Pissing In The Chips

This has been one of the biggest weekends in the history of the marathon. Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance in 1:59:40 yesterday in Vienna and today Brigid Kosgei ran 2:14:04 at the Chicago Marathon and demolished Paula Radcliffe’s record for the fastest time recorded for a woman in a marathon. Woo. And also, hoo. Genuinely, I’m in awe of these performances.

I missed the live stream from Vienna yesterday because I was pace-making much less professionally in the rain on Coldham’s Common for parkrun. It’s really hard to run in an inverted arrow formation all on your own. I crossed the line in 25:10 against a target time of 25:00 but there were few runners around me. I had been talking to one chap on my way round whose PB had been 25:46 so he was gunning for it. He got his new PB but missed out on 24:XX because I thought the course would measure short on my Garmin. By the time I worked it out, there was not enough time left for him to unleash his big finish.

Anyway, pacing is hard. Getting even a small thing like running even splits on a flat, grassy course over 5k on a Saturday morning is difficult. Getting it right over 42.2km when millions of pounds have been spent to remove or reduce every single negative factor is a task beyond my comprehension. Suffice it to say that I’d quite like to hand the Ineos people a set of parkrun pacer bibs and set them to work. I don’t think we can afford them.

Eliud Kipchoge is an amazing athlete. He was already the world record holder and Olympic champion. He narrowly failed to break two hours at Monza in 2017 as part of Nike’s Breaking Two programme. He is probably the best prepared marathon runner in history. His official world record from Berlin last year took 1:20 off the previous best when previously only a handful of seconds at a time had been taken from the record. He could spend the rest of his life feet up on the sofa eating crisps and still be the greatest marathon runner of our time.

There are nay-sayers. Of course there are. He was wearing fancy and freakishly expensive shoes. He ran behind five pacers who were in turn guided by a laser beam projected from a car. That reduced the drag on him from air resistance. He had to run faster than 13.1mph after all and even a skinny wee thing like Eliud must have a considerable CdA. I don’t know how he compares to an Audi 100 or Ford Sierra from my youth but I’d like to find out one day. He had two more pacers running just behind him to reduce the drag from the wash of the air as it broke behind him, like a mobile and impressively athletic Kamm tail. He even had someone riding along passing him his drinks so he didn’t have to slow down to pick them up from a table. He was the only person in the race which meant that it wasn’t a race at all. It was a piece of performance theatre.

I still loved it.

I laughed and cheered as I watched him over the final couple of hundred metres. It was amazing. He was the sole focus of the efforts of all those pacers, all the support staff who helped him train, all the scouts who found the perfect course and the people who resurfaced it and swept it clean, all the supporters who travelled to Vienna to watch and cheer, all the people of Kenya who almost certainly went completely mental as I was laughing quietly at home. All of that was on him. All of it and more. All those millions of pounds of money. All of those hours of time. All of the keen brainpower exerted in setting up the attempt. It was all on him. He took all of it and it was as if it didn’t matter at all.

It wasn’t a race. It won’t be a record. I don’t think that matters to him. it doesn’t really matter much to me and this is my blog. Instead it was a demonstration that while there are limits, they are further away than we thought. The two hour marathon was supposed to be impossible, not something that we will see in our lifetimes. Well, that was wrong. Okay, it took a very special and tightly controlled set of circumstances and an equally special athlete for us to see it yesterday but see it we did. Having seen that it’s possible, there are no doubt athletes thinking, if Eliud Kipchoge can do it, so can I. And that’s why it matters.

And then there was today.

Brigid Kosgei utterly dominated the Chicago Marathon. All through the race, Steve Cram and Aly Dixon were saying that she couldn’t maintain her pace, that she’d have to slow down at some point, that she’d explode. She didn’t. She went out hard and kept going. She was four minutes faster than last year and almost seven minutes ahead of the second-placed woman. When she crossed the line, she looked like a woman who’d run 2:14 and a bit. Those pins were more than a little wobbly. Again, Kenya must have erupted.

Brigid Kosgei’s management team was under investigation for doping offences. Federico Rosa managed Rita Jeptoo, a former Chicago marathon champion and Jemima Sumgong a former Olympic champion both of whom received bans and disqualifications for EPO violations. This doesn’t mean that Brigid Kosgei is a drugs cheat but she is managed by someone who managed drugs cheats. Federico Rosa must be an incredibly unlucky man to have two such high-profile champions fail doping tests…

Alberto Salazar’s ban for doping offences was announced at the same time as the start of the IAAF World Championships in Doha a couple of weeks ago, There were some of his athletes running there, most notably double gold medallist Sifan Hassan who was memorably emotional during her post race interview. Konstanze Klosterhalfen is another of the Nike Oregon Project athletes running in Doha. Here in the UK, we know about Alberto Salazar because he was Mo Farah’s coach. We don’t have evidence that any of these athletes took part in doping but their coach carried out experiments in doping to see where the limits of detection were.

As fans of our sport, every time we see an exceptional performance like the ones this weekend, we can’t now take it on face value. Lance Armstrong never failed a drugs test. Famously. Yet he cheated for years. One of the greatest stories of sporting heroism of all time was debased by cheating. We can’t watch an Olympic or World final in athletics without that nagging wee worry about who will turn out to be doping. We want our heroes to be heroes, not grubby wee nyaffs running off the back of a spot of extra juice and often we have been let down.

I want these performances to stand. I’m not bothered about shoes and pacers and drinks waiters on bikes. I want to know that when someone crosses the line first in a final or breaks a new record that their bloodstream isn’t artificially awash with dodgy stuff. I want the sport to disassociate itself from the cheats, not just the athletes who sometimes might not have full consent in the matter, but the managers, agents, coaches, team doctors, race organisers, sponsors and manufacturers and everyone else who has created or been complicit in a less than trustworthy system. This is our sport too.

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