What a pace is a 2 hour marathon

First marathon under two hours : 1:59 - how the fastest man in the world wants to set a fabulous record

The four men run in silent concentration, only their neon green sneakers rustling through the leaves of the chestnut trees. Eliud Kipchoge runs ahead, he breathes evenly, his step looks light-footed and powerful at the same time, his thin legs seem to carry him effortlessly. The sun has only just risen over Vienna this Wednesday morning, the Prater Park is in the semi-darkness, nothing is going on yet, a casual morning training session. Three more days, then everything should come up.

The four runners pass barriers, trucks and construction machines. On the asphalt of the Prater-Hauptallee an ideal line is painted in orange, on the edge of the street cryptic markings are sprayed on the ground in green, numbers and letters. Further ahead, where Kipchoge is supposed to cross the finish line this Saturday, part of the road is cordoned off. During the night, construction workers milled away the top layer of the asphalt, the surface structure was a little too rough. The next night the asphalt will be re-paved, then everything has to be perfect.

Because it is perfection that is at stake here. The main avenue is being converted into a race track, everything has to be optimally prepared so that Eliud Kipchoge - 34 years old, world champion, Olympic champion, world record holder, greatest marathon runner of all time - can write history on Saturday. The Kenyan wants to be the first person to complete a marathon under two hours, to break one of the last considered insurmountable sound barriers in sport. Kipchoge repeatedly explains that the first person under two hours is something like "the first person on the moon".

The British chemical company Ineos and its boss Jim Ratcliffe, the richest man in Great Britain, are spending a double-digit million sum on this goal and the “1:59” project. Ratcliffe also has the bike team for which Colombian Egan Bernal won the Tour de France this year. For Kipchoge's attempt to set the record, the company pays a team of scientists, trainers and meteorologists who have been working towards this day for months. 41 pacemakers, top runners from all over the world, are supposed to lead Kipchoge to a record, many of them traveled to Vienna directly from the World Athletics Championships in Qatar.

For the people who work on the project, the record attempt represents a triumph of progress, the essence of sport, the ultimate culmination of the Olympic motto “higher, faster, further”. Running purists consider the whole thing a perversion, a pure PR campaign.

While Kipchoge and his companions finish their morning run in the Prater, photographers and cameramen have gathered in the finish area. The project is documented in every detail: Kipchoge's training in Kaptagat in western Kenya, the journey, the final preparations in Vienna. The race on Saturday morning, which starts at 8.15 a.m., will be broadcast live in 200 countries on television and on the Internet.

Eliud Kipchoge slows down, stops, stretches his legs and hips. The cameras click, a British photographer asks where there is a good position for a “hero shot”.

In the world of running, Kipchoge has been a hero since September 16, 2018 at the latest, when he set a new world record in the Berlin Marathon in 2:01:39 hours, more than a minute faster than the old best time. He was Olympic champion two years earlier in Rio de Janeiro, and world champion over 5000 meters in 2003.

At 1.67 meters and 57 kilograms, Kipchoge looks almost fragile, but has proven to be indestructible on the world's most important marathon routes, in Berlin, London and Chicago.

Kipchoge is a quiet hero, most of the year the father of three trains in Kenya. Separated from his family, he lives with other runners under spartan conditions, reads specialist literature on psychology and motivation, and spiritual novels by Paulo Coelho. A morning run, tea and corn porridge, a long nap, an afternoon run, lights off at 9 p.m.
Even his coach is almost uncanny at times, how disciplined, punctual and reliable Kipchoge is.

The official photos have been taken, Kipchoge should now go back to the hotel quickly, just don't cool off. A hobby runner who happened to come by by chance wants a selfie with the Kenyan first. Kipchoge nods and smiles, laugh lines form around his eyes. Then the running group makes their way back at a relaxed trot.

Fans all over the world emulate Kipchoge, analyze his running style. You know the names of the all-star team that is supposed to set the pace for Kipchoge and provide slipstream: the three Ingebrigtsen brothers from Norway! The five-time world champion Bernhard Lagat from Kenya! 19-year-old Ethiopian Selemon Barega, who has just won silver at the World Cup! And they know the basic data of what Kipchoge is up to in Vienna.

To stay under two hours, he has to maintain a constant speed of 21.1 km / h, which corresponds to 2: 50.6 minutes per kilometer, 42 times in a row. 185 steps per minute, a step length of 1.90 meters, 22,000 steps to eternity.

The numbers are insane, beyond the reach of just about any other athlete. And yet almost every amateur runner can identify with Kipchoge. The British author Ed Caesar, who created a monument to the hunt for the marathon record with his book “Two Hours”, calls the marathon distance “democratic”. Every runner competes against his own limits on the 42.195 kilometers, everyone has to endure pain, activate hidden reserves. “No matter how great the talent is, how good the preparation,” writes Caesar. "Nobody runs an easy marathon."

Robby Ketchell is the man who should make it as easy as possible for Eliud Kipchoge. The 37-year-old American sits tired and tense in the lobby of the team hotel, the splashes of color on his jeans, orange and green, do not want to match the noble ambience. Ketchell is a trained mathematician and sports scientist, and has advised professional cycling teams for ten years.

