Two stories you need to know about Eliud Kipchoge, each painting a picture of a man who is, well, different.
The first is from Vienna, October 12, 2019. Earlier that day, Kipchoge had become the first man ever to run a sub-two-hour marathon, clocking 1:59:40, a time that didn’t count as an official world record due to the use of rotating pacemakers and Kipchoge being handed his drinks from a bike (rather than picking them off a table).
The INEOS 1:59 Challenge, bankrolled by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, gathered many of the world’s best to help pace Kipchoge to a mark many had deemed impossible. But then he did it, holding an absurd pace of 4:33 per mile or 2:50 per kilometre before sprinting, exulted, into the arms of his wife, Grace, and his coach, Patrick Sang, for an achievement that would echo in eternity.
Later that night, organisers held a no-expense-spared party for those who’d been part of the project.
Kipchoge was there, handing out trophies to the 41 men who’d paced him, and he then made a speech to thank those who’d worked so hard behind the scenes. Alcohol flowed through the room in torrents, and most athletes present ended up out on the town until late night turned to early morning.
Kipchoge? He didn’t touch a drop of alcohol (he never drinks) and once his speech was made, the man responsible for the entire celebration quietly exited the room, going back to his hotel for an early night.
He has a thing about celebrating, Kipchoge. Sees it as something sinister, something dangerous, a self-indulgent act that might derail his mindset, make him think, somewhere in his subconscious, that he has arrived, the inference being he has nowhere left to go.
He’ll punch the air at the finish, alright, but try to get him into an open-top car or to attend a huge welcome-home party and you’ll get a polite but firm rejection.
Which begs a question: If he can’t bask in the glow of his achievements, when is Kipchoge truly content? Maybe that’s the thing about all-time greats. Maybe they never are.
“I’m a believer that if you climb to one branch,” he says, “then you reach for the next branch.”
Another story, this one from the Tokyo Olympics. On Sunday, August 8, the last day of the Games, Kipchoge once again eviscerated the world’s best marathoners to retain his Olympic title, dropping an almighty hammer 19 miles into the race and coming home a whopping 80 seconds clear of his closest rival.
The race was held in Sapporo, more than 800km from Tokyo, but tradition dictates that the men’s marathon medals are handed out at the Olympic closing ceremony. Kipchoge and his fellow medallists, along with their coaches, were flown to Tokyo that afternoon, then made to wait for a few hours at the airport before being driven to the stadium.
Cramped in a dull room with hours to kill, the Olympic medallists did what most would do: they opened their phones, logged into wifi, and started scrolling through the river of goodwill messages.
All except one. Kipchoge placed his phone in front of him and never touched it, sitting there — for hours — in contented silence.
Bashir Abdi, the bronze medallist from Belgium, recalls the story in laughing disbelief, adding a line, only half-joking, that those in the sport have said many times about Kipchoge.
“He is not human.”
In his 2006 essay, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, the late, great American writer David Foster Wallace wrote that “beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty”.
“It might be called kinetic beauty,” he added. “Its power and appeal are universal.”
Watch Kipchoge run, and you’ll see his point. It’s difficult to find a sportsperson so impossibly suited to his craft, as if his entire reason for being is to coast over the ground at 4:40 per mile, a pace that for most would feel like a sprint.
But when Kipchoge does it, his head has virtually no vertical motion, his face so relaxed that he looks bored. His arms hang loose, swinging casually, his fingers in a gentle tuck, as if holding an invisible stick. His feet don’t so much hit the ground as stroke it, his toes pushing off the road with the elegant, balletic grace of a dancer.
Officially, Kipchoge is 36, though it’s understood he’s actually a few years older — Kenyan ages, particularly among athletes, are notoriously unreliable — and he’s been at the top of his sport for 18 years… and counting.
The first time I saw him run was in 2003. I was a wide-eyed teenager, sitting in the Stade de France, as he upset all-time greats Kenenisa Bekele and Hicham El Guerrouj to win the world 5,000m title in Paris.
