Life Advice from Eliud Kipchoge’s Coach.
The night before Eliud Kipchoge ran his sub-2-hour marathon, I went to Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a well-loved restaurant in the city center of Vienna, which also has a cosy bar area, where patrons who are travelling alone can make themselves feel less so, with a plate of their open sandwiches and a glass of wine.
An older couple came to share the counter I was standing at, and we began chatting.
“What brings you to Vienna?” I asked them.
“We’re here from Germany to see an exhibition of our favourite artist,” the man said.
“You’ve surely heard of him — Albert Dührer? You must know The Hare,” said his wife.
I confessed I did not. But I had seen the numerous posters for the exhibition dedicated to a man, I soon learnt, considered to be the greatest German Renaissance artist, plastered all over the city.
“And you came all the way here only for that?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” the wife replied. “You never see his work like this in one place, so many of his works all together. It’s really rare.”
The husband took out his phone and began to scroll through, showing me pictures he’d taken at the exhibition at the Albertina, one of Vienna’s prized museums, earlier that day. Hands in prayer. A large patch of grass. And, of course, a hare. “He looks like he’s moving,” said the man. “The way Dührer painted it, it’s really quite amazing. You can feel the movement just by looking at it.”
“We couldn’t miss it,” the wife added. “And what brings you here?”
“I’m here to see my favourite runner,” I responded. “Eliud Kipchoge,” I continued. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?” They hadn’t. I took out my phone and showed them pictures I’d taken at the press conference, explaining his ‘works,’ if you will — the Olympic medals he’s scored, the marathons he’s won — and told them about the 26.2 miles, 42 kilometers, he was going to run the next day.
“You never see what he’s attempting,” I said. “It’s very rare.”
“And you came all the way here only for that?” the man smiled.
“Yes,” I smiled back. “I couldn’t miss it.”
This story actually starts in my bed, in New York City, in the way-too early hours of a Saturday morning in 2017, with me watching on my laptop, Eliud Kipchoge outlast Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese in a magnificent experiment of endurance. It was thrilling to watch how he brought the gap between a 2-hour marathon and reality 25 seconds closer — all with a giant smile that would soon become his trademark. It was from my bed, set in Eastern Time, that I also watched Kipchoge in 2018 break the London Marathon course record, in 2:02:37, and establish a new world record in Berlin, a few months later, in 2:01:39.
Like many devotees of running, I’d been aware of Kipchoge before then — how he’d surpassed Kenenisa Bekele and Hicham El Guerroul in the 5000m at his first ever World Championships at the age of 19. How he won the first marathon he ever ran, Hamburg, in 2013, setting a new course record to boot. As my relationship with running evolved and my knowledge of the sport grew, so too, did my capacity to admire his achievements. How he began winning consecutive marathons — even with the insoles of his shoes coming out. How he trains in a Kenyan village where he cleans the toilets and looks after farm animals. How he embraces pain and consistently beats his own times. When it was announced Kipchoge would take his shot at sub-2 once again, I decided it was time to get up and go see him run, for real.
To be honest, by the time Kipchoge decided he was going to attempt the INEOS 159 Challenge, I was in the market for a little inspiration myself. My own marathon training had been taken over by a few complications in my personal life — runs cut short or not done at all, lackluster energy, sadness and a tragedy I still can’t speak about even now. I was finding it really hard to get behind myself. I just couldn’t cheer myself on towards the start line of my upcoming race — Berlin, the place where Kipchoge had a year before, smashed the world record. But someone else — I could get behind someone else. I wanted to see Kipchoge shoot for the moon, as he saw it, and make the biggest news in running history since Roger Bannister’s sub-4-minute-mile, 65 years ago. I wanted to be in the room where it happened, or in this case, the park in Vienna that had been chosen for it to happen, and let some of that Kipchoge magic rub off on me.
