Finding inspiration in the fastest marathon ever

You can spend a lot of money on a top-of-the-line treadmill these days, with the finest machines offering everything from synchronized routes that replicate a jog through the Icelandic woods to automatic elevation control, WiFi connection and automatic result recording.

What most of them don’t do, however, is go any faster than 12 m.p.h. — assuming, mostly correctly, that any sane human would either be unwilling or unable to travel at such a speed for very long (if at all). If you’re so inclined, check out the “12” setting next time you’re at the gym. For the vast majority of the population, it feels like a flat-out sprint.

Last Saturday, Eliud Kipchoge set off running at 13.1 m.p.h., and kept it up for the entire 26.2-mile distance of a marathon. In the process, he sparked a flurry of social media astonishment, became the first man to dip under the mythical two-hour mark and maybe, just maybe, kicked off distance running’s latest surge in mainstream popularity.

“I am feeling good,” Kipchoge said, in an interview moments after his epic run. “I want to inspire many people, to tell them that no human is limited.”

There’s something about extraordinary feats of running endurance that capture the public’s imagination like nothing else and provide inspiration at all levels, whether it be in persuading a recreational runner to enter a race and train for a marathon, or for a couch potato to set down the Doritos and jog around the block. Everyone must start somewhere.

“The most profound part of it all was the celebration,” Christopher McDougall, author of the award-winning 2009 book Born to Run, told me in a telephone conversation. “Kipchoge did more with the way he crossed the finish line than with the running he did before it. The way he was pounding his chest and raising his arms in the air. This was not a jaded professional, this was a guy taking flight. That’s what I think people found so inspiring and exciting. That will stick in people’s hearts.”

The first marathon craze came in the wake of the 1908 London Olympics, when diminutive Italian Dorando Pietri entered the stadium for the final lap barely conscious, turned the wrong way, fell four times and was virtually carried over the line by officials. That assistance saw him disqualified, but his bravery earned him a silver cup from the British royal family and international stardom.

In the United States, Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympics sparked another boom, with a huge increase in races throughout the remainder of that decade. The Boston Marathon did not have more than 1,000 runners until 1968, but by 1979 was at nearly 9,000 participants, and topped out at more than 35,000 in 2014.

Amid the financial crisis, McDougall’s majestically-crafted book Born to Run opened up the world of ultra-distance running, with the writer chronicling the story of the Tarahumara, a native Mexican tribe for whom running for pleasure is part of their very way of life.

Originally, McDougall was a non-runner, but has become one of the most passionate disciples of how the activity can lead to fulfillment. His latest book, Running with Sherman, is a hysterical yet moving tale of how he rehabilitated a neglected, lame donkey and trained it to run with him at the pack burro racing world championships.

“I was a skeptic of Kipchoge’s run at first,” McDougall admits. “But that happiness he showed taps into the secret of the craft; this idea of joyfulness. Sadly, a lot of us are struggling to find the joy, running turns into a punishment for eating too much pizza. The ultimate inspiration isn’t to go fast, it is the path to happiness. That’s what Kipchoge showed us. Not that we can beat two hours. But that we can run hard and have fun.”

He was a skeptic initially because this wasn’t a typical marathon. Kipchoge wasn’t trying to break the official world record and his effort won’t enter the IAAF charts. He was simply trying to do the unthinkable by smashing two hours and demonstrating what is humanly possible.

Already the holder of the official marathon mark of 2:01:39, last weekend he received help from an extensive team backed by British plastics company INEOS to cut off that remaining time and slip under the threshold many thought was impossible to break. It was a blend of pure running ability, remarkable preparation, and integration of modern technologies and tactics.

Kipchoge’s course, along the Prater in Vienna, was selected for its perfectly flat and smooth roads, with a sweeping turn at each end to allow for continued momentum. He was paced by a car that flashed a green laser beam onto the road in front of him to show him the ideal pace needed, and a crew of elite world-class runners who lined up in front of him to maximize aerodynamic efficiency. His specialty sports drinks were brought to him by motorcycle instead of needing to be snatched from a table.

Like McDougall at first, it is easy to be cynical of such things. But Kipchoge was so engaging, so devoid of pretense, that it’s hard not to get swept up in it. Plenty of people already have been.

“When I woke up on Saturday, it was across all of my friends Facebooks,” Bella Martinez, a school administrator from Los Angeles, told me. “I was up early. I went and watched the YouTube highlights and I literally went out and signed up for a local race, where you can enter (the same) day.”

Thanksgiving Turkey Trots could get busy this year. Amy Porters, 44, a California homemaker, stayed up into the night to watch Kipchoge’s run. She usually runs a 3.2-mile loop near her Irvine, Calif. house on Sundays. This week, inspired by Kipchoge’s effort, she did the same path — three times.

Running numbers are hard to quantify. Apart from a tiny minority, America’s runners aren’t part of a club and don’t get measured in any census or poll. It’s a massive community of individuals doing their own thing, on their own time, at their own pace.

But there are more of them today than there were last week, you can be sure of that. Whether it be before the sun has come up or a midnight jog after a late shift, they are all doing the same thing: pulling on a pair of shoes and putting in the miles — on a trail, a track, pavement, or a treadmill.

Hopefully with a smile on their face. And not, of course, at 13.1 m.p.h.