The first marathon was held in recognition of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who is said to have run roughly 25 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in order to announce a victory over the Persians. According to this legend, Pheidippides dropped dead after relaying the good news.
The results for marathon runners in the last 2,500 years, thankfully, have improved remarkably. Men and women continue to push the limits of their endurance with faster times in the 26.2 mile race.
A week ago, two marathoners registered historic results, once again redefining for the world what we view as possible.
Last Sunday, 25-year-old Brigid Kosgei of Kenya ran the Chicago Marathon in just over 2 hours and 14 minutes — more than a minute faster than the previous women’s world record. It was also more than 4 minutes faster than her previous best time.
“I am feeling good, and I am happy because I was not expecting this,” the Guardian quoted her as saying after the Oct. 13 race. “But I felt my body was moving, moving, moving so I went for it.”
She was not the only Kenyan runner moving fast that weekend. The day before, 34-year-old Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to ever run the marathon distance in under 2 hours — a feat some had long thought impossible.
“I’m the happiest man, to run under two hours in order to inspire many people,” Kipchoge said after completing the race, adding that he expects more people to do the same.
Kipchoge’s time of 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds, however, will not supplant his previous time of 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds as the official men’s marathon world record. His historic run was completed on a closed course in Vienna, Austria, rather than as part of an official competition. The route was carefully selected to be flat and close to sea level, and Kipchoge had the help of a team and technology in an undoubtedly more controlled environment than a normal marathon.
“The whole thing was as close as you can get to a mobile marathon spa treatment — if going to a spa were paired with the worst discomfort of your life,” Atlantic magazine’s senior editor Paul Bisceglio wrote in a piece titled “The greatest, fakest world record.”
Other world class runners helped pace him, while forming a V-shape in front of him to reduce wind resistance. There were pace-keeping lasers and a controversial new type of Nike running shoes, which Kosgei also wore in her record-breaking run.
But there was also one of the world’s greatest athletes, running at just over four minutes and 30 seconds per mile for 26.2 miles. To add a twist to an old saying, it was both a marathon and a sprint.
Bisceglio described Kipchoge’s run as a paradox, both a “brazen defiance of the marathon’s spirit” because of its structure and a “triumph of humanity.” We see it as more of the latter.
We recognize the level of careful engineering and marketing involved in Kipchoge’s accomplishment, but we’re more focused on what it says about human achievement rather than the question of marathon purity. Perhaps that’s because we’re not marathoners ourselves — our legs start to hurt just thinking about the prospect.
For us, what’s important is that now Kipchoge has proven proven a sub-two hour marathon is possible, others will try to chase him down and join him on the road to accomplishing what was previously unthinkable.
“My message to the world is that no human is limited,” he said later. “No human is limited.”
Kosgei, after shattering the female world record that stood for nearly 20 years, is still not convinced that she has reached her limit.
“I think 2:10 is possible for a lady,” she said. “I am focused on reducing my time again.”
Kipchoge and Kosgei demonstrate that our own personal limits, and the seemingly rigid limits we perceive in the world, are not as unsurpassable as they may appear. Both runners will surely inspire others to follow in and eventually outpace their fast moving footsteps.