In Vienna, he is responsible for selecting the perfect start time based on the weather forecast - no precipitation, wind speed less than two meters per second, 5 to 9 degrees Celsius - optimizing the aerodynamics of the pacemakers and the design of the course. “I am very optimistic. But we have to be perfect. Eliud has to be perfect, ”says Ketchell. "Every second will count, every detail."

Ketchell already worked on the first large-scale attempt to undercut the two-hour mark. In 2017, the sporting goods manufacturer Nike sent Kipchoge and two other runners under the name "Breaking2" to the Formula 1 racetrack in Monza near Milan. the perfect advertisement for the latest generation of running shoes - supposed increase in performance: 4 percent, price per pair: 250 euros - did not materialize.

Ketchell learned lessons from the failure of Monza. With tests in the wind tunnel and computer simulations, he has devised a new formation for the pacemakers: seven of them will accompany Eliud five kilometers each, five men in a V in front of him, two slightly offset behind him. So that nobody deviates from the ideal position, the lead vehicle not only specifies the speed, but also projects a grid onto the asphalt with a green laser.

With what Ketchell and his colleagues have come up with, they are violating a number of rules of the IAAF World Athletics Federation. For an official world record, the IAAF stipulates a circuit, a larger field of runners and fixed refreshment stations. Changing pacemakers are prohibited.

Eliud Kipchoge says he already holds the official world record, that's not the point. "I want to write history, leave something behind for posterity, inspire other people." Had sherpas and oxygen bottles?

The fact that the organizers chose Vienna has a lot to do with the main avenue in the Prater. It leads straight and flat through the park, the difference in height from one end to the other is only 1.6 meters, the large chestnuts protect against wind, and only a few roads have to be closed for the race.

Ineos had not found an optimal course in London, Berlin was also under discussion, but neither the Tempelhofer Feld nor the Strasse des 17. Juni met the demands. In the end, it was Berlin's marathon boss Mark Milde who suggested Vienna.

At the southern turning point of the route, in the narrow roundabout around the historic pleasure house, construction workers built a kind of steep curve last week. The angle of inclination is around one percent and can hardly be seen with the naked eye. Robby Ketchell calculated various models for five months, over and over again. Now he is convinced that the banked curve will bring Kipchoge twelve seconds.

Five weather stations that have been recording wind, humidity and temperatures in the Prater since summer. An electronic lead vehicle with a special cruise control. A chip in Kipchoge's shoe that recorded every training session over the past three years. 1.2 kilometers of new asphalt on the main avenue. Specially developed energy drinks that are gentle on the stomach. Perfect weather, no opponent except time.

What can go wrong there? "You shouldn't forget that there is a human element everywhere in the project," says Ketchell and doesn't seem quite as optimistic anymore. "We have to be prepared for everything."

Even a cold could endanger the venture, the millions would be wasted. Kipchoge probably only has this chance. Which sponsor will raise a lot of money again? Next year Kipchoge wants to win Olympic gold again, shortly afterwards he will be 36 years old. Even miracle runners come to an age when they slow down.

There is a smell of hospital in the hotel lobby, and a large bottle of disinfectant gel is waiting for you at reception. Ineos employees do not shake hands to minimize the risk of infection being transmitted. The pacemakers who are now collecting their equipment - black "Ineos" bodysuits, bright pink running shoes - greet each other by briefly bumping their fists against each other. Signs on a bulletin board indicate the importance of washing your hands regularly and closing the toilet lid before you flush.

Next to it is the list with the dates for the doping tests: Kipchoge and all pacemakers will be tested on Thursday and Saturday. These tests will not be able to dispel all doubts - anyone who achieves exceptional achievements in athletics is automatically suspected. What speaks in favor of Kipchoge is that he has continuously improved his performance, has been successful on routes of different lengths and has been running at a consistently high level for years.

Kipchoge's blood profiles have been around since 2001, and Jos Hermens has also been with the Kenyan for so long. The 69-year-old Dutchman has already looked after many African runners as a manager, some of whom he made rich and famous. As a young runner, Hermens himself set a world record for the longest distance covered in an hour. “20,944 meters, on May 1st, 1976,” he says and grins proudly. He has long dreamed of the two-hour marathon.

Robby Ketchell rushes through the lobby, Hermens jumps up, fist against fist, Ketchell rushes on. “This is a crazy man,” says Hermens appreciatively. "We need crazy people."

Hermens knows the criticism of the traditionalists. Somehow he is a traditionalist himself, raves about how the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila ran barefoot to Olympic gold in the marathon in 1960, he calls the pacemakers “rabbits”. The criticism of the 1:59 project is okay, says Hermens. "But who determines what sport is?"

Athletics is an old-fashioned sport, it was only just seen again at the World Cup in Doha, where "old men with white and red flags" decided the validity of long jump attempts. “I'm an old man myself,” says Hermens, demonstratively ruffling his white hair. “But that doesn't mean that I don't want to try anything new.” Even trying to run 1:59 opens up a whole new horizon for runners all over the world.

Eliud Kipchoge also believes in this effect. 22,000 small steps for him, a giant leap for mankind.

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