How Eliud Kipchoge Broke Running’s Mythic Barrier

In the hills of the Kenyan highlands, among the world's most spectacular marathon runners, morning comes early, with the 5 a.m. ring of a bicycle bell.

It's December and Eliud Kipchoge is stirring in the predawn gloom, already thinking about the workout—one of his first hard runs since he made history in October, finishing a marathon course in Vienna in under two hours. That achievement—thought for decades to be impossible—instantly made Kipchoge famous around the world. But it did little to alter the rhythms of his ascetic life at the rural training camp where he lives six days a week, sequestered from even his own family. Here the walls of his room are virtually bare, except for a picture of Paulo Coelho pinned above his bed and a quote from the Brazilian novelist: “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: Never lie to yourself.”

Kipchoge slips on his black half tights, his blue half-zip top, his Nike trainers. And then he's outside, greeting a dozen or so teammates in the blue darkness before sunrise. I've been invited to join the workout, something of a rarity for a journalist—and a daunting prospect for a 45-year-old amateur.

The elevation is no small challenge. The camp is perched at nearly 8,000 feet, overlooking the Great Rift Valley, in a swath of East Africa regarded as the greatest hotbed of distance runners in the world. Along with Kipchoge, our ranks include Geoffrey Kirui, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, and the unrelated Abel Kirui, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist. Nearly every man in the group has run a marathon in under two hours and ten minutes—a feat only three American runners managed last year. I'm hoping I can hang for even a few miles in such lofty company.

We begin slowly, jogging a couple of miles down a rocky red-dirt road, farmland stretching in all directions. At a nearby juncture, we sync up with dozens of other local runners. As the rising sun brightens the surrounding fields, Kipchoge explains the workout: 11 miles broken into tough 10-minute intervals, with one minute of easy jogging between each. Silence falls over us as we face the impending exertion.

<cite class="credit">Vest (price upon request), shirt, $630, and pants, $680, by Etro / Shoes, $695, by Manolo Blahnik / Hat, and bracelet (on left arm throughout), stylist’s own</cite>
Vest (price upon request), shirt, $630, and pants, $680, by Etro / Shoes, $695, by Manolo Blahnik / Hat, and bracelet (on left arm throughout), stylist’s own

Suddenly someone cries out: “ONE! TWO!—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” interrupts another runner. “We forgot to pray.”

And so, from the middle of the country road, the man leads us in prayer, thanking God for our bodies, for the opportunity to run.

“Okay,” says the first guy, beginning again. “ONE! TWO!—”

“KENYA!” shouts another teammate, and Kipchoge and his crew rocket across the dirt road at a pace that's hard to fathom sustaining for even one 10-minute segment. The terrain is brutal—rocks the size of grapefruits protrude from the road—but these guys are cruising at well under 5:00 per mile.

I'm a solid runner: I grind out 70 miles a week, I clocked a 2:33 marathon a few years back, I've won some races in my day. But I'm nowhere close to being able to keep up, even for a mile. After the second turn, they lose me. I'm still doubled over when I see the pack coming back. As they fly toward me, one runner slices his hand through the air like he's scything wheat. “Move! Move! Move!” he shouts. I jump out of the way. It's the first and last workout I attempt with Eliud Kipchoge.

<cite class="credit">Tunic, $1,295, by Ozwald Boateng / Necklace, stylist’s own</cite>
Tunic, $1,295, by Ozwald Boateng / Necklace, stylist’s own

Later, back at camp, after a breakfast of fresh-baked rolls and sweet, milky tea, the mood is light. Inside the compound of low-slung cinder block buildings, a couple of the runners are getting massages while others nap. The only one who doesn't seem to be at ease is Kipchoge.

We're sitting, a small group of us, on plastic chairs outside in the sun, and Kipchoge is fixated on the garden—specifically on a young man hacking away at the hedges with a rusty machete. After a few minutes, Kipchoge strides over, takes the blade, and demonstrates proper hedge-trimming technique, gently lecturing the young man in Nandi before he returns to his chair. “I was showing him how to trim,” he explains. “In the future we want this to be trees all over.” He gestures toward the edge of the property. “So when you're here, you can relax.”

