Whilst others have come and gone, Eliud Kipchoge has been around for more than twelve years since winning the junior race at the world cross country championships in Switzerland and the World Championship title over 5000 metres in Paris six months later. Kenenisa Bekele and Hicham El Guerrouj had been expected to battle for the title – the Ethiopian won the 10,000 metres a couple of days earlier and the Moroccan had been victorious in the 1500 metres for the fourth time in a row. The intermediate distance was expected to decide which of them could be crowned the true superstar, yet it was Eliud Kipchoge who took the race in 12:52.79 with a magnificent last kilometre (2:24.33), a whisker in front of El Guerrouj and 0.33 seconds ahead of Bekele.
Eliud Kipchoge was just 18 years 298 days old when he triumphed in Paris. He may have been slightly older as people are never certain to that degree of accuracy in East Africa. In any case, it was the beginning of a fantastic career, where the years that followed brought him another World Championship medal plus two in the Olympic games. From 2003 to 2012 he ran the 5000 metres in under 13 minutes every year, for ten years in a row. He has never had an injury and has consistently been one of the top names in long distance running. Everything went smoothly up until the Kenyan Olympic trials for London, where after five World Championships and two Olympic Games, Eliud Kipchoge failed to qualify for a major international event for the first time.
Many would have seen it as a sign from above that it was time to stop. Not so Eliud Kipchoge. He had already thought ahead about a new approach. “In 2012 I was still the eighth best in the world over 5000 metres. Therefore there was no reason to hang up my running shoes”, he explained, as we sat out in front of his house in Eldoret – not on luxurious seating, but on simple plastic chairs that you could pick up in the store for under ten euros. Eliud Kipchoge is not someone who flaunts his wealth.
Instead a new plan was made. “Together with Patrick Sang I decided to switch after that season from the track to road running. I wanted something new.” Sang, who also designed his marathon training programme, has been there since the start of his career as both his trainer and advisor. “He is even more than that”, explained Eliud Kipchoge, as a smile came across his face. “He's a friend, my big brother.”
So 5000 metre runner Kipchoge was transformed, not quite overnight, but over the winter of 2012/13, into a marathon runner. Instead of the 25 kilometre runs he had been doing until then, he was alternating each week between 30 and 40 kilometre runs, although without neglecting quality in other aspects of his training. He was able to fittingly celebrate his debut over the marathon distance with a victory in Hamburg. Since then he has completed five marathons, only being beaten once - by Wilson Kipsang as he set a new world record of 2:03:23 in Berlin.
His appearance in London this April was particularly impressive. He gave the best field of athletes ever assembled for a marathon no chance and seemed in control of the race throughout. Was it as easy as it looked from the outside? Eliud Kipchoge slid back and forth on his chair and waved away the suggestion. “The opposite was true”, he said. “It was my most demanding marathon yet – mentally, that is. You needed to focus from start to finish and dealing with the pressure and whole situation was very difficult. Also, from 35 kilometres onwards every marathon is hard.”
Five months have passed and Eliud Kipchoge is no longer a rookie in the marathon. He is the man of the moment even though his personal best is more than a minute away from the world record. He then added, “If everything comes together in Berlin, something very special can happen. I'm convinced that my training partner Emmanuel Mutai and I can push on together towards a new world record. Geoffrey Mutai has probably had too many problems recently, so I expect less of him.” What if it ends up being Emmanuel who takes the record? Eliud Kipchoge doesn't take long to think about an answer. “I love running, that is what drives me. We are training partners, so whoever is better on the day will win – as simple as that.”
Understandably he does not want to say what time he is aiming for. He would say only, “I set myself no limits – everything is possible. I'm also convinced that in the next ten years someone will run under two hours. Two half marathons, back-to-back, in 59:30 would give a time of 1 hour 59 minutes – that is not unrealistic.” Perhaps he will himself be a coach or TV commentator by then. Eliud Kipchoge is already thinking beyond Berlin – towards an Olympic medal in Rio. Not just any medal – he would do anything to win the one that has eluded him all these years – the gold. Often underestimated in the past, he would then certainly go down in history as one of the greatest runners of all time.