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A Helping Hand for the GOAT (marathoner, that is...).


You never know what a helping hand might do for someone – witness the Berlin Marathon on Sunday morning, September 16.  In an interview with the New York Times before the marathon, Patrick Sang, stated:

There was this kid who would come and ask me for a training program. So every two weeks I would give him a program to follow, and this went on for months. When you’re young, you always hope that one day you’ll be somebody. And in that journey, you need someone to hold you by the hand. It does not matter who that person is, so long as they believe that your dreams are valid. So for me, when you find a young person with a passion, don’t disappoint them. Give them a helping hand and see them grow.

At some point Sang gave this same kid his Timex watch.  He also became his permanent, long time coach and mentor. Sang is one of Kenya’s top distance running coaches.  Sunday, no longer a kid, Eliud Kipchoge lined up for the Berlin Marathon with good weather conditions for his run. The result was one of the greatest athletic performances of all time on Sunday morning in Berlin, Germany, with nowhere near the fanfare it deserved.  Relying on his legs, his heart and his mind, Kipchoge, no longer a kid with a dream, did what many fans of the sport expected and broke the world record in the marathon, running a time of 2:01:39.  That is a per mile pace of 4:38; a time very few people in Leon county could maintain for one mile. What was perhaps a surprise was the margin by which he broke it – 1 minute 18 seconds below the existing record of 2:02:57 set by Dennis Kimetto.  It was the largest margin since 1967. The performance fueled one conversation and changed another – is there any doubt that Kipchoge is the greatest marathoner of all time and, instead of will someone break the 2-hour barrier in the marathon to when will someone break the 2-hour barrier.

The organizers of the Berlin Marathon have been superb at setting up world record runs by skillfully using pacers to run with the lead runners and protect them from the wind.  This year, however, the pacers would get chewed up and discarded.  After a fast opening 15K, two of them were gone, leaving only one.  The last one was gone shortly after the halfway point.  Almost magically however, Kipchoge just kept running faster.  Finally, as he passed the 35K (21.75 miles) his pace started to slip just a little.  As he passed the 40K however, he saw the barn door was wide open and started cranking again. Kipchoge ran his last 2.195 kilometers from 40k to the finish line in 6:07. That was a 4:29 per mile pace which would have produced a 1:57:34 marathon if maintained the entire way. He finished up by saluting the crowd and beating his chest twice before crossing the line, clapping his hands with glee, and dashing into the waiting arms of his coach Patrick Sang.  His splits – first half 61:06 and second half 60:33 were negative and pretty good half-marathon times standing on their own.

Kipchoge is a great example of not giving up.  One writer summed Kipchoge up using one of the runners own favorite expressions the “best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago, while the next best time is today.”  Kipchoge fits the Kenyan stereo type of a runner from a poor background who ran to school and home. He broke onto the international scene in 2002 and 2003 including an upset win in the 5000-meter race over Hicham El Guerrouj to win a world championship gold medal.  While he would have some additional success on the track (silver and bronze medals), he also had his share of disappointments. (Many of them caused by Kenisha Bekele, the great Ethiopian runner).

Finally, in 2012 after he failed to make the Kenyan London Olympic team, he decided to focus on the roads, specifically the marathon.   By the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Kipchoge had won 6 of 7 marathons he had entered and he was the favorite.  There is no way to legitimately claim the title “G.O.A.T” without an Olympic title, most would argue.  That problem was dispatched in Brazil, just like the pacers in Berlin.  As Mary Jean and I watched from the side of the road that day in Rio, Kipchoge took charge and filled in that blank spot on his resume of greatness – the one entitled Olympic Champion. (Of course, we were pulling for Meb that day.) 

Sunday was the 11th marathon for Kipchoge and his 10th win.  He is a meticulous planner (filling more than 15 notebooks with times and training tips) and avoids overtraining and injuries.  He has certainly run many miles, often training at camp 8,000 feet above sea level.  But he reports that he rarely trains above an 80% of maximum pace and maybe never above 90%, saving that effort for the races.  He is 33 years old, but judging from this weekend, he has a lot of great running ahead. 

I hope to see him in Tokyo.