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Olympics marathon star Eliud Kipchoge: 'Running is freedom'

The greatest male marathon runner ever discusses his gold medal in Tokyo, his training playlist and his new film Kipchoge: The Last Milestone, which follows his mission to run 26.2 miles in under two hours.

“Running is a democratic space.” So says the greatest male marathon runner of all time. Eliud Kipchoge recently became the first man in 40 years to win marathon gold at consecutive Olympic Games with victory on the streets of Tokyo.

He is used to breaking new ground.

A new film, Kipchoge: The Last Milestone, charts the Kenyan’s 2019 mission to become the first human to run 26.2 miles in less than two hours. To put it into context, that means running a mile in less than 4min 35sec, then repeating that feat a further 25 times.

It is, as iconic track and field achievements go, up there with Roger Bannister’s first four-minute mile, when Jim Hines dipped under 10 seconds for the 100m in 1968 or Bob Beamon’s long jump heroics in Mexico – which broke the 28ft and 29ft barriers in one mighty, majestic leap.

Kipchoge, who is now 36, runs a lot. He always has. For him, the school run was just that. We are talking at 7.50am and he has already run 16km. This gives him plenty of time to think.

“When I am running a big race, a lot is going on in my mind,” he says, “but I try my best to clear my mind and make sure my mind is calm enough to handle the running.

“When I am training, I mostly try to think about running the right times and running in the right direction. Or I might be joking and listening to music, especially Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) by Kelly Clarkson. That gives me more motivation, more energy to move on.

“But I also think about the world and how it will feel over the next year. And I think about how I want the world to be in the future.”

TOPSHOT-ATHLETICS-MARATHON-AUSTRIA-KENYA
Kipchoge breaks the two-hour barrier in Vienna in 2019. Image: ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images

The documentary lasts one hour and 23 minutes. In this time, Kipchoge could run more than 18 miles, or enough to take him the scenic route (avoiding the heavy traffic on Brian Clough Way) from Nottingham to Derby.

The man born on Bonfire Night in 1984 recently produced more fireworks in Tokyo.

“I am really thankful that the Olympics happened – it is the only way to show the world that we are on the path towards our normal lives,” he says. “Fans were not allowed, but a billion people were watching. So we were all together. There were a few fans watching on the road, but it felt like everybody in the world was watching.”

Kipchoge talks in the new film about how a marathon is like life – the ups and downs, twists and turns, highs and lows, the pleasure and pain. Taking that analogy further, what life event was the Tokyo Olympic marathon like?

“It was a huge celebration,” he says with a broad grin. “My happiness to defend the Olympic title and win back-to-back gold medals – it is like the birth of a child, because it’s a new thing for the world.”

The film shows another ambition that burns brightly in the superstar – a philosophical desire to prove that “no human is limited”.

‘If you want to know what freedom is, it is running’

He is at ease talking about the big concepts. All that thinking time leaves him with a real feeling of clarity – no wonder he’s been compared to a Zen master and dubbed the philosopher king of running.

“The concept that no human is limited is a very cool idea,” he says, “and it’s not only about sport. If you’re a sportsman, set a target, work on it and actually make sure to perform. But if you are a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer – in your work, set yourself a goal and perform. Because you’re not limited at all.

“Performance is not only in sport, performance is even in the office. That’s why I’m happy with what’s going on in the world now when we see Sir Richard Branson flying into space and Jeff Bezos going into space on a different flight. When you see people can think like this, you know we have no limitations at all. Let us press on, and press on, and press on.”

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We talk about philosophies of running. And we talk about The Big Issue and its mission to help people show their potential and overcome difficult times. Kipchoge sees the link.

“I always say, running is a democratic space. And if you want to know what freedom is, it is running,” he says. “You cannot keep us in our classes because all kinds of people are getting their shoes and their apparel and getting on the road – the same road that everyone is on. Running is the best place to be.”

For Kipchoge, running is a team sport. His sub two-hour marathon goal was achieved with the help of coach Patrick Sang, 41 well-drilled pacemakers doubling up as human windshields in a new formation designed to allow him to run with the least friction possible and a team of sports scientists and experts looking for new ways to make marginal gains. Technological advances in running shoes made by Nike also played a part.

And the team fulfilled their mission with 20 seconds to spare – breaking out of formation as Kipchoge sprints for the line.

“Teamwork is not a group of people staying together. No. It’s a group of people trusting each other,” says Kipchoge. “That’s what does enable us to treat running as a team sport.”

Closing Ceremony - Olympics: Day 16
On the podium with his Olympic winner's medal in Tokyo. Image: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

And he might just have an eye on another breakthrough – dipping under two hours in a regular road race, rather than an against-the-clock time trial. “A two-hour road race marathon is possible,” he continues. “I trust I have shown the way to all the other athletes. They no longer have to think it, they know now that it is possible. And I trust this film will inspire everybody health wise and even thinking wise.”

For, besides being a team sport, running – as anyone who joins their local Parkrun, takes part in smaller local races or big-city marathons knows – is also about community.

“When I am no longer competing, I want to go to all the big city marathons to run with the people,” says Kipchoge. “Why not go to England to run, why not go to Berlin or New York or even Guatemala, which is a small place?

“Why not run in Singapore – it is a small country and only 42 kilometres across, so why not run across it?

“After each big city marathon I’ve done, I really feel we are not the most important people. What is more important are those 40,000 who are going to cross the line and are running for a noble cause.

“Many are running for cancer foundations, for education charities, for anything in Africa, for animals. And I trust that in the next marathons, people will be running to rebuild Haiti and build back the lives of the people
in Haiti.”

It’s a nice thing to know. That while the rest of us are marvelling at the man running marathons faster than anyone in history – I watched live coverage of his run in Vienna on a friend’s phone as we awaited the start of a Parkrun in Crystal Palace – he spares a thought for those of us who trail in his wake.

“I always give total respect to the people running behind me, to those social runners getting on their shoes and running,” says Kipchoge. “If more people are running because they have been inspired by us, that’s great. But we are also inspired by those 50,000 people running together.

“It’s good to feel that you are part of the community of runners. It will give you peace of mind. When you are at home and go to sleep, you feel cool that you are part of those people who run for the betterment of this world.”

Kipchoge: The Last Milestone is available on digital platforms now

@adey70

MarathonTimeLine

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