Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon achievement doesn’t use poverty as a crutch
His feat reveals how financial capital and technological access can be brought together to push useful limits
There are places where humans go to find the limits.
When Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub two-hour marathon, millions of faces — including those of his wife, Grace Sugutt, and their three children — were in agreement that this was one of those places. There is something about going to the edge, making it a new center and waiting for the world to catch up. His family, who had never seen him run live on the world stage, was a reminder that they were prepared for this new center.
The places where humans go to find limits seem to be grounds for insularity and smallness. You can identify a Kenyan by a beaded Kenyan flag bracelet on his or her wrist. I don’t wear the bracelet, as I don’t agree with its use as a symbol of ethnic stratification.
But the flag’s spears and shield proudly wave across finish lines in global capitals, in defiance to any of its cowardly use. Similar to the way this race by Kipchoge lay bare how great things can be achieved by an individual and those who help him. His race ended up defying the deification of meritocracy as individualism.
Kipchoge referred to this race as going to the moon and coming back. In his mind, the superlative qualities are parallel to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, an acknowledgment of Kipchoge’s individual talent and his humility around the task as well as what was needed to achieve it: more talent, technology and capital. The point that gets missed is that in Kipchoge’s mind, the moon landing was the best place to draw from. There was little room for error. With the official world record that Kipchoge holds at 2:01:39, diets, clothes, routes and several conditions had to be optimized. Just like the moon landing.
No one takes away from champions of Formula One or the Tour de France. Because these races have been designed as team sports with an eventual emissary winner at the end. The winners are talented like Kipchoge. In his case, he is showing that a sport that’s accessible and often considered an individual sport really isn’t. By shooting for something that isn’t easily repeatable, he increased the chance and means of having more Kipchoges. He had to achieve this.
And just like landing a rocket on the moon, there was little room for error.
So it is a pity when this achievement is reduced to discussions around nothingness — how real it was or who financed it. Much of the noise comes from aspirational weekend warriors or amateur runners. Runners who have access outside of their perceived individual efforts. Access to orthopedic technology as they age. To treadmills and trackers to shave down mile time. And, in several cases, have habits that began in facilities built by someone rich, from Payne Whitney Gymnasium at Yale University to Gregory Gymnasium at the University of Texas at Austin.
The centrality of this achievement is the humanity of it all. Years after Kipchoge’s childhood, many kids in Kenya’s Rift Valley, my birthplace, are still running 3 miles a day to school. And not for the sake of it. They need to get to school. Draw a contrast to students in American high schools who might run cross country to get into college. There isn’t a better signal of how much of a gap there is in the world in the quality of life human conditions deserve to fully thrive.
Our limits are, after all, largely based on scientific studies conducted in male adults of Western countries. This has limited the generalizability of findings and limited our understanding of the humans in general or, in fact, the range of humans based on their varied experiences. Feats such as this signal that we should be doing better — from studying women’s health and casting our nets further in our world’s understanding of humans. This race was a social impact venture that doesn’t use poverty porn as a crutch. Instead, it showcases how the currently divisive tools of financial capital and technological access can be brought together to push the limits in a useful direction. Kipchoge, his coach and his team took us to the edge, a new center we can hope to catch up to in the years to come.