 38, that’s as close as he’ll come to breaking two hours. Now can anyone else? There is a part of me that believes and another part that wonders.