The runners ensconced in the camp—officially and grandly named the Global Sports Communication training camp—each log an average of 130 miles a week. But there's something more than running going on here. In addition to being the world's most elite running enclave, the camp—founded by the Dutch Olympian turned agent Jos Hermens in 1994—serves as a kind of stripped-down wellness retreat, an austere training ground for the mind as well as the body. You sense it in the zen-like energy of the place, which resembles a high-cardio Tibetan lamasery. And in the rotation of chores in which each of the 25-odd men and women who train here partakes. Kipchoge might be the greatest runner in history, but he's still mopping the bathroom, just like everyone else. “You cannot live alone in this world,” Kipchoge explains. We've moved our chairs to the corner of the garden, under the shade of a small tree. “The way to enjoy life is to meet people like you, to exchange ideas, to learn from each other.”

<cite class="credit">Coat, $2,665, by Issey Miyake Men / Jacket, $80, and pants, $80, by Nike / Shoes, $425, by Rochas / Sunglasses, $490, by Ahlem / Watch and bracelets (on right arm, throughout), his own</cite>
Coat, $2,665, by Issey Miyake Men / Jacket, $80, and pants, $80, by Nike / Shoes, $425, by Rochas / Sunglasses, $490, by Ahlem / Watch and bracelets (on right arm, throughout), his own

Those bonds make the ultimate chore—training—feel a little less arduous. Kipchoge's regimen is simple: easy running on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; speed workouts on Tuesday and Saturday; a long run of up to 25 miles on Thursday. On Sunday, rest. He approaches these sessions with devotion, recording his times for every workout in a notebook. “If you don't have faith in your training, then it's nothing,” he says. “You don't go to a dictionary and find the meaning of the faith. You need to define the faith in your own vocabulary.”

He leaves the camp only for brief weekend visits to see his wife and three young children at their home in Eldoret, 15 miles to the west, and to tend his farm, where he grows corn and raises cattle. “That's one way of relaxing the mind,” he explains. “A farm also helps you be busy, because if you are busy, then life moves on in a smooth way.”

<cite class="credit">Suit, $5,995, by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX / Shirt, $395, by Ermenegildo Zegna / Shoes, $980, by Gucci / Socks, $29, by Falke / Ring (throughout), his own</cite>
Suit, $5,995, by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX / Shirt, $395, by Ermenegildo Zegna / Shoes, $980, by Gucci / Socks, $29, by Falke / Ring (throughout), his own

As I chat with him in the garden, Kipchoge radiates tranquility. His face is fuller than I expected; his skin glows brighter. And yet it must be said: He looks older than his age. His passport says he's 35, but rumors have swirled that he's in his early 40s. Conventional wisdom suggests he has only a handful of marathons left, and he's aiming to run one of them at the Olympics in Tokyo, which have been postponed from this summer to 2021 in the wake of the surging coronavirus pandemic. The lineup of any marathon that far off on the horizon is difficult to predict, but Kipchoge is likely to face another aging superstar—Kenenisa Bekele, the 37-year-old Ethiopian world-record holder in the 5,000 and the 10,000 meters, the owner of the second-fastest marathon time in history (a mere two seconds behind Kipchoge's official record), and Kipchoge's sole rival as the greatest male distance runner of all time.

The showdown, if it materializes, would be the marathon equivalent of an Ali-Frazier prizefight, and Kipchoge is preparing for the distant battle with his typical focus. “When you see marathon people training and you see the results, you don't know what's inside those results,” he says. “Many things are going on behind the scenes. Don't miss the training in the morning and the evening, because the body is counting.”

<cite class="credit">Blazer, $5,995, by Ralph Lauren / Tank top, $70, by Nike / Pants (price upon request), by Givenchy / Shoes, $775, by Jimmy Choo / Sunglasses, $280, by Giorgio Armani</cite>
Blazer, $5,995, by Ralph Lauren / Tank top, $70, by Nike / Pants (price upon request), by Givenchy / Shoes, $775, by Jimmy Choo / Sunglasses, $280, by Giorgio Armani

For all the simplicity of his isolated life in camp, there's a duality to Kipchoge's existence that gets revealed in competition. That's when it's most apparent that he's aided by tools and technologies afforded only to the planet's most talented athletes. Kipchoge is supported by a hyper-sophisticated team of coaches, physiologists, nutritionists, and shoe designers, all working together to optimize every variable that goes into distance running. Kipchoge's mission to run a marathon in under two hours was itself more than just a personal goal—it was a complicated, months-long project managed by Nike and initially dubbed Breaking2. In May 2017, with cameras rolling for what later became a National Geographic documentary, Kipchoge and two other runners set out to break the mythic two-hour mark on the world's fastest Formula 1 track, in Monza, Italy.

