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September 19, 2018

Eliud Kipchoge called his shot

The origin of the Called Shot, as it relates to modern sports talk, dates back to a New York World-Telegram headline that read “RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOME RUN NO. 2 IN SIDE POCKET.” This headline, of course, ran after game three of the 1932 World Series when (sure, I know this is disputed, but for the sake of history and not being a stick in the mud, we’ll believe the rest of this story) in the top of the 5th inning, the Great Bambino pointed to center field and then slapped the next pitch 440 feet into nothing but Wrigley Field grandstand.

The man called his shot. The man then did exactly what he said he was going to do.

This trope plays out in sports all the time, though it takes many different forms: Cassius Clay driving to Sonny Liston’s house in the middle of the night just to tell him he’s going to kick his ass. Michael Jordan closing his eyes before a free throw and saying, “Hey Dikembe, this one’s for you baby.” The 40-year old white guy at your local YMCA screaming “game” as he releases from Steph Curry-distance, game tied 19-19, then actually drills it.

Displays of confidence, earned or unearned, are heralded. The anything-can-happen quality is what makes sports fun. Upsets and close games are what keep us watching. But there is something to be said, and I’d say arguably more entertaining, about witnessing a sporting hero declare their intentions, and then watching them deftly navigate through the chaos to land safely, exactly, where they said they would.

This is what I saw on Sunday in Berlin. I watched as Eliud Kipchoge called his shot, and then went out and ran faster than any human had ever done before him. He denied going for a world record, instead opting to say he was looking for a “personal best.” But then Kipchoge asked for world record pace — the rabbits would go out in 61-minutes for the half marathon. This was Eliud calling his shot in a truly Eliud way. But unlike shooting a free throw or swinging at the next pitch, we’d have to wait for nearly two hours to see what he could do.

I caught a glimpse of him at the 5km mark, flanked by three pacers, where he already had 10 seconds on the field. Behind him was Wilson Kipsang, the second name on the bill, who already looked cooked.

By the halfway point I was sitting in a beer garden near the finish line where they had the race projected onto a huge inflatable screen. The early morning crowd, half intoxicated at that point, watched him clear halfway, down to a single pacer, in 61:06, just six seconds off his intended goal and more than a minute clear of the 2nd place runner.

Calling your shot doesn’t always go as planned. There is that now-infamous GIF of Nick Young launching a three-pointer from deep, then turning around to walk away with his arms in the air, not bothering to watch as the ball bricks off the back iron.

The running equivalent would be just not bothering to go with the rabbits. No one would blame Kipchoge for blowing up, as there are plenty of opportunities to do in the marathon. But at the halfway mark we realized that this was not a Nick Young-level attempt at calling your shot. He was going for it, and we’d either watch him blow up or get the record.

The next time I saw him I was standing on the photo bridge behind the finish line. He was hammering towards the finish, fully enveloped in the moment. After running for a little over two hours, Kipchoge was slapping his chest, arms outstretched as he broke the tape in 2:01:39. Covered in salt, the man who had just averaged 4:38 per mile for 26.2 miles sprinted to his coach Patrick Sang and covered his face in what was probably a few different emotions. Disbelief? Elation? Sweet relief?

Not all world records are equal. We can’t immediately recall how all of them were set, what kind of build-up led to the moment in time where someone did something no one else had ever done. Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, however, has the intangibles — those things we can’t quite reach out and touch that make something special.

People that you probably don’t want to meet at parties will tell you that it’s because of Nike and their never ending marketing campaign. But for me, and hopefully for the rest of you, it’s because we watched someone at the peak of their talent, calling his shot like one of the greats and then gently closing his eyes with a grin before executing completely, unquestionably, beautifully, what he set out to do.

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