Patrick Sang, who has coached Eliud Kipchoge since 2002, offered a final few words of encouragement to his pupil before Sunday’s London Marathon.
Let’s go and make history.
Sang said that Kipchoge, the greatest marathoner of all time, was prepared as he put a six-year, 10-marathon win streak at stake in St. James’s Park. The 35-year-old Kipchoge was bidding for a record-breaking fifth title for a runner in London’s 40-year history.
“I was really confident that all was going to be at par with what he had done before,” Sang said by phone on Tuesday, after flying back to Kenya.
Kipchoge finished eighth in 2:06:49. Ethiopian Shura Kitata won in 2:05:42.
Kipchoge won London in 2019 in a course record of 2:02:37, seven months after lowering the world record to 2:01:39 in Berlin.
But this was a very different London Marathon. It was not held on the traditional course hugging the River Thames, but with 19 loops around the park. The weather didn’t help, either — hovering around 50 degrees with wind and rain.
“We went to the competition prepared,” Sang said, “but the weather conditions were a bit too much.”
Sang watched the race broadcast. He noted that an impatient Kipchoge requested pacers to speed up after about 12 miles.
“The pacers said they got the message, but I think the reaction was not visible,” Sang said with a laugh. “They said they really suffered with the winds and the rains and the cold.”
Later, Kipchoge missed one of his drink bottles. The leading group remained at nine men through 21 miles. Then Kipchoge dropped in the 24th mile, afterwards citing an ear blockage followed by hip cramping.
“He felt like the hip area was not coordinating well, and the leg movement was not bouncing,” Sang said. “He was saying he was trying to communicate with the legs to bounce, but the coordination was not there.”
Sang and other friends spent time with Kipchoge in his hotel room later Sunday — “just to uplift his spirits, but you could see he was somewhat down,” Sang said. Kipchoge said he had never experienced that kind of ear problem before.
“The first lesson is to know that I am also human and can be beaten,” Kipchoge said in a video interview Tuesday. “The second is I’m now able to implement what disappointment is.”
As Sang saw what he called “the emotional effect” on Kipchoge, he was reminded of his student’s last defeat of this size. In 2012, Kipchoge placed seventh in the Kenyan Olympic Trials 5000m, missing the team for the London Games and leading to his victorious marathon debut the following spring.
“The feeling of not accomplishing something that you really look forward to,” Sang said. “You can see that he’s still passionate about doing a lot in the sport. You can see the spirit of going farther is still there.”
Kipchoge, who even in defeat presented his usual calm and philosophical demeanor (amid shivers while enveloped in a heavy coat), has never been in the business of comparing himself to others. The withdrawal of Kipchoge’s biggest threat, Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, two days before the race did not affect the Kenyan great.
“The focus has never been on beating an individual,” Sang said, “but the higher the competition, you can see the higher the motivation to perform at his best.”
Kipchoge and Sang both flew out of London earlier this week. Sang went back to Kenya. Kipchoge jetted to the Netherlands to see a specialist for the ear blockage, then said Tuesday that he was given a clean bill of health.
He plans to race London again and is expected to defend his Olympic title in Tokyo next summer, aiming to become the second-oldest men’s marathon gold medalist in history, according to Olympedia.org.
No matter what happens, Kipchoge distanced himself from the other greatest marathoners in history these last seven years. Former world-record holders Haile Gebrselassie and Abebe Bikila each had six-marathon win streaks.
“Each generation gives us something to remember,” Sang said. “We had a generation of Abebe Bikila. We had a generation of Haile. Now we have the generation of Eliud. All these athletes gave us beautiful competitions, things to look forward to and took the sport to the highest level of their generation.
“[Kipchoge] has been an inspiration beyond our sport. We hope that, after overcoming this setback, he will continue for the next few more years to inspire us and give us beautiful performances.”
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