I was trackside on that drizzly morning, and as I witnessed Kipchoge fly around the course faster than any man had run a marathon before, I felt nervous—I didn't know whether he was going to do the thing or fall over and die.

He was paced by a triangle of the world's best Nike-sponsored runners, and he chased a laser beam projected off the back of a Tesla. That day, Kipchoge ran an agonizing 2 hours and 25 seconds. He missed the goal, but his effort was a quantum leap past the world record at the time, Dennis Kimetto's 2:02:57, and a mere second per mile slower than the 4:34-mile pace needed to break two hours.

When he crossed the finish line, I was overcome with relief and joy. Watching his pacesetters chanting as they hoisted him aloft, I kept my sunglasses on to hide my tears. He may have fallen 26 seconds short, but he had demonstrated that sub-2:00 was possible, that this supposed barrier to human accomplishment was no barrier at all.

In the months that followed, I ran 100 miles a week. I meditated for 90 days straight. My Brooklyn-based club team, Black Roses NYC, emulated the communal ethos of Kipchoge's camp, training together, eating together. His influence was profound. The idea that you can do more by working in harmony might be obvious to any middle school basketball player, but in a world where the default mindset is The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, it was a foreign concept. And with that shift in our mentality, we started to see results. That fall, we sent more than 20 runners to the Berlin Marathon, which has the fastest course of the world's six major marathons. Half of us ran personal bests, and I took more than three minutes off mine. The weather, as it was in Monza, was cool and rainy. Kipchoge was racing too—he won by 14 seconds—and the conditions must have reminded him of the forests of Kenya. Kipchoge weather, we called it.

He looked so smooth in Monza and Berlin that when he did finally break two hours, it felt like a fait accompli. He did it last October, in Vienna's Prater park, this time with the backing of INEOS, the British petrochemical company. Adjustments had been made: There were throngs of fans, extra-springy Nikes, a more aerodynamic formation of pacers. It worked. He shattered the barrier, running 1:59:40. Coming into the homestretch, rather than flagging, Kipchoge seemed to surge, pounding his chest, pointing to the crowd, and sprinting into the open embrace of his wife, Grace, who was watching him compete overseas for the first time.

<cite class="credit">Coat, $6,300, by Dior Men</cite>
Coat, $6,300, by Dior Men

But before the sweat had even dried, there were detractors. Purists pointed to the pace team, his squad of 41 interchanging runners, noting that, as at Monza, they rendered the performance ineligible for a world record. Others questioned Kipchoge's racing shoe: a prototype of Nike's Alphafly Next%. The pair he wore in Monza was itself a variation of the Vaporfly 4%, a shoe that promised 4 percent more efficiency than the next-fastest Nike model at the time. This new, unreleased version offered benefits unknown. Talk of the shoe being banned grew rampant. Afterward, World Athletics, the sport's governing body, decreed that, going forward, in international competitions athletes would have to compete in shoes that had been available to the public for at least four months, among other regulations.

Kipchoge's Nikes were legal, but that became the irony of sub-2:00: that the most modest of champions, a man who sleeps in a twin bed, drives an Isuzu pickup, and milks his own cows, became the focus of a debate about how relentless innovation complicates the ethics of the world's simplest sport. But amid all the talk about pacers and Alphaflys, it was easy to forget what it was that got Kipchoge into the ballpark of two hours in the first place: spending six days a week for nearly two decades in his camp's monastic seclusion.

Back in the garden, that's what Kipchoge wants to emphasize. “What we're looking for here is consistency,” he tells me. “Are you really training for all those four months? Are you eating well? Are you actually building in a positive way? That's what's required in sportsmen and -women in order to run very fast.”

