The greatest part, deep in the East-coast post-midnight night, long after I should have been asleep, came at the end when the hero failed but in trying still accomplished something remarkable, and still smiled, still high-fived, still shook hands and signed autographs, was celebrated by the phalanx of superstars who had made sacrifices to help him make history. It was gracious. It was class. It made Eliud Kipchoge an even more likeable megawatt superstar, as admirable for his demeanor and workman-like simplicity as he is for his rocket-hot running.
(Race begins at about 29:40 of the video)
How do you define failure? How do you define success? When the goal you set is outlandish and audacious, when the goal you set represents a giant jump in human and technical performance, do you have to meet the goal in order to succeed?
The goal was to run a 1:59:59, and outrageous 3-minute reduction in the world-best marathon time. And Kipchoge with his stony expression and ultra-smooth gait stormed deeper and deeper into history, striding along behind the rotating pacers at an historical pace for an historical distance. Somewhere in the 25th mile, he began to yo-yo a bit, and then the pace car wasn’t quite as close as it used to be, and then it disappeared around the bend, and in the end, Kipchoge missed the goal by 26 seconds, or something in the range of 175 meters.
In doing so, he ran the fastest 26.2 miles of all time, not by a little, but by a huge margin–nearly two and a half minutes. The effort got him hoisted on the shoulders of the pacing crew, such was the accomplishment. He did make history. He made his own history, a mark set by his body and mind rather than by a clock or a corporation. And it was so damn pretty to watch.
I will likely never forget the moment when the last of the pacers stepped aside and slowed to a stop on the finishing straight. Throughout the last lap, they had been turning to Kipchoge and encouraging him, whipping him along with their effort and enthusiasm as Kipchoge’s seemingly bottomless capacity to suffer and push was finally plumbed to its limits. Bernard Lagat, himself a luminary among luminaries, hopped up and down, waving Kipchoge toward the finish line, pushing him with will and enthusiasm once pulling him along with his pace was finished.
So what was this? A marathon? A lab experiment? A multi-media marketing magnum opus? A Stupid Human Trick? A little bit of each. It was a beautifully orchestrated performance exercise. It was bit of beautiful and compelling video. It was science and technology blending with the best marathoner in history and two other guys who at the very least are accessories to history. It was an affirmation that Nike continues to be at the forefront of exploring what humans can do, in a way that no other athletic company is even flirting with (in both good and bad ways).
I can’t avoid congratulating Zirsenay Tadese on crushing his personal best. Nike took a risk bringing him into the project because of his spotty marathon history, but I really began to love watching him run as I scoured YouTube for his races. He didn’t shy away from the task, and showed the half-marathon superstar that he is.
And Lelisa Desisa, it wasn’t your day. I don’t think you ever looked comfortable, but you got to the finish line even if it wasn’t pretty, and we are going to see you breaking the tape again in a big city in the very near future, and hopefully again and again.
I’ll be eagerly watching the fall’s marathon majors to see how Eliud Kipchoge’s effort in Monza affects how real races are run and paced. Whether this has been a moment of revolution will be seen within the next six months. It’s a fascinating and challending time in running.