In recent years, I’ve spoken to him many times in many places, from phone interviews across the world to mixed zone chats in Berlin or Vienna, London or Rio, watching as he turned the marathon — this most unpredictable event — into his personal plaything.
On the surface, he’s a straightforward guy: quiet, humble, with a monastic way of life that was likely cultivated through his family’s farming background, a childhood spent transporting milk on his bike to sell at the local market.
He knows what it’s like to have nothing, or close to it, but now that he has everything, little has changed. For the vast majority of the year he lives a spartan life, his approach bringing to mind a line that Marcus O’Sullivan, Ireland’s three-time world indoor 1,500m champion, once told me: “You never put things in front of you that let you think you’ve arrived. Always have that level of deprivation, so you know there’s more to be done.”
Even now, having summited the sport’s highest peaks an incomparable, unfathomable 18 years apart, Kipchoge still lives the same way.
But success on this scale has a value and a cost.
Kipchoge is so famous in Kenya — think Messi walking around Barcelona, or LeBron in downtown Los Angeles — that a normal life is now impossible. He recently took a trip into Eldoret, covered up in a hat and face mask, but it wasn’t long before someone recognised his eyes, an adoring yet demanding crowd quickly forming around him.
Winning gold, all too often, can mean losing your privacy.
There are many questions I’d like to ask Kipchoge.
One: What’s it like to cherish the simple life but shoulder a level of fame that must feel suffocating?
Two: Why, as a multi-millionaire, does he live for most of the year with only the most basic needs?
Three: Is his training routine as simplistic, mundane, and repetitive, as it seems?
And four, perhaps most important of all: Can we believe in all that he has achieved?
The best way to answer those is to go see him.
The flight to Istanbul takes just under four hours. From there, it’s another six to Nairobi. I arrive just after 3am and, three hours later, as dawn starts to break, I board the 6:10am Jambojet flight to Eldoret, Kipchoge’s hometown, more than 300km northwest of the capital.
Out the window, the propellers seem less than reassuring as they whir the small plane into the sky, the landscape below shifting from the concrete chaos of Nairobi to the stunning and serene highlands: dusty red clay soil, lush green vegetation.
From Eldoret, it’s a 40-minute drive to Kaptagat, where Kipchoge trains with fellow members of the NN Running Team at a camp run by his management, Global Sports Communication. For three days, we observe his training, watching a track session, a long run, and even joining him on an easy (for him) 10k run.
The morning after I arrive, Kipchoge emerges just before 8am, breaking into a comically slow jog for his four-kilometre warm-up. After returning he makes small talk with his training partners, then changes his shoes for the upcoming track session. He puts on an unlabelled white prototype that no one else has, understood to be the latest incarnation of the Nike AlphaFly — a shoe with a thick, hyper-responsive sole that houses a carbon fibre plate.
For a man so devoted to simplicity, shoes are one area Kipchoge gladly embraces futuristic technology. He was one of the first to gain access to the new generation of super-shoes when they emerged in 2016, wearing a Nike prototype to victory at the Rio Olympics, a shoe many of his competitors did not have access to.
The shoes’ arrival meant world records have fallen like autumn leaves in the years since, but it’s not just in races that they’re having an effect, with athletes able to train harder due to the way they protect the lower limbs.
“In this world technology and development go hand in hand and shoes cannot be different,” says Kipchoge. “It’s not really about the performance, it’s about recovery, that if you train really hard, then your muscles can recover faster.”
Today, Kipchoge will do eight 1,600m repetitions in 4:40 with two minutes recovery, which he mostly walks, followed by eight 400m repetitions in 63-64 seconds with 30-50 seconds recovery. This is only his “third or fourth” workout since returning to training, having taken almost a month completely off following his latest Olympic gold.
Nonetheless, his class quickly tells.
