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October 17, 2019

Unpacking Eliud Kipchoge’s 1:59:40 and the Great Shoe Debate

Running social media is currently ablaze with takes and thoughts regarding Eliud Kipchoge’s run at the INEO 1:59 Challenge, where he ran 1:59:40 to become the first human being to cover the marathon distance in under two hours. The following day, Kenyan marathoner Brigid Kosgei, who is represented by agent Federico Rosa (someone who has worked with convicted dopers Rita Jeptoo and Mathew Kisorio) broke the women’s marathon world record by running 2:14:04. She took 81 seconds off Paula Radcliffe’s previous world record. Many people have pointed toward the advances in footwear technology that may have aided these respective performances. Kipchoge wore an unreleased prototype of what could be the next Nike shoe in its Vaporfly line. Kosgei wore the Vaporfly Next%.

We figured we’d share some of our thoughts on the INEOS 1:59 Challenge and some of the controversy regarding the shoes.

Fast thoughts on the INEOS 1:59 Challenge from Kevin Liao and David Melly

Did Kipchoge going under two hours surprise you at all?

David: I wasn’t surprised. Given that he ran 2:00:25 two years earlier, has set a massive personal best in a “real” race since then and we have two more years of data and scientific advancement (plus a new model of shoes) to assist with the attempt, I was fairly certain that he could shave another 25 seconds off. And I would challenge anyone to find another distance runner in the last decade who performs as consistently as Kipchoge – remember when he ran 2:04 with his insoles falling out? Short of a lightning strike or a freak injury (which he never gets), he was going to deliver. Watching the last pacer change, I thought to myself, ‘Oh god, what if a pacer trips him and he goes down this close to the finish?’ But watching how smooth and relaxed he looked at the finish, I fully believe he could’ve fallen, gotten back up, got back on pace and still broken 2 hours. So yeah, I wasn’t surprised.

Kevin: Not at all. For many of the reasons that David just mentioned. It’s Eliud Kipchoge that we’re talking about. No other runner in the world is as mentally strong as him.

What do you think was the biggest factor that contributed to Kipchoge finally breaking the barrier vs. why he didn’t do it in 2017?

David: Everyone’s gonna say, “It was the shoes.” But I’m going to say the biggest factor was simply the fact that he had another shot at it. I think if you recreated the conditions at Monza and ran that race three times, there’s a good chance that he breaks two hours in at least one of them.  I find it hard to believe he couldn’t have run one second per mile faster in the same exact fitness as 2017. And this time around, he had the advantage of feeling more comfortable with rotating pacers, chasing a laser and running at 4:33 pace this time around since he’d done it before.

Kevin: Right, people are gonna use this as an opportunity to complain about the shoes, but I really think it’s a simpler answer — since Kipchoge’s last sub-2 attempt in 2017, he’s gotten better. He’s improved his personal best from 2:03:05 to the world record of 2:01:39. He’s put in thousands of more miles in training and learned how to be a better marathon runner. And though he’s two years older, age doesn’t appear to be something that affects Eliud Kipchoge. One other note: I do think having a loud and roaring crowd at INEOS (versus the largely empty car race track where the last sub-2 attempt was run) makes a difference. Even us amateur runners have slogged through lonely portions of cross country or road races where no one is around. It’s certainly tougher to push as hard in that kind of setting versus being in front of thousands of adoring fans cheering for you.

Was this more impressive than his world record from Berlin?

Kevin: They’re so different that I have a hard time comparing the two. One was a legitimate race where you had other competitors on the starting line also trying to win the race (whether anyone who toes the line against Kipchoge actually has a chance of beating him is a different debate). The other was a largely artificial set-up that was built for one man to run as fast as humanly possible. Both are impressive but so very different.

David: The world record race was something truly special. It’s funny how easily we can lose perspective on a performance after someone raises the bar so dramatically. Before that race, one person EVER had broken 2:03. Before London 2018, taking a marathon out in 61 minutes was unheard of – in Berlin, Kipchoge went out in 61:06 and negative split. He closed his second half of that race in 60:33 without rabbits and broke the WR by 78 seconds. To match a feat like that I think he’d have had to defy expectations by a larger margin – maybe a 1:58 performance or if he only ran 1:59 by doing something remarkable in the last couple miles, but I’m still giving the edge to Berlin.

OK. Let’s get to the shoes. Should they be banned?

Kevin: No. Shoes are shoes. Some are certainly more technologically advanced than others, but nothing is stopping the other shoe brands from stepping up their games and developing a product that matches the sophistication of the Vaporflys.