As a freelance journalist, I was able to turn the story into an assignment, one that wouldn’t altogether cover my costs, but the price of some bucket-list items goes beyond euros and dollars. So, I boarded a flight from London to Vienna, landing me in the city with just enough time to make it to the press conference that was being held before the big day. I should say here, that I am not a sports journalist. I am an entertainment journalist. At least, that’s my profession by trade. But since becoming more enthusiastic about running, I began taking on stories about the sport too. When Kipchoge walked into the room, it felt as if Tom Hanks was walking past me on the red carpet. A warm, magnetic energy. The brown of his eyes shone so brightly, something, I thought, I’d never noticed when watching him on TV. Something that made seeing him in person already worth it. And then he smiled that smile. Also, I can confirm, something better seen in person than on a laptop screen.
He took his stance at the front of the table and struck his pose. Cameras clicked as he put his arms akimbo, his white NN Running jacket on, with KIPCHOGE written along the bottom of the back, and of course, a pair of those bright pink Nike Vaporfly Next%’s on his feet. Then he made his way through the questions he was asked, which mostly centered on his training and preparation. I asked him how he managed the expectations and pressure that comes with declaring a goal so big. “Pressure is everywhere in this world, if you’re a human being,” he told me. “I’m trying to stay as calm as possible. It’s about telling people there is no one who sets the limits. It’s only in their minds; it’s not something tangible, it’s just happening in their thoughts. I am just trying to remove that click in their minds that no human is limited.” He would often refer back to this phrase when asked more about the motivation driving him. Kipchoge, ever humble, always deferred to the collective glory this feat would achieve, what it would do for others, both in the sport and at large, in helping people to overcome any challenge in their lives.
When Kipchoge was asked about the training for this attempt versus the other marathons, he said the physical training had been the same, the only thing that had changed was the mental part. His long-time coach, Patrick Sang elaborated on this too, the next day, at an informal press briefing at the hotel where all the pacers, support crew and Kipchoge were staying.
I asked Sang, who’s been with Kipchoge since he was a teenager and also happens to be his long-time neighbour in Eldoret, whether they brought in someone to help with the mental training side of his prep. He said they hadn’t. “We were enhancing what we see in him — the positive behaviour we would see, like a parent would to a child. It’s already there in him, we would just encourage him to do more of it.” It seemed too simple an answer, but, like the best answers, it also made sense. Nurture a healthy confidence when you see it happening and it’ll grow. Good to know, I thought to myself, but what if your confidence isn’t quite healthy?
There wasn’t too much time to linger on this thought as the hours quickly ticked down to the big day. This next part, is, of course, by now, well-known. Eliud Kipchoge ran 1:59:40, indeed shattering his much-loved maxim, no human is limited, and it was glorious to witness in person, on that chilly Saturday morning in Vienna, huddled in between a reporter from Sky News and a girl who’d taken the hour-long bus ride from Bratislava that morning to be there too. We whooped and cheered and hurrah’ed through it all.
But it’s the small moment that came after this big one that has stayed with me a little longer, in the weeks following the feat. About an hour after the finish, we all shuffled into the make-shift press room, waiting for Kipchoge to come in so we could ask a few questions. Before he did, Sang walked in alone and took a seat in the front row, which was just in front of where I was seated. I thought he would immediately be swarmed by the journalists and photographers in the room — after all, he’s the man behind the man. But he wasn’t. We started chatting about watching the race happen and about the pacers who were involved.
“Do you think we’re all capable of this kind of extraordinary feat?” I asked him. “Maybe not specific to running, but using our mind to work for us, and focussing it in a similar way? Or are there only a handful of people, like Eliud, who are able to?”
“Anyone can start from where they are,” he replied. “Anyone can improve from where they are.” I had to pause for a moment because I honestly wasn’t expecting that answer. It’s so straightforward, so true, that it would be easy to hear and forget.
