"It's not the end of the world"

by Christian Bateman

Eliud Kipchoge loses first marathon since 2013

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On a blustery London morning in October, Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge suffered his first marathon defeat in seven years, finishing in an alarming eighth place on the streets of London. Kipchoge’s defeat in the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon is only his second over the marathon distance and the worst marathon finish of his career. Though this performance raises questions, Kipchoge remains the favorite to take home the gold medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Leading up to the highly anticipated event, many in the distance running community viewed this marathon as the race of the century, as Kipchoge was set to battle Ethiopian great Kenenisa Bekele. Being the two fastest men in history over the marathon distance, there was even speculation of a world record attempt. However, just two days before the race, Bekele dropped out of the event after suffering a left calf injury. With Bekele’s departure, Kipchoge further emerged as the clear favorite, as his marathon pedigree was practically unmatched. He is the world record holder, reigning Olympic champion, and possesses a nearly flawless track record in an unpredictable and unforgiving event. However, even the most talented and accomplished runners suffer defeat; as Kiphocge put it, “this is sport.”

In contrast to the majority of his previous marathons, weather conditions were extremely poor. Due to the cold rain throughout the entire race, the average pace of the runners in the lead pack was much slower than expected. At mile 22, the lead pack ran a mile at 5:00, an absolutely pedestrian split among marathoners of Kipchoge’s caliber. Kipchoge finished the race in 2:06:49, the second slowest marathon of his career, while the winner Shura Kiata of Ethiopia ran 2:05:41––only a minute off his personal best. The slow pace of the race allowed for marathoners with significantly slower personal bests than Kipchoge, including Kiata, to remain confident and stay in the race––even in spite of the poor conditions. Such a pace and conditions were perhaps unfamiliar to Kipchoge and might have impacted his race performance.

In addition, it is possible that Kipchoge simply was not in shape. The 2020 London Marathon was originally scheduled for April, but as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was rescheduled for October. However, the rescheduled event was not announced until August, leaving little time for preparation. A tight window to reach peak fitness could have posed a challenge for Kipchoge. Kipchoge also trained alone for much of the pandemic. Kipchoge often attributes his success to the support system his team offers, so training outside of this environment may have hurt Kipchoge’s training. Normally, Kipchoge goes to the Global Sports Communications training camp in Kaptagat for the three months leading up to a marathon. During this time, Kipchoge and his team eat, sleep, and run Monday through Saturday, and then go home on Sunday. However, in his London build-up, Kipchoge was forced to train from his home in Eldoret, as the Global Sports Communications camp was closed due to COVID-19. Such a training environment likely held more distractions––Kipchoge has quite a large family.

Lastly, Kipchoge appeared to have suffered race-day dehydration. Shortly after missing a drink station at 20km, Kipchoge reported that his right ear was blocked, adding to the discomfort experienced during a marathon. In addition, Kipchoge said he experienced severe cramping during the final kilometers of the race––a common side effect of dehydration. Such discomforts made it difficult to finish strong after nearly two grueling hours of running.

No, Kipchoge did not run well this year in London. However, with better preparation and race-day execution, Eliud Kipchoge will surely defend his Olympic title. He remains the G.O.A.T.