Eliud Kipchoge raced up and down a flat, straight, tree-lined avenue in the heart of Vienna 4.4 times on Saturday to become the first person ever to break two hours in a marathon. He finished in 1:59:40, averaging just faster than 4:34 per mile in a pursuit that was as much about making history as it was to inspire humankind to reach beyond expectations.
“His running is a gift to all of us,” Shalane Flanagan said, on the broadcast.
The time trial was dubbed the 1:59 Challenge and sponsored by Ineous, a chemical company based in the U.K. It was Kipchoge’s second attempt at breaking the two-hour barrier for 26.2 miles. During a similar Nike-backed experiment in 2017 at a racetrack in Monza, Italy, he came close, clocking 2:00:25. Since then the 34-year-old Kenyan set the world record of 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. He’s also the 2016 Olympic champion and has eight World Marathon Majors titles between London, Berlin, and Chicago.
In the days leading up to the event, Kipchoge compared the breakthrough to the moon landing. Over the years, he’s become an extreme fan favorite around the world, not just for his extraordinary athletic talent, but for his warm personality, infectious smile, and his Zen-like approach to running. Along the way, he tries to encourage fans of all ages to dream big.
“This race means a lot,” Kipchoge said. “I just have to make that click in people’s minds that no human is limited.”
Not everything went according to plan. The “Performance and Meteorology” teams advised on the best date and start time based on predictions for optimal weather—between 41 and 48 Fahrenheit, low humidity, and little wind. Mother Nature defied their predictions though—the race began in foggy conditions with about 90 percent humidity. It started raining around the halfway point, though the temperature was around 49 degrees Fahrenheit with barely a breeze.
Like the 2017 exhibition, his time won’t count as a world record, because organizers pulled out all the stops to make the monumental result possible—some of those efforts make it ineligible, which have turned sport purists off to the experiment.
Kipchoge was given fuel bottles by supporters on bikes, his intake monitored by nutritionists to ensure he ingested just the right amount of carbs along the way. He was also aided by five teams of seven pacemakers, who swapped in and out nine times throughout the race against the clock. The carefully choreographed inverted V-shaped formation of some of the world’s fastest track athletes—including American Olympians Lopez Lomong, Bernard Lagat, Hillary Bor, Shadrack Kipchirchir, and Paul Chelimo—followed a car that transmitted green laser lines on the ground to keep them on schedule.
The major deviation from the first time Kipchoge went for the sub-two-hour mark was the course, which unlike the racetrack, was on public roads to allow for spectators to cheer him on. Kipchoge has said that he is motivated by the support of the crowds.
Apparently it worked. After his pacemaking duties, Matthew Centrowitz, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 1500 meters, said during an interview on the broadcast that the spectators were in close proximity—like an indoor track—and loud, making it difficult for the pace teams to communicate with each other.
“It’s so exciting out there,” Centrowitz said. “The energy is through the roof.”
Among those supporters were Kipchoge’s wife, Grace, and his three children. Remarkably, it was the first time his family has traveled to watch him perform. After crossing the finish line, Kipchoge headed straight into Grace’s arms in celebration.
The course was also specially designed to optimize Kipchoge’s chances. It was a 9.6K out-and-back on Hauptallee, called “The green lung of Vienna,” with 90 percent of it run on a straightaway, and traffic roundabouts serving as the turning points on either end of the laps.
And, Kipchoge also got by with a little help from his sponsor Nike. He wore a new version of the Vaporfly called the Next%, which keeps the 4%’s carbon fiber plate to increase efficiency and propel the runner forward, but adds more foam to the midsole.
As he celebrated the historic moment with his family, pacers, and his coach, Patrick Sang, Kipchoge said he was “the happiest man in the world.”
“I wanted to run under two hours and show human beings can do a good job and lead a good life,” Kipchoge said. “It shows the positivity of sport. I want to make the sport an interesting sport whereby all the human beings can run and together we can make this world a beautiful world.”
After helping to pace the marathon, Lomong said the achievement in some ways belongs to everybody.
“Today is Eliud’s day, but everyone can come out to celebrate this moment,” he said, in a race news release. “We are all part of history. We all did this together as a running community.”