Oftentimes, the gap between where I am and where I want to be overwhelms me. I use it to make excuses for why I can’t get there — to my own version of a sub-2 marathon. Though smaller in scale, my ambitions are no less driven. What would it mean to just literally start from where I am — whether that’s the beginning of one thing or the end of another? What would it mean to not give in to the excuses, the “not me,” and just figure out the first step? And we all have them — our own little sub-2 marathons we want to tackle. I was intrigued by this, by the way Sang was telling me, in a kind way, to cut the BS.
Taking the opportunity to continue this impromptu one-on-one with Sang, I asked another question. Had he seen the crowds in Eldoret, his and Kipchoge’s home village, and how they had been cheering in massive joy? He hadn’t, so I took out my phone and showed him the video clip doing the rounds on Twitter.
“So, how will you celebrate?” I asked.
“We celebrate when we internalize it,” he said. “The celebrations everyone is having are great — it’s really nice to see. But when we take it in, when we internalize it, that’s the celebration for us.”
Again, his words felt deceivingly easy to hear, but I knew they held more. I wanted to pause and think about them further. But the press conference was about to start and there were questions to ask the man of the hour. Questions about what Kipchoge ate before the run. What it meant to have his family there to watch him for the first time. What his next move was going to be. And, yes, how he was going to celebrate.
On the flight back home, I had some time to process what I had witnessed and what it meant — for Kipchoge, yes, and for the sport, but for me too. I played video clips of the day back on my phone, re-living it all, smiling and tearing up watching the moment when Kipchoge crossed the finish line pounding his hands against his chest, before heading straight into the arms of his wife. I thought more about what Sang had said, the words I’d hurriedly typed onto my iPhone.
After running Berlin, a few weeks before, a PR for me in spite of everything, I celebrated by doing what I usually do: taking a picture for social media of me wearing my medal (and a huge grin on my face), going out to eat, drinking something bubbly and dancing with friends. When people asked how it went and I said I PR’ed, I’d always added, “but only by 27 seconds,” undercutting the achievement itself. And yet, Kipchoge had, technically, PR’ed by 1 second less than that. What would it mean if I were to, as Sang said, internalize that win? What would it mean to celebrate a run in the way he and Kipchoge do? How different would my own running be if I were to truly take in each race run, each accomplishment achieved, and let it change the make-up of my interior, my mind, my confidence?
Kipchoge told us how he would use each achievement as a mental building block on the way to each next big event. By the time he reached INEOS 159, he’d trained his mind to build his self-belief, piece by piece. He’d learned to train his confidence and exercise it just as he would his legs and his heart.
Perhaps my superficial way of celebrating, fun as it may be, was part of the reason I had been struggling to truly believe in myself, 9 marathons later, one in a monsoon and one a 50K up a mountain. It’s as if I approach each start line, forgetting what I’d done before. I don’t think I’ve ever truly let the lessons of a marathon sink in to my whole being. If I did, would I be taking more positive risks in my career and my personal life? I don’t think any of it has truly assimilated into into my mind and become a part of me. Of all of me. What would it be like, if it did? What would it be like if I celebrated differently?
Sang helped me see that there’s a better way to mark the triumph of finishing a marathon. Some think of the marathon itself as being a celebration of all the training done to get to the start line. But it’s how you imprint your feats on who you are, in a way that lets them fortify you, that appeals to me. Perhaps it might sound obvious to some, but this doesn’t come easy to me. It’s as if this is one of the reasons why I keep running and tackling the next race. As if the previous one was a fluke and I need to prove myself all over again. But how much more would I be capable of — would we be capable of, if we carried, really carried, the victories of before with us? It calls for more than just reflecting on what went right and wrong during a race. Sang got me to see this is the kind of celebration I want to start having. I went to Vienna to cheer for Kipchoge, to witness his iconic moment in person, but it was a few stolen moments with his coach that helped me realize how to cheer for myself again.
You root for yourself by rooting yourself.