By Jonathan Gault
May 2, 2017
In March, LetsRun.com had the opportunity to spend a day with Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge in Kenya, seven weeks before he attempts to be the first human to run under two hours in the marathon. What follows is a two-part look at the 32-year-old Kipchoge. Part I below features an early-morning track workout in Eldoret. In Part II (to be published onMay 3), LetsRun.com traveled to Kipchoge’s training base in Kaptagat, where we toured the Global Sports Communication camp and discussed Kipchoge’s career and why he’s part of Nike’s sub-2:00 project, Breaking2.
ELDORET, Kenya — It’s 6:20 a.m. on a Tuesday in late March when I pull up to the dirt track at Moi University and, as is usually the case, Eliud Kipchoge has arrived first. The 32-year-old Kipchoge, the Olympic champion and greatest marathoner in history, rose from bed almost an hour ago and is running laps clockwise in a small group.
In all, there are around 40 athletes here scattered around the track, none running faster than eight minutes per mile pace in the predawn darkness. It’s cool, around 50 degrees, and everyone is in long pants and jackets. Initially, it is hard to pick Kipchoge out from the parade of shadowy figures, but as the last remnants of night fade away, his familiar form comes into focus. He radiates controlled power, his biceps jutting backward sharply, forming an acute angle with his lower arm as his hands move up toward his chest, his fingers clenched inward as if he’s carrying a torch.
Within 15 minutes, the darkness has morphed into a picturesque orange/pink sunrise, which in turn gives way to a sunny morning, revealing the simplistic nature of the 400-meter track. The surface is dark red dirt, hard-packed with the inside of lane one noticeably worn. Lane one is a bit of a misnomer, however; there are no lanes. In fact, there are no markings of any kind, not even a finish line. There is a cement rail, painted green and white, to separate the track from the grass infield. This is as basic as a track gets. Yet on this morning, it is good enough for not one, but two Olympic champions, as 2008 steeplechase gold medallist Brimin Kipruto is also here to work out under the tutelage of coach Patrick Sang (himself an Olympic silver medallist in the steeple in 1992).
As the runners finish their warmup, they move to the infield, which quickly becomes a rainbow of adidas and Nike t-shirts. After a couple of minutes, they’re back on the track. Few of the men have elaborate warmup drills; most just file onto the track one-by-one for strides, an assembly line of lean, athletic bodies.
Ask anyone in Kipchoge’s training group, and they will tell you that they treat each other equally, that Kipchoge’s achievements do not grant him special status. He is not exempt from the chores at Global Sports Communication’s training camp in nearby Kaptagat (including cleaning the bathroom), where he shares a tiny 8-by-10-foot room in the modest living quarters. But as Kipchoge changes into his workout gear, it becomes clear that, much as he tries, he is not like the other men here this morning. No one else sports the red Breaking2 technical tee that graces Kipchoge’s chest, evidence that he is just one of three men selected by Nike for its much-hyped attempt at the sub-2:00 marathon that will take place this weekend in Monza, Italy. And his footwear, the futuristic Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elites — again, available only to Kipchoge and fellow Breaking2 members Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese — look like nothing on anyone else’s feet, with the shoes’ exaggerated forefoot padding and heels that taper to a point like the bow of a ship.
Kipchoge and the other runners in the marathon group huddle around Sang to learn the details of today’s session. Sang’s marathon group generally runs hard three times per week, with a track session on Tuesday, a long run of around 40 kilometers on Thursday and a fartlek on Saturday. Today, the marathoners are assigned five sets of 2k-1k, with 200m walk-jog recovery between reps. That’s just over 9 miles of track work at over 7,000 feet of elevation. In an act of symbolism, Kipchoge leads the single-file group out on the first rep. By the time he crosses the “line” five laps later in 5:52, 10 of the 23 men have dropped off the back of the pack. Kipchoge will not lead another rep, content to sit in the middle of the lead pack the rest of the way.
As the group rounds the first turn, several men erupt in a fit of coughing. A few minutes later, I realize why: as the morning sun rises, it illuminates the clouds of red dust that rise up with every step the runners take. By the time I leave the track, my lungs are filled with the stuff.
As Sang, clad in a red tracksuit top, paces around the infield, stopwatch dangling from his right hand, his charges walk for 100 meters before breaking into a glacial shuffle-jog. About two minutes after finishing the first, it’s time for rep #2.
Kipchoge proceeds through the workout in much the same way he runs the first 20 miles of a marathon, staying near the front while expending as little energy as possible. On the second 2k rep, a rooster crows, a not-so-subtle reminder that it is not yet 7 a.m.
