Eliud Kipchoge's London Marathon: A Chaski Race Recap

March 5, 2021

With the year coming to a close, we wanted to share one of our favorite race recaps of the year with you.

[Editors Note: For race results you can look here.]

Eliud in 2020 by Greg Lehman

On October 4, 2020 the greatest marathoner in history stepped up to a cold, wet, quarantine-era London Marathon. Eliud Kipchoge had won 11 of his previous 12 official marathons, and his 13th couldn’t help but be framed as a duel against Kenenisa Bekele, the only other person we know of who has run under 2:02 for the distance.

Given the rest of the year, it felt on brand when Bekele bowed out a few days before. An odd feeling in his left calf would take the blame. A legend of Bekele’s standing risks much if they neglect the safe side, if they’re in a position to do so. So, sadly, we missed seeing the fruits of the tale of the tape that had been front-of-mind for many in 2020.

Less-favorable variables included terrible weather, to no one’s surprise, and no spectators, to everyone’s relief. The London Marathon, known the world over as the pinnacle of elite marathoning, opted correctly for a caged-in, audience-free course, which could not be more different from years past.

All of that aside, the stresses and losses of a time that feel like God is writing for sweeps stood front and center. Every runner is a person first, and shock, insecurity, and loss are common for every person this year.

Even so, as one of the best phrases to come out of 2020 declares, running isn’t canceled. And it certainly wasn’t in London.

If you love a good race, do not miss the women’s marathon for the day. I likely woke up more than a few people in my neighborhood at 3ish in the morning that Sunday, and I’ll never forget it. I won’t spoil it here, since it has to be seen. Watch it and try to stay in your seat.

But back to Eliud, at the starting line. We get the gentle stoicism he owns at all times, whatever he’s doing. Maybe he looks a little more preoccupied than he has before other races. There might be more concern than ease in his gaze. But the same can apply to anyone this year, right? And it’s freezing there. Kipchoge and more than a few runners visibly shiver where they shift about, ready for the gun.

And we’re off. Much of the race is classic Kipchoge: a rhythm that is neither understated or overt, as effortless as it is rote. Astounding, inspiring, I could go on. There are many reasons why he’s done what he’s done, and you can simply watch what he does to see one of the most obvious ones. Form is strength, and at the start of the race he looked as strong as ever, in spite of everything.

So it did not feel like a stretch to expect his dominance to continue that morning.

Then, damn.

At around 1:17 on, Kipchoge is not in command. Not dropped outright, but this is not the sustained knockout we usually see coming. Kipchoge is tucked in with the lead pack, among them Shura Kitata, who will win this. To rewatch the race is to see Kitata own what many of the best do and advise others to do as well: he runs his race, and no one else’s. Unconcerned with the frontrunners, he holds the rear of the lead pack, his stride as confident as his capacity to start eating when the time presents itself.  

After 1:29, Eliud winces. Five laps to go.

1:36 and he’s back. The grin is almost there, too. One wonders if he is holding back. He still looks strong, but Vincent Kipchumba sees what he might have. The ingredients are there, and he adds heat.

Still, it’s no one’s race yet.

At 1:47 Vincent Kipruto crosses in front of Kipchoge to get his water bottle. What must that feel like, for Kipruto?

1:48 and Kitata has had enough. With 5k left he might or might not have enough to out race Kipchoge, but it will be better than battling the eight-member lead pack he finds himself among, then takes a lead on.

1:50 sees Kipchoge falling, left to chase from behind. About two minutes later and the leads are far and away, a move that could not be a part of any strategy.  

In the 2:03:40s a party of four turns to three, and a hair after 2:05 we’re in a duel, Kitata and Kipchumba, gunning on whatever is left. Both men look like they have plenty, fatigue entering no part of the straightaway.

It’s a duel to be seen. Kitata fires into the last of it, taking the day and history.

All congratulations and respect to him and every runner, male and female, at London 2020. Regardless of whether they met their goals or not, they performed in a hell of a race. It’s all anyone can do, especially at a point in history seemingly in free fall.

Then, of course, we have the post-race interviews. The opinions, the odd theories.

One curious thought I saw, seeking to explain Eliud’s notes on a troublesome right ear, claims that since the course had everyone turning right over and over, the rain fell in on that side, water-logging one of the most accomplished runners ever. Though I didn’t notice any NASCAR-type superelevation on the course that would have pointed everyone’s ears skyward, I do wonder what invisible ear-protection gear the rest of the runners got a hold of before the race, and how they managed to keep Kipchoge out of the loop.

Truthfully, it was disappointing to get a dose of the outright rude in one particular interview with Eliud.

To see a man try to provoke another is already uncomfortable, in any circumstances. I feel like we’re all stocked up on negativity at this point, and to increase it is to read a room you’re not in with the rest of us. And for this journalist to be so obvious about trying to get a reaction from one of the most peaceful, thoughtful men we have, unmatched abilities aside, certainly provoked me.

But, of course, Kipchoge was unmoved.

“This is sport,” said Kipchoge. “Sport is about how today you are up, tomorrow you are down. That’s it.”

Naturally, even after his first loss in seven years, even after everything this year has brought to all of us, joy sits front and center with a man who can, and will, be back for more.

“If you want to enjoy sports, then you accept results,” said Kipchoge.

One of the best runners I know told me, after running in the marathon trials in Atlanta in February/a lifetime ago, that people won’t remember your bad races. The good ones will shine higher and brighter than anything else you bring to the game.

It’s a great thought to keep close, even if no one will forget Eliud’s races, good and bad. People will have a lot to say about them, which is certainly warranted. Nonsense will be a part of that conversation, as it is in any area where people put their emotions, bodies, livelihood, and lives.

But in my book, what Eliud has done so far, and what he will do next, position him as among the most memorable of anyone who has run the distance. London is history, and much more of it will be written on this course in the future. And if anything, the chapter it just wrote makes Kipchoge’s own story even more exciting to see, in a new year that can’t come soon enough.

— Greg Lehman

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