Kipchoge leads the first rep, establishing the rhythm for the others, then sits in the pack through the rest of the session. When he’s hurting, his face contorts into a half-smile, half-grimace, and only in the last few reps does it emerge.
Even a half-fit Kipchoge can match the others, athletes who are already race-fit for major marathons. About 40 athletes start the session, but only four remain after 10 miles of hard running around the undulating dirt track, which is 380m long. After a few tired laps to cool down, Kipchoge returns to the camp next door, where he’ll eat, sleep, and relax in the gardens, chatting with training partners, until 4pm. His second run of the day is an easy 10k, which starts at a crawl (5:30 per kilometre) and finishes at a still sedate pace (4:20 per kilometre).
The runners then sit around for tea — Kenyan chai made with milk and a hefty dose of sugar — before having dinner together at 7pm.
“By 9pm, I’m in bed,” says Kipchoge, whose alarm will sound at 5:45am the next morning to start the whole process again.
This is how he lives, week in, week out, for four to five months ahead of every major marathon.
Kipchoge’s wife and three children live a half hour away, but when in training, he’ll only see them from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. The rest of the time he’s in camp, running 200-220 kilometres a week, along with doing two 60-minute sessions of strength and mobility work and regular massage with his physio, Peter Nduhiu, who has worked with him for 18 years.
“He makes it easy for me because he follows what the coach says,” says Nduhiu. “He’s like a military guy.”
How much longer can Kipchoge stay on top?
“Until he feels he has had enough. His body is in very good shape. I don’t want to bring the (retirement) topic to him because it will mess around with his mind.”
Overseeing the camp is Patrick Sang, a 57-year-old who’s widely regarded as one of the world’s best coaches. Sang was an Olympic silver medallist in the steeplechase in 1992 and committed full-time to coaching after retirement. Kipchoge was lucky enough to grow up down the road from Sang, who has steered his career since he was in his mid-teens.
Sang has a husky voice that makes him sound like a village elder, and the advice he dispenses is just as wise. His athletes don’t wear heart rate monitors or measure blood lactate, as so many do in Europe, but he instils the need to gauge effort via their internal monitor — challenging yet controlled.
Kipchoge does three hard workouts a week: 15-16km worth of track repetitions on Tuesdays, a long run of 30 or 40km on Thursdays, and a 50-minute fartlek session on Saturdays, alternating three minutes of hard running with one minute of jogging.
Sang is known not to suffer fools and athletes hanging out back, unwilling to contribute, or, worse still, trying to be a hero up front and sabotaging a workout, will receive an almighty scolding. But the athletes adore Sang, who’s known for guiding their lives just as carefully as their careers.
“The whole idea is to make a rounded person, not an athlete who is great (at running) but when it comes to social skills, dealing with people, they look like monks who are out of touch with society,” he says.
During workouts, Sang doesn’t talk much but he’s constantly watching, absorbing, and he’ll tweak each athlete’s programme based on what he sees. If Kipchoge is too fit, too soon ahead of a marathon he might replace 1,000m reps on Tuesday with 2,000m reps to avoid sharpening his fitness before it’s time. If he sees something amiss in his stride, he’ll contact the physio and ask him to check out a certain area of his body. His coaching principles don’t change, but the specifics vary by athlete.
“Different people use energy systems differently so if you don’t understand them and train them equally, you’re training one incorrectly,” he says. “It starts with understanding them.”
Sang’s training, from everything I’ve seen of it, is also reassuringly credible.
In endurance running, it’s well known that the key benefit of performance-enhancing drugs is how they allow athletes to recover faster, permitting them to run, for example, five hard workouts a week instead of three — which is typically the limit for clean athletes.
Kipchoge does three sessions a week during his typical 16-week marathon build-up, and the rest of his training is relaxed, easy running — a pattern of stress-recovery, stress-recovery, that makes physiological sense.