Here’s what the IAAF had to say about footwear on Thursday in a statement: “Recent advances in technology mean that the concept of ‘assistance’ to athletes, whether from shoes, prostheses, or technologies with a similar effect, has been the subject of much debate in the athletics world. It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport. The challenge for the IAAF is to find the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality and fairness. To that end, the IAAF Technical Committee has established a working group to consider the issues and, if necessary, recommend changes to the technical rules. The working group includes two former athletes alongside experts in science, ethics, footwear, biomechanics and law, and is expected to report back by the end of the year.”

Rule 143.2 by the IAAF states: “Athletes may compete barefoot or with footwear on one or both feet. The purpose of shoes for competition is to give protection and stability to the feet and a firm grip on the ground. Such shoes, however, must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage. Any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics. Note (i): Adapting a shoe to suit the characteristic of a particular athlete’s foot is permitted if made in accordance with the general principles of these Rules. Note (ii): Where evidence is provided to the IAAF that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them, it may refer the shoe for study and if there is non-compliance may prohibit such shoes from being used in competition.”

David: Ugh. I’m so tired of the shoe debate. Do they provide a huge advantage? Yes. That being said, does it make sense for the sport for us to ban them? I don’t know, but I’m leaning toward no. Where we draw the “unfair advantage” line is much murkier with technology than it is with doping. Technology will always improve and we’ll always have “breakthrough moments” where one particular discovery will accelerate progress dramatically. We don’t force everyone to run on cinder tracks and barrel roll over high jump bars, so why should we knowingly force runners into shoes that are slower than they could be? To me, the more compelling argument is the “reasonably available” aspect of the IAAF rules. Prototypes for a time trial are one thing, but for competitions, everyone should at least have the option to go down to their local running shop and pick up the same shoes worn by the best in the world. The complaint people have with the Vaporflys is that they create an uneven playing field, but if anyone can buy a pair that problem goes away. I do agree that in 2016 when top Nike marathoners were wearing prototype 4%s in trials and in the Olympics that it probably violated IAAF rules, but I don’t think the shoes should be banned outright. And I should point out that many shoe companies have athletes run in unreleased prototypes in violation of IAAF rules, not just Nike.

Back to Kipchoge…if you’re him, what else do you have left to achieve? Why not retire?

Kevin: Hell no, Kipchoge still has more he can achieve. Only one man in history, the legendary Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, has won back-to-back Olympic marathon gold medals. With a win in Tokyo next summer, Kipchoge could join that rarified club. Now that he’s broken two hours in — let’s just call a spade a spade — artificial conditions, how close can he get to that barrier in a normal race? I’d love to see him keep chipping away at that. Plus, it’s really, really fun to watch Kipchoge run — why would we want to lose that joy from our lives?

David: I think the guy genuinely loves running, so why should he retire? I’d love to see him defend his Olympic title and win all 6 majors; two things that would create new and interesting challenges that he hasn’t tackled in the past. I’d also love to see him run Worlds in 2021 in Eugene, but that’s probably the American bias coming through. Eliud, if you’re reading this (and I know you are), consider this for a schedule: Boston 2020; Olympics 2020; Tokyo 2021; Eugene 2021; Breaking 1:59; Chicago 2022. I’ll take my agents’ fee whenever you have the chance – you can find me on Venmo.

One thing that we could get at the Olympics next summer if Kipchoge vs. Bekele after the Ethiopian gave the world record a scare with a 2:01:41 in Berlin. Is that even a race?

Kevin: Not in my mind. While Kipchoge has demonstrated an unprecedented sustained success at the marathon distance, Bekele has not. He’s shown bursts of promise at the 26.2 distance but has never managed to do it consistently. But don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to see the two race in 2020 — whether that’s in London, the Tokyo Olympics, or both.

David: Looking at their respective total bodies of work, I’d say the smart money is on Kipchoge. I would have loved to see how the race would’ve played out in Berlin since Bekele came back after getting dropped – Kipchoge’s never had someone come back at him hard like that and I’m fascinated by how he would’ve reacted. That being said, Bekele’s averaging like 1 finish per 3 marathons or something like that in recent years and Kipchoge hasn’t lost a marathon since 2013. Especially given that they’re both not getting any younger and Bekele’s had a long and well-documented history with injury struggles while Kipchoge has been perfectly healthy, the odds are pretty darn good that on any given day you’re not getting 2:01 Bekele.

Got thoughts on the INEOS 1:59 Challenge or the great shoe debate of 2019? Shoot us an email with your thoughts: [email protected]

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