Following Eliud Kipchoge’s Olympic victory earlier this month, it seemed as if we had finally exhausted all the superlatives for the most accomplished marathoner in history. He had a marathon resume in which comprehension was beyond his grasp: 12 wins in 14 races. Berlin set a new world record in 2018 with a time of 2:01:39. It wasn’t a race so much as a demonstration of Platonic perfection that I finished a sub two-hour marathon one year later. As soon as Kipchoge crushed his competition at the 2016 Olympics, LetsRun invoked an economical headline: “The Greatest Ever x2.” Is there anything left to say about Kipchoge’s legend after this summer?
A new documentary entitled Kipchoge: The Last Milestone will stream on multiple platforms on August 24. Jake Scott directed the film, which tells the story of the Ineos 1:59 Challenge, where Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles in 1:59:40 with pacemakers flanking him and wearing Nike super shoes for the first time. In this film, it is not discussed whether this performance constituted the “last milestone” in professional athletics or whether it deviated too much from the standard format for such a distinction. This homage to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, a motif from the original Nike-sponsored Breaking2 project, will not leave you in doubt as to the significance of Kipchoge’s achievement.
However, it’s accurate to say that breaking the two-hour barrier requires a world-record-eligible event is not as fascinating as Kipchoge himself. No rational person would dispute the remarkable accomplishment of Kipchoge in Vienna, regardless of how artificial the conditions were. Not just the fact that he ran 26 consecutive miles at 4:34 pace, but the fact that he was able to do it under an unfathomable level of pressure where dropping out really wasn’t an option. Imagine 41 of the best runners in the world flying in for the sole purpose of pacing you to glory, and a team of logistics experts devoted years of planning to help you succeed on race day. Kipchoge woke up at 2 A.M., as we learn in the film. I couldn’t sleep on race day. He is not to blame.
The recent Kipchoge mania has been largely devoid of moments like these. In this latest project, I hoped to help humanize the character a little. The camera was panned slowly across Kipchoge’s medal rack in another scene early in the documentary. Most of the wall is decorated with medals from marathons, the same ones you and I might have displayed as part of our living room display to shame those who are sedentary. Yet there is an Olympic gold medal among his participation trophies from London and Berlin. As we are, as well as not. (Kipchoge)
Kipchoge is perpetuated in The Last Milestone as distance running’s ascetic holy man, possessed of an enormous amount of self-discipline and uninterested in all that material crap. Among the traits that characterize his monk-like image, an image that certain purists want maintained to the fullest extent possible, are humility and a penchant for spartan training conditions. Some people freaked out on Twitter when GQ ran an article in 2020 with a photo of Mr. Austerity dressed in luxury fashion by Ermenegildo Zegna , as if wearing great clothes was proof of irreversible corruption. The Last Milestone had me hoping that it would reveal some previously unknown Kipchogian vice, whether it be a collection of vintage Porsches or a secret addiction to Oreos.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. This film features a cast of Kipchoge admirers who offer lofty, but ultimately vacuous descriptions of his greatest achievements. There are not many original things to say about one of the most successful athletes on the planet, whether it’s World Athletics president Seb Coe (“He almost floats”) or David Brailsford, CEO of the 1:59 Challenge (“Eliud has an incredible mind”). He is fond of sayings (“At the apex of the pain is success”) that sound profound from his perspective, but that you would find a bit scary from your kid’s Little League coach or your dentist.
The Last Milestone perhaps attempts to answer the question of why Kipchoge (and, by extension, so many other legendary runners from the Kalenjin tribes in East Africa) are so good. Having grown up in an environment where distance running has always been revered and respected, the answer is that he sees it as a profession. The great Kenyan runner, Kipchoge “Kip” Keino, whose career blossomed after Kenya declared independence from Great Britain in the sixties, is also credited with Kenya’s dominance as a tradition of excellence. The only positive legacy of the British regime is that Kenyan participation in the “Empire Games” (now known as the Commonwealth Games) gave the country an athletic identity that persists to this day.
In light of the 1:59 Challenge, does colonial history matter? You could argue that this is all an elaborate vanity project for Ineos’s founder and CEO, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, to show off a completely different kind of empire, one that exploits Kipchoge’s talent and power. (Ineos is a petrochemical company that sponsors many sports teams.)
Why would anyone want to do that? As a matter of fact, to dismiss the latest sub-two spectacle as a mere marketing stunt would be to deny oneself of the joy of seeing Kipchoge in motion – a sight that can justify all clichés. He seems to float, whether he is on the red dirt trails around Kaptagat or along Vienna’s Hauptallee. In spite of the fact that I learned nothing new from The Last Milestone, those aerial drone shots of Kipchoge and his crew diving through the Rift Valley mist held my attention. Running is one of the greatest things in the world, so how can you not love it? It was sad to see Kipchoge beating his chest while crossing the finish line in Vienna in slow motion. The latest marathon masterpiece he created in Sapporo stands out in particular.
No matter how often we see it, we can’t seem to disengage from it.