“I try not to run 100% (any day),” he says.
I perform (at) 80% on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and then at 50% on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.”
All the same, you can’t run the times he has and not invite some suspicion, given so many who reached the top of the marathon world turned out to be frauds.
In recent years, the idea that Kenya’s dominance was built solely on hard work and natural talent has been shattered, with the Athletics Integrity Unit taking a scorched-earth policy to rooting out cheats. A whopping 63 Kenyan athletes are currently serving doping bans.
Kipchoge once told me that the “worst thing ever is if you use drugs,” and that “if you use a shortcut, even if you perform the way you performed, you will not sleep in a good way.” He has never had any link to doping, and Sang is known to have no tolerance for athletes he deems suspicious. Both have spoken to younger athletes in the group about the dangers of being drawn to the dark side, but how to confront that raft of positive tests?
“On every farm there are weeds and there is good product,” says Kipchoge. “In sport, there are negatives and positives but I am telling the world to concentrate more on the positivity of the Kenyans, what we are doing in a positive way and how we’re doing this sport.”
Near the entrance to the camp is a sign with a quote from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.”
It was put there by Kipchoge, and I wonder if that message has any resonance concerning clean sport.
“Absolutely, yes,” he says. “If you do something negative or dope, then you are lying to yourself.”
I ask if a drug-aided preparation would make a performance meaningless. “Absolutely,” he says. “What makes it meaningless is the (cheating), that you (would) really feel: I have done this, but not in the right way.”
On his 40k long runs, Kipchoge will consume a Maurten energy drink, but beyond that he says he doesn’t take any supplements.
“Nothing?” I ask.
He drinks about three litres of water each day, and his diet is basic but healthy: small amounts of meat with lots of local vegetables and homemade, fortified bread, which he helps to bake. The one big change a nutritionist made when observing the group a few years ago was to increase their protein intake, which was well below par.
Kipchoge’s favourite food is ugali, a stiff maize flour porridge, and during his end-of-season break he’ll reward himself with pizza or chips, which are off the menu again once he’s back in camp.
He never eats breakfast before his first run of the day at 6am, whether it’s an easy 20km or a hard 40km, saying “it’s good to make your stomach conducive to running empty”.
Before marathons, though, he’ll awake in the witching hours for his trusted pre-race meal: porridge with honey.
In a normal week, he rotates four or five different models of Nike shoes, and the majority of his running is done on soft, red clay roads. The closer he gets to a marathon, the more he’ll switch to a hard asphalt surface for his long runs to condition his legs for what they’ll face.
Since 2003, Kipchoge has logged every detail of his training in a series of notebooks, while a GPS watch records his daily times and paces, along with different biological parameters that are monitored by his coach, manager, and medics to ensure he doesn’t tip the balance into overtraining.
It’s happened before.
“Sometimes you push too much and the whole day you lie down,” he says. “But my body is good, I’m taking care of it. What made me stay (at the top) for a long time is self-discipline. I try to say no to anything which is not beneficial.”
I ask him about alcohol, the downfall of many great Kenyan athletes, and whether his avoidance of it is for athletic or personal reasons.
“Even if I stopped (running) I’ll not go to drinking,” he says. “It’s not in my mentality. I trust that if you drink you forget something and I don’t want to forget; I want to live a life where the young generation can see the positive parts.”
Walking with Kipchoge to the camp exit as he begins his easy afternoon run, it’s easy to see the impact he’s had. Kids from a nearby school sprint across a football pitch to gaze through the fence at their national hero, shouting his name and waving.
The humble lifestyle, the guy-next-door modesty, the everyday visibility — it’s clear Kipchoge believes this is the most powerful way to send a message to youth: that they, like him, can start with nothing, achieve everything, and remain the same person at the end of it.
“Rejecting that flashy life is giving me more time to concentrate and be the person I need to be,” he says. “I want (life) to be simple and work as hard as I can rather than living at a high level, driving flashy cars or airplanes. I think that can make you come down as far as performance.”
