One hour and 59 minutes is fast in a way that’s difficult to comprehend. Despite the formidable distance, Kipchoge ripped through each mile of his run in about four and a half minutes. This speed would feel like an all-out sprint to almost anyone who could keep up with him in the first place. To sustain this blistering pace, Kipchoge ran under conditions that had been painstakingly and exclusively arranged to push him beyond the two-hour barrier. The INEOS 1:59 Challenge was not a race by any strict definition: It was simply Kipchoge, joined by a rotating phalanx of pacesetters, rocketing along the pavement against the clock.
The planning that went into the event was a fantasy of perfectionism. The organizers scouted out a six-mile circuit along the Danube River that was flat, straight, and close to sea level. Parts of the road were marked with the fastest possible route, and a car guided the runners by projecting its own disco-like laser in front of them to show the correct pace. The pacesetters, a murderers’ row of Olympians and other distance stars, ran seven-at-a-time in a wind-blocking formation devised by an expert of aerodynamics. (Imagine the Mighty Ducks’ “flying V,” but reversed.)
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Kipchoge himself came equipped with an updated, still-unreleased version of Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes, which, research appears to confirm, lower marathoners’ times. He had unfettered access to his favorite carbohydrate-rich drink, courtesy of a cyclist who rode alongside the group. And the event’s start time was scheduled within an eight-day window to ensure the best possible weather. The whole thing was as close as you can get to a mobile marathon spa treatment—if going to a spa were paired with the worst discomfort of your life.
Such an extensive level of support, combined with the fact that Kipchoge wasn’t actually competing against anybody, pushed the event outside of official marathon conditions and prevented his performance from counting as a true record. The organizers were fully aware of this; the event, as Outside magazine aptly referred to it, is perhaps best understood as an “exhibition marathon.” It was a time trial, albeit one that had been scienced to an almost entirely unrivaled level. The only professional marathon competition that has resembled it was 2017’s Breaking2, a much-hyped Nike campaign that put Kipchoge and two other athletes on an Italian motor-racing track under similar top conditions. They all failed at breaking the two-hour barrier, but Kipchoge got close enough to convince INEOS, a U.K.-based chemical company that owns several sports franchises, that two hours could be broken with just a little more optimization.
But with great optimization comes great controversy. Looked at one way, the INEOS 1:59 Challenge is a straightforward testament to how money can buy anything, including a branded sub-two-hour marathon. INEOS, which is owned by Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, appeared to spare no expense when it came to either the groundbreaking science or the marketing blitz leading up to the event. “As much as they might like to present this as such, the first sub-2:00 marathon is not like the first sub-4:00 mile, or the first summit of Everest, much less the moon landing,” the running commentator Toni Reavis wrote before the event. “All those challenges carried in the public consciousness the possibility of death. This is a second-chance marketing exhibition for a plastics manufacturer and springy shoes.”