His Time Was Not Up
Way back in 1998, I wrote about the upcoming 102nd Boston Marathon, fearlessly predicting that 3-time champion (’94-96) Cosmos Ndeti would not win again [Therapy Corner #37]. I also prophesized that Uta Pippig, who also was champion for the same 3 years in a row, would fail to win again. I said their time was up as champions on the international stage.
I based these predictions (which turned out to be accurate) on my belief that, almost without exception, competitive marathon runners have a finite “shelf life” and I hypothesized that this limit was about 3, maybe 4 years, assuming the athlete has been regularly competing in marathons during this time period. Although I had no hard scientific evidence to support my theory, I strongly believed that the effects of running multiple marathons over a period of a few years have detrimental effects, on a cellular level, on muscle tissue, due to the extreme stresses incurred from the effort. At that time, there was ample evidence that these stresses caused muscle damage, resulting in an inflammatory response. What remained unknown was whether there were permanent changes in muscles that could affect performance, though I believed – again, just a hypothesis at the time – that there were.
Since that time, I have seen several studies that confirm what I proposed back then; that is, that the high-volume mileage and intensity required to be a world-class marathoner, as well as the racing itself, has a cumulative effect on muscle cell structure that leads to a diminishment in performance. And, the nature of those changes that I described in the earlier article was pretty much as I theorized.
I did note that, as in all aspects of life’s patterns, there are exceptions, and the late, great Grete Waitz appeared to be one of those. Grete won the NYC Marathon an amazing 9 times, as well as the World Championship in 1983, but she may have benefitted from the fact that the level of competition at that time in the women’s field was not what it was in the men’s or what it is today. Nonetheless, she still was clearly the exception.
But now we are witness to a true exception to the rule. Last month, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya won the Olympic Marathon for the second time in a row, matching the feat of only two other athletes, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia (1960, 64) and Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany (1976 and 80). Kipchoge’s winning margin of 80 seconds is the greatest ever. His time of 2:08:38 in the stifling heat and humidity of Japan, at the age of 36, was remarkable.
Even more remarkable is his longevity. He has run 17 marathons over 9 years and has lost only two of those, against the best in the world. He holds the world record of 2:01:39 and in 2019, became the first human to run the marathon distance in under 2 hours (1:59:40), though that was considered an “exhibition” as it was under very controlled, assisted conditions that did not meet the true standards to be considered a record. Still…!
Where Grete’s schedule was usually only one marathon a year, sometimes two, Kipchoge has averaged 2 per year for 9 years! How has he done it? How has he been able to do what no one else has in terms of longevity and consistency?
No one knows for sure and I can only offer a guess. Perhaps he is just an outlier’s outlier (like Usain Bolt in the sprints) with incredible physiology that defies the general rule. Or, perhaps he just trains differently.
By all accounts, Kipchoge lives a Spartan existence despite his having accumulated a fair amount of wealth from his running career. He is rigid in maintaining his diet and is regimental in following his training plan, while knowing when to back off when necessary to rest and recuperate. If you pay attention to his words, too, you’d have to believe that his attitude and psychological makeup play a big role in his success.
I think Eliud Kipchoge is the ultimate role model for all of us in these respects and, while none of us are blessed with his physical gifts, we can all benefit and run longer and later into life by emulating how he approaches his sport.