Column: ESP-EM

Eliud Kipchoge beat a world record a couple of weeks ago when he ran a sub-two-hour marathon. But he didn’t earn the record title.

Kipchoge was not given the title because of the assistance he received during his run and the circumstances of the course. 

Not only did he run on an entirely flat course designed for the highest speed possible, Kipchoge ran with a team of 41 pacemakers who ran in a V around him, all of whom were chasing a laser projected onto the road by a pace car in front of them. Kipchoge also ran in a special pair of Nike Vaporfly Next% shoes that provided far more spring than most shoes do, with a bicycle-mounted team bringing him water and nutrition as he ran.

The shoes played a key role in Kipchoge breaking the record – and also why he couldn’t claim the title. The Nikes he wore were specially made with several layers of carbon fiber with cushioning between them – literal springs in the soles of his shoes. These gave him an extra skip in his step that sliced seconds off of his time.

So though Kipchoge ran a sub-two-hour marathon, he didn’t earn the world record title because he had an unfair advantage over other runners. He proved humans can run a marathon in under two hours – just with a whole lot of help from other runners, a laser-guiding pace car and a pair of shoes that takes some of the effort out of lifting his feet off of the ground.

The choice to withhold the world record from Kipchoge was the right one. Though his accomplishment was a true feat of human endurance, it was heavily assisted and the shoes dramatically altered his performance. 

Though having pacemakers helped, they didn’t run the race for him. Kipchoge likely would have run the same regardless, even if he was in an actual race setting. 

The laser-guiding pace car falls into the same category. Though it’s easy to have a very clear visual of where a runner needs to be to make the time you want, a runner can do the exact same thing with a stopwatch on his wrist and knowing the splits he needs to make. 

Track and cross-country athletes do this all the time, especially in practice, and a stopwatch is considered vital to a good performance, but not a performance enhancer. 

Besides – Kipchoge was not forced to keep up with the pace car. If he grew tired and fell behind, there was nothing the pace car could have done to make him go faster.

Even having food and water handed to him by a bicycle team didn’t enhance his performance. Though many runners have to stop at a station to get food or water mid-marathon, runners can always wear a hydration belt or carry snacks on them in a fanny pack – ultrarunners carry all of this on them when they’re running without impacting their times.

The shoes are what set this performance apart, and it would be interesting to see Kipchoge run the race again, just without the shoes. Because that extra spring in his step made a world of difference.

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