Eliud Kipchoge’s history-making sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna in October 2019 is justifiably famous. But a new documentary film – Kipchoge: The Last Milestone – shows the inside story of the Olympic champion’s build-up to that extraordinary day. With unprecedented access to the marathon world record holder and his team, the film follows Kipchoge from his training camp in Kenya in the months leading up to the event and takes a personal look at the athlete, including interviews with those closest to him and details of his daily rituals. Here are 10 things we learned from watching it.
1 His childhood formed his drive
Born the youngest of four children in Kapsisiywa in the Nandi District of the Kenyan Highlands, Kipchoge has no memory of his father, who died when he was very young. Kipchoge and his siblings were raised by his mother, a nursery school teacher. In the documentary, he talks about how he was conscious that fatherless children were not valued in Kenyan society, and how he wanted to become successful to help his family. His mother was strict, and taught him the value of hard work and self-discipline – now hallmarks of his career. Kipchoge’s first job was to collect milk from the locals and cycle it 20km to Kapsabet town. He was paid one Kenyan shilling (0.67p) per litre. He saved for five months to buy his first pair of running shoes.
2 He has a seriously high pain tolerance
Early in the film, Kipchoge says, ‘The way you think about pain is the way your life will be. You need to undergo pain to be successful.’ He was born into Kenya’s Kalenjin tribe, and mentions that as part of their culture Kalenjin boys are cultured to resist pain early in life, via initiation ceremonies, a rite of passage that is all about enduring pain. Although he doesn’t go into detail in the film, reports on versions of Kalenjin initiation rites mention initiates having to crawl through stinging nettles, being circumcised and having mud caked on the face, which is allowed to dry. If a crack appears in the mud – you wince or your cheek twitches – the initiate is labelled a coward and then stigmatised by the community. Such tests of one’s ability to endure pain are useful grounding for a sport such as marathon running, where pushing through pain is fundamental to success. Kipchoge’s pain threshold is famously high – he smiles rather than grimaces when things get tough during races. In the film he is seen smiling through the ultimate runner’s pain ritual – the ice bath.
3 He was inspired to run by his coach
The strength of Kipchoge’s relationship with his coach, Patrick Sang, shines through in the film – Kipchoge says he was originally inspired to take up running because of Sang’s career as an elite. As a child, the young Kipchoge would gather with friends around a black-and-white TV to watch Sang compete – he won silver in the 3,000m steeplechase at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when Kipchoge was seven years old. By 2002, Sang had become a coach; Kipchoge sought him out and asked for a two-week training plan, then returned for another one, and a lifelong relationship was born. Ever since, Sang has been the architect and Kipchoge follows his designs without question: the early morning track workouts; the long runs at the edge of the Rift Valley; the weeks spent in training camp away from his wife and children. Kipchoge trusts Sang implicitly and that is the bedrock of their success.
4 Humility is a core belief
Although an immensely successful and famous athlete, whose achievements have made him very wealthy, Kipchoge still lives an ordinary lifestyle. The film shows him preparing for the sub-two attempt in his training camp in the small town of Kaptagat in the Kenyan Highlands. ‘Life in the camp is free of distractions and, for me, it is the perfect training environment,’ Kipchoge says. ‘The accommodation is basic, but it has everything I require.’ The camp houses 30 or so athletes at any one time. The male runners sleep two to a room in the main building, while a second building houses the women’s dormitories plus a TV room and physio room. A small kitchen and dining area is situated at the back of the camp, and the athletes do the chores themselves. There are few distractions beyond train, eat, rest, repeat. Kipchoge embraces the quiet of the camp and has no airs or graces, pitching in with daily chores and spending his free time reading books.
5 He harnesses the power of the group
Even though he is on another level as an athlete, Kipchoge is the consummate team player – training as part of a group is central to his success. Kipchoge’s manager, Valentijn Trouw, says, ‘He makes an individual sport a team sport.’ Kipchoge has said, ‘100% of me is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team.’ He inspires those around him and leads by example. Kipchoge and his training partners push each other in training and spend the time between training recovering together – there is a deep sense of camaraderie between them. This means that there is a sense of fun to the sessions even when the workout is tough, and having this harmonious training environment reduces stress.
6 His goal-setting is textbook
Rather than be awed by the scale of the challenge of breaking the two-hour barrier, Kipchoge broke it down into mini goals. ‘When going up the tree, you go up branch by branch,’ he says. ‘You handle each branch to test the strength, then you go up.’ From this perspective, his achievements in the two years leading up to the 1:59 challenge – running 2:00:25 in Monza, Italy, in his first attempt to break two hours in 2017; setting a marathon world record of 2:01:39 in September 2018, and setting a course record of 2:02:37 in the London Marathon in April 2019, six months before his second sub-two attempt – can all be seen as incrementally building his confidence as he prepared to achieve the seemingly impossible.
7 His mindset is key
Sir Dave Brailsford, team leader of the INEOS Grenadiers cycling team and performance director of the 1:59 project, says Kipchoge has ‘incredible physiology, incredible efficiency and an absolutely incredible mind’. He draws attention to Kipchoge’s ‘zen-like calm’ and the way he gets into an almost meditative state when he’s training and competing. Kipchoge has said, ‘I always say I don’t run by my legs, but I run by heart and my mind. If your mind is calm and well concentrated, then the whole body is controlled.’ This impressive strength of mind has also been crucial outside of the race environment – before and after the 1:59 attempt, there was controversy surrounding the level of assistance that was being provided by his Nike carbon-soled shoes, but Kipchoge remained undistracted by the background noise and focused on his goal.
8 He learns from failure
Kipchoge says, ‘Failure is part of life, you need to learn from it.’ Rather than be deflated by narrowly failing to break the two-hour barrier at Monza, it became a valuable lesson. Jos Hermens, CEO of Kipchoge’s management company Global Sports Management, says they identified three key factors they didn’t get right – Kipchoge didn’t consume enough carbs; the weather, which was slightly humid following light rain, wasn’t ideal; there wasn’t a crowd to roar the athletes on when things got tough. They fixed all of these factors in Vienna – its average October temperature was a cool 10°C with low humidity, the city centre course was easily accessible to spectators and a person was employed to pick up Kipchoge’s discarded drinks bottles, which were then weighed to calculate exactly how many carbs he’d consumed, meaning his team could adjust the remaining bottles’ carb ratios.
9 He didn’t sleep well the night before Vienna
While it might be an exaggeration to say Kipchoge was feeling nervous before the sub-two attempt in Vienna (he says he felt calm in the build-up because all of his preparation had gone to plan), he admits he didn’t sleep well the night before. He woke up at 2am, dozed fitfully for the next couple of hours, before waking up completely at 4.40am. It’s reassuring to know the best marathon runner in history experiences the same pre-race restlessness as everyday runners, and it goes to prove the old adage that you don’t need to sleep well the night before a marathon to perform well.
10 He believes running is a metaphor for life
Kipchoge is keen to expand the significance of running sub-two beyond it being simply an astounding feat of endurance running. The phrase ‘no human is limited’ became the attempt’s motto and Kipchoge’s guiding philosophy, and he wants its legacy to be as historic and as symbolic of humanity’s potential as climbing Everest, breaking the four-minute mile or landing on the moon. ‘The reason for running 1:59 is not the performance,’ Kipchoge says. ‘It’s to tell that farmer that he is not limited, that teacher that she can produce good results in school…’ Whether in running or life, his message is that if you work hard, block out negative voices and stay focused on the goal, great things can happen.