What once seemed impossible has become a reality. Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge became the first person in history to finish a marathon in less than two hours on Saturday in Vienna. Kipchoge completed the 26.2 miles in one hour, fifty-nine minutes, and forty seconds. He won’t set a new record though because the run in Vienna was a tightly controlled event to assure Kipchoge had all the possible advantages in his favor to break the two-hour mark.
The 34-year-old Kenyan had previously tried to break the two-hour mark in 2017 but failed by 26 seconds. But on Saturday his time was 10 seconds faster than even the most optimistic estimates. So determined were the organizers of the Ineos 1:59 challenge to make sure Kipchoge complete in under two hours that everything was planned to the last detail to give him every possible advantage.
The organizers had said the run would take place sometime within a nine-day window to assure the best possible weather. Kipchoge was also supported by 36 pacesetters who took turns protecting Kipchoge from the head wind. Ed Caesar, who wrote a book about the quest to break the two-hour marathon mark, explained how the pacesetters worked in The New Yorker:
The most striking innovation was the pacesetting structure. Five pacers, many of them Olympians and high-caliber athletes themselves, protected Kipchoge, running in an open-V shape in front of him. They were kept in position by a laser line shot out by a pace car driving fifteen metres in front of them the whole way. Two more runners ran at Kipchoge’s tail. The aerodynamic experts who designed the formation expected it to create a bubble around Kipchoge, and to carve maybe a minute from his time. It seems they were right.
Despite all the special conditions, breaking the two-hour barrier is a huge moment in sports history that many compare to Roger Bannister’s first mile in under four minutes in 1954. Little wonder then that Kipchoge was ecstatic when he finished. “That was the best moment of my life,” he said, noting that he had trained for almost five months for the race. “The pressure was very big on my shoulders. I got a phone call from the president of Kenya.” Kipchoge compared it to going to the moon. “Today we went to the moon and came back to earth! I am at a loss for words for all the support I have received from all over the world,” he said. Kipchoge continues to hold the official marathon world record of 2:01:39.