Though all 23 men start each rep together, not all can handle the same pace as Kipchoge. They string out into groups on every rep, and as the workout goes on, those groups become less and less defined as every man settles into his own pace. As the runners get to work on the third set, the lead pack has dwindled to nine men. Kipchoge is one of them, and though he doesn’t mind when the guys in front of him open up a small gap, he’s never close to being dropped. They finish the 2k in 5:45, then go 2:51-5:46-2:51 on the next three reps.
As the final set begins, the strain is starting to show on the athletes’ faces and many are breathing heavily, though not Kipchoge, whose expression remains serious but never pained. The group runs the second lap of the final 2k in 71 seconds.
“Too slow!” implores Sang’s assistant Richard Metto, as he chases the runners around the turn.
Kipchoge and a couple others quickly respond by upping the tempo; they go 69-67 on the final two laps to clock 5:45. As Kipchoge walks his final recovery segment, it’s clear how different the shoes on his feet really are: Kipchoge’s heels barely touch the ground. Every recovery step is bouncy, with a natural forward lean created by the Vaporfly’s 9mm drop.
For the final 1k rep, only seven men remain up front, and they want to end this session with a bang. Kipchoge recognizes this and moves up from his usual position to a spot on the leader’s shoulder. They’re really whirring now, the dirt kicking up behind them, and as they come off the final turn, Kipchoge swings wide, opening his stride up and offering a hint of the speed he once possessed — his personal best for the mile, set way back in 2004, is 3:50.40, faster than that of Matthew Centrowitz, the 2016 Olympic 1500 champion. He crosses the “line” together with two others who have broken away late. They have run 2:43 for their final rep, by far the fastest of the day, closing their final 200 meters in 30.8 seconds; not bad for men with nine hard miles in their legs already.
As soon as he finishes, Kipchoge turns around to slap high-fives with the rest of the men finishing up, the runner’s universal sign of respect over the shared suffering he has just endured.
Kipchoge could have run considerably faster today, but he did not become the world’s greatest marathoner by making reckless decisions. This is a man who has handwritten diaries documenting every workout he’s run for the past 13 years, and one who swears by the words of his coach. And on this day, Kipchoge has been given instructions to hit his target paces but not exceed them. So that is what he does.
“There is no friction,” Kipchoge says later, reflecting on his relationship with Sang. “You know, in athletics we have self-discipline. And if you complain, then you are not self-disciplined…When you complain, you are an athlete and he’s a coach. It’s like when you are a student and a teacher. You can’t complain to a teacher that today you are taking his subject. Then why are you still a student? Then you should be a teacher.”
The runners change out of their racing flats and back into their trainers before jogging down to the adjacent soccer field, which serves as the venue for their cooldown. They run slowly. In fact, “run” may be too strong a word for what Kipchoge and his training mates are doing as they circle the field. They are propelling their bodies forward, shuffling around at no faster than 10-minute per mile pace, chatting about the workout they have just completed. It seems hard to believe that the Olympic marathon champion is even capable of moving at such a crawling pace. But this is his routine, and who am I to tell him differently?
After finishing up his cooldown, Kipchoge packs up his stuff and heads for the white van that will shuttle a dozen of his teammates back to his training camp in nearby Kaptagat. Despite his riches, Kipchoge is not above jamming in three across in a cramped van for the ride back to camp. But once again, it’s hard to miss the symbolism: Kipchoge is riding shotgun.
Come back tomorrow for Part II where LRC visits Kipchoge’s spartan training camp and talks with him about his sub-2 marathon distance attempt. Part II: A Day with Olympic Marathon Champion Eliud Kipchoge, Part II: A Look at Kipchoge’s Training Camp & Why He Is Part of Nike’s Breaking2 Attempt
Below is a 22 minute video that shows highlights of Kipchoge’s workout:
5 x 2k-1k (2 min rest between reps)
Set #1: 5:52-2:51
Set #2: 5:46-2:49
Set #3: 5:45-2:51
Set #4: 5:46-2:51
Set #5: 5:45-2:43
Talk about the sub-2 exhibition on our fan forum /messageboard: MB: Nike Sub-2 Prediction Thread.
Note: LetsRun.com spoke to Kipruto in Kenya as part of the IAAF’s Day in the Life program. While the IAAF worked with a travel agency to arrange the author’s travel within Kenya, it had no say in the editorial content of this article and LetsRun.com covered the costs of the author’s travel and lodging (including the travel arranged by the IAAF) while in Kenya.