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Even if you couldn’t care less about distance running or world records, Kipchoge’s accomplishment is worth pondering for what it says about human endurance and what the body is capable of, in terms of cardiovascular strength and muscle efficiency. Indeed, one of the reasons marathon running has become so popular is that it enables us ordinary runners to learn those lessons about our own endurance capacity, both physical and mental. The first-time marathon groups I see out running this time of year are as inspiring to me as Kipchoge. For someone to go from couch potato to marathoner in eight or nine months of determined training is an extraordinary accomplishment.
And this quest for self-improvement and a deeper understanding of the limits of human capacity now goes way beyond the marathon, although the health effects of extreme (some might say insane) endurance events are questionable and not all that well understood. The Ironman Triathlon—a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—is an incredible feat in its own right. And it’s no longer enough. Competitors now do doubles, even a “quintuple”—five Ironmans in five days.
Scott Jurek, the legendary ultramarathon runner, set a new record in 2015 for running the Appalachian Trail in 46 days. That works out to running 47 miles a day for a month and a half. Since then, his record has already been broken twice. I have no idea how that is even possible.
And how fast do you think a human being can run the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, which starts below sea level in California’s Death Valley in mid-July, where temperatures can top 130 degrees, and ends at a chilly 8,360 feet on Mount Whitney? Pete Kostelnick did it in just under 22 hours in 2016. (Jurek won the race in 2005 and 2006, and Dean Karnazes, who has run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, won in 2003 and 2004.)
The wisdom of running a 2,189-mile marathon
But none of that compares to Kipchoge’s new marathon record and its combination of speed and endurance. “Kipchoge’s run was so remarkable it’s hard to give it its proper due,” said LetsRun.com. “In today’s age of hyperbole, this run deserves every accolade said about it. The lower the world record gets, the harder it is to be broken, and the less it should be broken by. Yet Eliud Kipchoge just broke the world record by more than any man in the last 41 years, and he ran the last 10 miles by himself.”
Kipchoge, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the 2016 Olympics, has dominated marathon running like no one before him over the past five years; going into Sunday’s race, he had won nine of 10 marathons he had entered since 2013. In a profile published on Saturday, The New York Times’ Scott Cacciola called him “a man of immense self-discipline” who keeps meticulous running logs and has never had a serious injury. He is also marathon running’s “philosopher king,” according to Cacciola, distinguishing himself as much with his motivational speaking as he does out on the course. “Kipchoge is the type of person,” writes Cacciola, “who says stuff like: ‘Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.’ And: ‘It’s not about the legs; it’s about the heart and the mind.’ And: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.’”