Anyone who questioned whether Eliud Kipchoge was finished were well and truly put in their place on Sunday.
The great Kenyan cruised to victory at the NN Mission Marathon at Twente Airport in 02:04:30. Gone was the struggle at the London Marathon in October, and back was the smooth, relaxed, frankly beautiful running style which makes the sport look easy.
Recreational runners watched on with awe as Kipchoge and his race rivals ran 5km splits under 15 minutes, barely slowing down as the kilometres crept closer to 42. Barely challenged, Kipchoge eventually eased away from the rest of the field to lay down a marker to his rivals for Olympic gold in Tokyo, never reaching top gear, and proved it is too early to write the world record holder off.
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Comeback from London disappointment
The doubters were probably justified. Kipchoge’s performance in London was so far below his best that it was genuinely concerning, finishing eighth and fading badly on the adapted closed-loop course at St James’s Park. After the race, he blamed a blocked ear as the catalyst for a disappointing display, a problem he could not clear after it started 15km in, before admitting his leg and hip cramped.
“It’s not the end of the world. It’s not suicide for Eliud Kipchoge to be beaten. I have more marathons. I will come back again,” he said after the race, as the running community began to wonder whether we had witnessed the beginning of the end for his marathon career.
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There were concerns, at that point, that the energy he had put in to his sub-two hour project had taken its toll. The Ineos-funded event had become an obsession for the entire team involved in it. Kipchoge, of course, achieved the remarkable goal of becoming the first human to unofficially run the marathon under two hours, finishing the special 2019 event in 1:59:40.2. So what was next?
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A change of mentality?
2020 was meant to be the year of the Olympics and it is no surprise, therefore, that Kipchoge may have lacked a bit of motivation when the Games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It clearly hit him hard. Before his race on Sunday, Kipchoge admitted that “Covid has destroyed everything, it has destabilised our training, our lives,” and said he had struggled to train on his own when he is usually surrounded by training partners and support crews.
But he also revealed a change in mindset, and perhaps that is one other reason for his sub-par effort in London. Rather than bemoaning the lack of crowds to cheer them on, Kipchoge said he has accepted that “we should move on because life cannot stop anymore”.
It would be fascinating to sit down with the Kenyan and explore whether the mental side of the sport is something that he has focused on during a year in which most of us have struggled at some point, but Sunday’s race certainly seemed to be a step-change for him.
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Kipchoge was not seriously challenged and this was a tune-up for Tokyo, a race which was better than a training run but not quite a full-throttle effort. It was probably a huge confidence boost and proof that he can retain his Olympic title.
"This was the real test towards the Tokyo Olympics, to test your fitness,” he said, and it was passed with flying colours.
Now we can look forward to the Games, where we will hopefully see a blockbuster race in Sapporo featuring Kipchoge and Ethiopian rival Kenenisa Bekele.
From what we saw at the weekend, the world’s fastest ever marathon runner is well on course to deliver a peak performance - he is not done yet.
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