Eliud Kipchoge‘s success in breaking the two-hour mark (final time: 1:59:40) for the marathon on Saturday was expected. He had come close before, and like Alex Honnold‘s unprecedented climb of El Capitan documented in the film Free Solo, the feat required meticulous planning — the ideal mix of pace-setters, course conditions and weather — to steer a once-in-a-lifetime talent to a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.
Brigid Kosgei‘s world record at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday was a far greater surprise. Kosgei had run fast times before, but her time of 2:14:04 took more than four minutes off her personal best earlier this year in London, which is typically a faster race than Chicago.
MORE: Chicago Marathon results
The two feats had some common threads. Both runners are Kenyan, no surprise in an event in which the top 100 men’s performances of all time are almost exclusively Kenyan and Ethiopian and the top of the women’s all-time list is similarly homogeneous aside from the presence of British runner Paula Radcliffe, whose time of 2:15:25 had stood as the world record for 16 1/2 years until Sunday. Radcliffe was present in Chicago to greet Kosgei when her record fell.
Kipchoge and Kosgei also wore the same shoes, Nike’s ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%, thanks to Kosgei’s last-minute decision to switch. Earlier versions of those shoes, like the high-tech swimsuits that were eventually banned from competition or golf equipment whose advertising revels in their alleged illegality,
Both marathoners also had pace-setters running with them. Kipchoge’s effort took the concept to an extreme, with an all-star cast running pieces of the course in front of him, and will not be considered an official world record because it didn’t happen under race conditions. (The Atlantic ran a piece on the Kipchoge run with the headline “The Greatest, Fakest World Record,” though the piece itself was more inquisitive than judgmental.)
MORE: Kipchoge shakes off nerves to break barrier
Kosgei was running in an actual race and has already had her time touted as a world record by the international organizer IAAF, but because she was running in a mixed-gender race, she was able to run behind two hired guns, Geoffrey Pyego and Daniel Limo. They were easily distinguished from men’s race contenders by the singlets with the word “PACE” written in the space where a number or name would usually go.
But in general, marathoners are simply getting faster and faster. Perhaps it’s scientific, with specifically engineered shoes, pace-setters and refined training methods, or perhaps all the tinkering and lab experiments are simply a sign of increased focus on the race that traces its history to the myth of the Greek soldier Pheidippides running such a great distance to herald a momentous military victory before falling over dead.
Of the top 20 women’s times on the IAAF list, only five were run before 2012 — one by Catherine Ndereba, four by Radcliffe. Three were run in 2017, then six in 2018 (three in Berlin) and four this year. All 20 of the fastest men’s times have been posted this decade, eight of them in 2019 alone. Kipchoge, in addition to his unofficial best from this weekend, has the official record of 2:01:39 from the 2018 Berlin Marathon.
The all-time list also reminds us that, for all the controversy over the context of Kipchoge’s run, marathons aren’t really standard, anyway. Some courses are more difficult than others. Some races, like the Boston Marathon, aren’t eligible for record consideration for a variety of technical reasons. (Boston’s hilly course doesn’t lend itself to fast times, anyway — the men’s course record of 2:03:02, set by Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, would rank seventh all-time, but no other time would crack the top 100. The women’s course record is nowhere near the best ever.) London, Berlin and Dubai are the places to go for assaults on the record book.
No matter where the race takes place or how it was run, fast times in the marathon capture the imagination.
Purists may cling to romantic notions of long-haired, bearded runners pounding the Boston or New York pavement in shoes that didn’t even have a basic level of air cushioning. But the modern marathon era is built for speed.
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