<cite class="credit">Suit, $4,595, shirt, $595, and belt, $495, by Brunello Cucinelli / Sneakers, $180, by Nike</cite>
Suit, $4,595, shirt, $595, and belt, $495, by Brunello Cucinelli / Sneakers, $180, by Nike

Consistency. The dedication to becoming great. The amazing thing about Kipchoge is that none of this came easily. The path to marathon immortality wasn't a straight one for him. He started out on the track. In 2003, just a year after he took up professional running, he pulled off a huge upset in the 5,000 meters at the World Athletics Championships in Paris. It seemed his future would be written on the oval. But then…he went dark. After medaling at the Athens and Beijing Olympics, he was left off the Kenyan Olympic team for London 2012—a failure that forced him to reevaluate. The marathon was his plan B.

I've followed Kipchoge since that Paris race, but it was only after seeing him up close that I understood just how he'd gotten so good—and kept it up for so long. His secret is that there are no secrets. You just put in the work, season after season. The things worth focusing on are the simplest: the steady accumulation of miles underfoot.

<cite class="credit">Shirt, $1,850, by Hermès / Pants, $5,200, and shoes, $980, by Gucci / Socks, $37, by Bresciani / Sunglasses, $895, by Jacques Marie Mage</cite>
Shirt, $1,850, by Hermès / Pants, $5,200, and shoes, $980, by Gucci / Socks, $37, by Bresciani / Sunglasses, $895, by Jacques Marie Mage

Even if there was no great mystery to reveal, I still wanted to know his strategy for the marathons ahead. How was he going to beat Bekele? Could he become the first repeat Olympic gold medalist in the marathon since Waldemar Cierpinski, the East German who did the double in 1976 and 1980?

If there's an answer, a good place to look is the camp's library—a simple room with three shelves located between the men's and women's dorms. Kipchoge often spends an hour there in the afternoon and another hour after dinner. “I read the business books,” he says. “You can translate business into running.”

The shelves offer a range of pop psychology and self-help: The Tipping Point, SuperFreakonomics, Running a Marathon for Dummies. Lately Kipchoge has been immersed in a new book, The Infinite Game, by Simon Sinek. He's been thinking about one passage in particular, about Sinek's time speaking at “education summits” for Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft's executives, Sinek says, were obsessed with the company's market share, whereas Apple's were focused only on creating the best products.

<cite class="credit">Jacket, $1,225, by Herno / Shirt, $69, by Guess / Pants, $795, by Wales Bonner / Belt, $495, by Brunello Cucinelli</cite>
Jacket, $1,225, by Herno / Shirt, $69, by Guess / Pants, $795, by Wales Bonner / Belt, $495, by Brunello Cucinelli

“At Apple competition is out of the question,” Kipchoge explains. “You just work, but they don't compete. Microsoft people have a finite mind. Apple people are the infinite minds.” He flashes his famous smile and gives a knowing look. “Who is ruling the market now? It's Apple, iPhone is everywhere—even most people in Kenya are buying iPhone.” He pauses. “We were really talking of marathon, so what I'm trying to say is this: We don't run and compete, but we have competing minds.”

Of all the East Africans to dominate distance running over the past four decades, Kipchoge is the first to take hold in the collective imagination and become a global ambassador—an understated, guru-like Usain Bolt. “I'm dreaming that I will reach more than 3 billion human beings,” he says. “I want everybody in this world to treat running as a lifestyle. I want to see people knowing that at five o'clock I need to run for 30 minutes. If I get there, then I will be a satisfied man.”

I once had a professor who said poetry is about revealing a truth in the listener. Sitting in the garden with Kipchoge, I realize that he's revealing a truth in me. Every time I ask him something, he pivots—what about my marathon, my team, my moon shot? As he goes on, the birdsong overhead gets louder. We sit together for another half an hour in our plastic chairs—two dads, two dudes, sharing pictures, talking about our kids. He tells me they're closing up the camp for two weeks for the holidays. Everyone's going back to their homes, and he's going to see his family too. But don't worry, he tells me—he'll be coming back to walk the grounds, just to check in.

And that's where I leave him. He's got another run this afternoon—another steady hour—but first he wants to walk the garden. He wants to make sure everything is in its place.

Knox Robinson is a writer and runner living in Brooklyn.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue with the title “Sub 2:00: How Eliud Kipchoge Broke Running's Mythic Barrier.”

Photographs by Fanny Latour-Lambert
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Tailoring by Stephen Otieno Ounga
Production by Talking Film Production
Location: Global Sports Communication Training Camp, Kaptagat, Kenya

Originally Appeared on GQ