By Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
October 4, 2020
Over the last seven years in world sport, there has been lots of greatness (Novak Djokovic 11 grand slam titles, Tom Brady three Super Bowl titles, LeBron James six NBA Finals appearances for three teams), but only one constant: if there is a marathon and Eliud Kipchoge is in it, he wins it.
That is no longer the case.
2,562 days after he last lost a marathon, on a cold (low 50s) and rainy day in London, Kipchoge was dropped by the leaders during the 24th mile of the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon and finished a mediocre 8th in 2:06:49. The winner was Shura Kitata in 2:05:41.
Kipchoge’s only other loss in the marathon had been back in 2013 when Wilson Kipsang ran 2:03:23 to break the world record and beat Kipchoge.
By elite marathon standards, the pace in London today was very pedestrian. The fastest mile of the race was 4:40. When Kipchoge ran his 2:01:39 world record in Berlin, he averaged 4:38 per mile.
Kipchoge was dropped today by the lead pack when the pace went from 4:56 to 4:46 during mile 24.
For the first time in his life, Kipchoge was beaten in a marathon by a performance that wasn’t a world record.
Was it the shoes? (In the wet conditions, Kipchoge was running in Nike’s Alphaflys while the other Nike competitors, including Kitara were wearing the Nike Vapoflys).
No. Kipchoge had no complaints about them.
Was it Kipchoge’s preparation?
No. Kipchoge said his preparation was great.
Then what was it?
For the first time, Kipchoge was beaten by the vagaries of the marathon.
Kipchoge Derailed by Ear Problem
Kipchoge told the BBC’s Gabby Logan after the race that he developed a problem with his right ear during the race and then developed cramping in his body. “I had a problem [with my] right ear. It was really blocked… Then my side was really cramped,” he told her. Kipchoge was visibly shaking from the cold while talking to her despite wearing a puffy jacket. She asked him about the weather and he said, “It was really cold but I don’t blame the conditions. I think it’s good to blame the problem with the ear.”
And while many are already speculating whether this marks the decline or end of Kipchoge’s marathon career, Kipchoge didn’t even entertain the thought. When asked if there were more marathons in his career he said, “Absolutely yes. [There are] still marathons in me. I’m still there to come back again.”
While Kipchoge’s loss makes us want to question the future of his career, it also should remind us how remarkable his streak was. Marathoning has never seen anything close to resembling it. For 12 straight marathons, (counting two exhibition events) Kipchoge lined up against the world’s best and he dominated. All-in-all he won eight World Marathon Major races, an Olympic title, set a world record, and ran the legendary 1:59:40 exhibition, all without a loss.
The marathon used to be known for its unpredictability — in any race, one problem could mercilessly cast aside a champion. Kipchoge redefined what was possible in the marathon, making it more closely resemble a paced 5,000m where the favorite more often than not comes out on top.
Few feats in track & field compare to Kipchoge’s bout of greatness in the marathon (Edwin Moses‘ nearly 10-year winning streak in the 400m hurdles is one that comes to mind). It was truly incredible.
Today, the marathon struck back with something we’ve never heard of derailing a marathoner — an ear problem. But that is what every marathoner in the world except Kipchoge knew before today. Over the course of 2+ hours, one small thing can derail the best-laid plans.
Kipchoge is mortal like the rest of us. The king is dethroned — at least temporarily.
Weldon Johnson aka ‘Wejo’ is the co-founder of LetsRun.com. His claim to fame was ‘escorting’ Paula Radcliffe to her first world record in the marathon.