What makes him happiest of all?
“It’s the inspiration,” he says. “I go around and see kids chanting and wanting to be the way I am, making their countries beautiful, respecting people in the world.”
Don’t think he doesn’t feel it. Beneath the placid exterior, Kipchoge knows his otherworldly ability has made him a cog in a vast corporate machine, and that can burden even the strongest mind.
There’s his wide array of sponsors, his management, his training partners, the millions of followers on social media, and all those Kenyans who expect him to deliver on the global stage. On the morning of his sub-two-hour marathon attempt in Vienna, Kipchoge felt that expectation more than ever.
“The whole world is seeing you perform and when you really sit down and think what other people are saying (you think), ‘What will happen if I miss? What is the impact?’ It’s really hard.”
In October last year, Kipchoge lost his first marathon for seven years, heavy rain in London causing a blocked ear midway through the race, which in turn caused issues with his balance and resulted in an eighth-place finish. Many wondered if time, at last, was catching up with him.
Did he doubt himself after that loss?
“Yes, yes,” he admits. “If somebody hits you like an electric shock, you need to think. But when you realise those are the challenges you go back, train more, have a comeback in full swing.”
Kipchoge did just that, winning his comeback marathon in the Netherlands in April before going on to rout the field at the Olympics in August. What next?
“I’d like to run the next three World Marathon Majors to make six,” he says.
The three missing from his CV are Tokyo, Boston, and New York, and given the first two are spring marathons, it’s likely he’ll compete at one of those in March or April next year.
He says he has “not yet made my full decision” about the Paris Olympics in 2024, but to mark 1,000 days to those Games, Kipchoge will take part in a 5km race in the French capital tomorrow morning.
He’ll set off minutes behind the field and all those who avoid being caught by Kipchoge will earn an entry to the mass-participation race at the Paris Games, which will be staged in conjunction with the Olympic marathon.
The official world record is still the 2:01:39 Kipchoge ran in Berlin three years ago but given what he’s done since, he believes it can be revised. “I don’t know when but it’s possible,” he says. “I still want to run faster before I say, bye.”
His reign will eventually, inevitably end, and Kipchoge is doing his best to ensure his successor comes from within his ranks, with training partner Geoffrey Kamworor the most likely contender. He, like all athletes in the camp, sees Kipchoge as a role model, a standard-bearer who embodies true professionalism.
At times, Kipchoge’s ruthless application can make him appear robotic, but those who know him will tell you there’s a playful side in there somewhere, one that emerges when an athletes in the camp has a birthday, during which the ritual is to soak them with water. In those moments Kipchoge acts like a child, giddy with laughter, a contrast to the quiet, serious operator he is in his day-to-day training.
When people visit his camp they’re invariably surprised at how basic it is, but it’s simplicity done right, repeated week after week, year after year, for the time it takes to build an endurance champion. Visitors from Nike are always requested to bring along a book, and one that was left behind in the small library was Insanely Simple, which details the success story of Apple.
“I read it and thought, shit, this is what Kaptagat is,” says Marc Roig, a physiotherapist who oversees the athletes’ strength and conditioning routine. “Outside there,” he says, pointing through the fence, “things are very complicated, but marathon training is very simple.”
Kipchoge agrees. “If you’ve been using a tiny gym for all your success, then the day you become successful and go to a huge gym, I don’t think you’ll be better,” he says.
Small habits are what make me successful. I’m sticking to where I started and I’m confident I’ll end my career here.”
As we speak in the serenity of the camp’s gardens, with birds tweeting overhead and cows mooing in a nearby field, it’s almost three months since Kipchoge’s latest Olympic gold. I can’t help wonder, despite all I know, if he managed to at least celebrate that win, whether in Japan or upon his return home.
“Not at all,” he says quickly. “The celebrations ended at the finish line.”