Eliud The Great - A Masterpiece can't be Paint by Numbers

“99 percent of all statistics only tell 49 percent of the story.” 
― Ron DeLegge II, Gents with No Cents 

I am a running geek. For example, this morning I got up 2 hours before I really needed to, so I could run with a friend who needed to start his easy run at 5:30am before work. I don’t give this sort of thing a second thought. It’s what you do. It’s just plain weird that other people would rather have a lie in or use their time for a leisurely breakfast. 

Sure enough, when we engage in this completely normal behaviour, we talk about running. In enormous detail. This particular friend provides the added bonus of being a maths teacher (a Mathlete if you will) and so numbers are very much his thing. So, when Eliud produced his magic in Berlin we talked about his splits with frankly unhealthy enthusiasm. And the morning 10k flew by, despite the fact that we were barely shuffling along. (When this happens we reassure ourselves by quoting numerous articles which categorically support the idea that this is how the Kenyans do it.)

I am an only slightly apologetic Kipchoge fanboy. But I am also a fledgling Sports Scientist and as the first couple of paragraphs have fairly clearly established, the geekiest of running geeks. So you might think that the endless stream of data which has been used in an attempt to contextualise his achievement would be like manna from heaven for me. Just some of the remarkable numbers are below, you’ll have seen them everywhere over the last couple of days – 

 Average 400m pace – 69s

Average 5k (parkrun) pace – 14:24

Second Half – 60:33

Final 2.2km – 4:29 per mile pace

Largest improvement in the WR for 51 years

Given all of these numbers, and the scientific support engaged during the Monza attempt it could be tempting to see this record in terms of a highly successful science experiment. The product of research and calculation combined with precise, robotic execution. It just doesn’t feel like that though. I have emotive, subjective arguments for this but there is also strong evidence.  

From the point at which the pace groups were announced it was obvious that no one was even going to try and race Kipchoge. That was probably a sensible decision given his evident superiority and the best his rivals such as Wilson Kipsang could have been hoping for is that he would beat himself by overreaching for time. This lack of competition does not necessarily help Kipchoge. On occasion the presence of rivals can hamstring a record attempt by producing uneven pacing and tactical considerations. However, it can also form part of the perfect storm. If everyone accepts the goal of getting the record and racing in the very final section, when pacemakers have fallen away, an even faster finish can be produced. 

The pacemakers themselves, such an iconic sight in Berlin in the black and white stripes of Shaftesbury Barnet, were not up to the job. Of three selected, all with world class CVs, only one made it to even halfway. Kipchoge had to run the final 17km alone. Given the time and money put into the phalanx of pacers for “Breaking 2” there can be little doubt that this makes his time even more remarkable.  

The lessons we can take from Kipchoge though, surely come from his attitude rather than his numbers. 

The day before Berlin I was lucky enough to tag along as Professor Andy Lane spoke to a small group of nutritionists about belief effects. Perhaps it is because these ideas are so fresh in my mind, but it is tempting to see something powerful in Kipchoge’s own belief. In interviews and across the media there is an authenticity when he talks about his conviction that “no human is limited”. Of the three athletes who attempted Breaking 2, he was the only one whose belief that the target was possible never seemed to waiver. He did not speak in terms of wanting or hoping to do it, he simply said that he would. Of course, he came up short but by a vanishingly small margin.

We are fortunate enough to see enough of how Kipchoge prepares to gain an insight into his methods. He has a coach he trusts unquestioningly. His training plan is relatively simple, as is his lifestyle during camp. We cannot point to marginal gains as the reason for his success. He does the work and appears to exhibit a tranquil, almost spiritual demeanour away from training. There is a sense that he goes to the line secure in the knowledge that he has the goal within his own control. The obvious comparison in terms of an athletics outlier is Usain Bolt. The two men could not appear more different in character. They do share something very significant however. Neither is intimidated by apparently unbreakable barriers. They retain absolute belief in their own ability and do not seem concerned by the performances of others. Of course, this is a luxury of physical superiority. But to repeatedly perform at levels apparent experts have ruled out takes more than raw ability. Complacency is a constant threat to the talented in athletics because no amount of “talent” can survive a neglected lifestyle. 

Stripping everything away can be liberating and it is hard to argue against the formula Kipchoge has settled on. An athlete with complete faith in his method, who has the discipline and motivation to always improve allied with the perspective and confidence that on race day he will do his best, and that is always good enough. 

 

“You live simple, you train hard. You live an honest life. Then you are free.” – Eliud Kipchoge

 

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Daniel Robinson