US athlete John Kelly has finished the Barkley Marathons, but was his greatest challenge taking on Twitter about Eluid Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon. We wanted to hear him out.

As a kid I once had the misfortune of running directly under a hornet’s nest that some older kids had been throwing a football at. I guess my understandable aversion to actual hornet’s nests bled over to figurative ones, at least when it comes to delving into controversial topics on the internet.

So why did I decide to open my mouth about Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour run? Why not just blindly celebrate it as the remarkable personal achievement and experiment that it was?

If that’s all there were to it then believe me, I’d have nothing more to say. The marketing and the majority of popular coverage outside of running circles paints a different picture, though; that this was in fact the first sub 2 marathon (e.g. Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge smashes two-hour marathon barrier).

We should be celebrating

What Kipchoge did was indeed a remarkable achievement that should be celebrated. He’s possibly the only human capable of it under those specified conditions, and he seems like a wonderful person who is inspiring countless people.

For that last reason alone, the run was a success worth every bit of what went into it. Nothing here is meant in any way as negative towards him or to lessen his personal achievement. And if all you care about is the personal inspiration, then please, read no further.

Seriously. It’s not worth your time and I would not want to diminish those feelings of enthusiasm and motivation through my own thoughts that are admittedly often overly unemotional and analytical.

If all you care about is the personal inspiration, then please, read no further.

If you’re interested in discussions about what the achievement truly means in terms of human potential and competitive standards, read on.

Celebrating the achievement and having a rational discussion around those topics should not be mutually exclusive. The discussion transcends this single performance and is important to anyone who cares about sport or the limits of the human body and mind. If this post were just specifically about Kipchoge’s run itself then I definitely wouldn’t care enough to write it.

This post also isn’t meant to be a breakdown of the actual differences between his attempt and a sanctioned race, or a commentary on the latest running footwear fashion trends.

Far more thorough and scientifically backed analyses have been done on the topic. Here’s a good start:.

A quick summary

  • Studies on the shoes have shown the claim of about 4% improvement in efficiency on the original version are valid. Less than a 1% increase in time would have put Kipchoge over 2 hours.
  • Studies on the drafting formation have shown a benefit of anywhere from a 1:52 to a 4:30 benefit. Even sanctioned races can have (much less optimal) drafting for much of it, so the relative benefit is less, but the necessary difference here is only 20 seconds. In a race pacers have to start with everyone else, so by definition will fall back eventually if they’re pacing the best in the world.
  • The controlled environment was also a factor, but those same conditions could in theory exist in an actual race. Again, though, every tiny thing matters at margins this slim.

Now what we’re actually here to discuss

Now, on to why these differences are worth discussing as we move forward into an era where performance enhancements can exist through many means.

For that, I want to make a clear distinction between personal achievements and competitive achievements. The former helps an individual explore their limits and potential, while the latter helps provide a measuring stick for those limits and at the very upper end defines some of the limits of humans as a species.

Why our own personal goals are not to be belittled

I’ve spent a good deal of time pursuing goals that were arbitrarily defined (let’s run through the woods on this loop with books that the guy with the cigarette and conch shell set out) or even that I just flat out made up myself (how about I run the big rounds in the UK, but consecutively and ride my bike between?).

I’ve written a number of times about how I decided on those goals and why. Those goals are my own; they were meant for me to personally test and expand my own limits. Frankly, I don’t really care what anyone else thinks about them.

I will also absolutely go to the mat for anyone whose personal goal is in any way intentionally belittled (figuratively, I will figuratively go to the mat… let’s not forget I’m a scrawny ultrarunner).

Celebrate Kipchoge’s achievement for what it is

It doesn’t matter if that goal is to run a two hour marathon or a two hour 5K. Aiming to bake a great cheesecake, or to do something absolutely no one else would even care to attempt or think about, is still an achievement. Nearly every day I have the amazing fortune of seeing one of my kids light up with pride from doing something that I wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought. And it’s awesome.

For them, it’s a huge personal achievement. As long as a personal goal doesn’t bring harm to someone or something else, anyone’s achievement of one should be celebrated. It’s theirs. No one else can take that away, ever.

So for Kipchoge, deciding to do this, putting in the work for it, and achieving it should absolutely be celebrated. It’s something that he and everyone else involved in it can take pride in for the rest of their lives. And if it inspired others, that’s an immense bonus.

Now back to controversy, competitive achievements

But here’s where I have to run under the hornet’s nest. Again, not for what the achievement actually was but for what it was marketed and largely covered as: a competitive achievement, i.e. one that is meritorious because of how it compares to other performances rather than one that’s purpose is exclusively a personal challenge.

Its purpose was to exceed all previous performances and break through a barrier long dreamed about by many, to be at that upper end of competitive achievements defining human potential.

I know many people are reading this and saying, “But it wasn’t, everyone was clear that it wouldn’t count and Kipchoge said it was about showing that no human is limited.”

That’s great, and I love the sentiment, but at the end of the day whether it was the intention of anyone, beyond the INEOS and Nike marketing departments, or not, other performances will be measured against this one. Kipchoge will widely go down as the first to break 2 hours. It’s not even worth denying.

So why does this matter?

My own thoughts on why this does or doesn’t matter have admittedly bounced all over the place, but the ones that have remained most steady and convinced me that I should actually write this are below.

Whenever a goal is competitive, standards have to be in place.

All is fair in love and war (and personal achievements). But not in competitive sports. Otherwise they have no meaning.

After spending four years as a college sports talk radio host I stopped caring about college sports altogether due to a number of major cheating scandals that were given little to no penalty. The standards for the marathon are laid out in IAAF rules.

If some rules are ignored, why not ignore all of them?

Sure, only the bare minimum for Kipchoge to go sub 2 were ignored, but there have long been plenty of other runners capable of exactly the same thing: ignoring just enough rules to go sub 2 (Bekele, Kimetto, Gebrselassie, etc. – all capable of going sub 2 if given just enough aid to do so).

They just chose not to and didn’t have a big marketing push for it.

It was also done in a way that most people don’t immediately recognise the extent of the benefits. Drafting with a full group in formation like that doesn’t seem like a big deal to the casual runner, but it’s enormous when moving at 13.1 mph (21.1 kmh) with such slim time margins.

It would be much more obvious if it were downhill, with a tailwind, or with doping (which would set a horrible example to kids and aspiring athletes, and no I am not in any way suggesting whatsoever that Kipchoge dopes). But from a performance/external aid standpoint, none of those are any different.

These guys have been finishing sub one hour marathons – Editor.  Photo: Berlin Marathon

Tailwinds, downhill (or on rollerblades… too much? – Editor)

They all provide benefits and performance enhancement through different means but with similar results.

As for the shoes, I don’t really want to get into that.

Yes these were an unreleased prototype (which would violate IAAF rule 143), but the Vaporflys are currently allowed in sanctioned races. So to be honest it’s almost stupid not to wear them. Nearly every sport has rules on equipment (anyone want to see what the baseball home run record would be if pros could use double wall carbon composite bats instead of wooden ones?).

Athletes have a voice in setting rules, but once they’re set it’s the athlete’s job to go perform the best they can under those rules. I used a pair of Vaporflys myself for triathlons (the measly 4%, not the Next%), and I might just dust them off for a 26.2 mile run around NYC in a few weeks.

So this doesn’t prove a competitive sub 2 is possible

No, I’m sorry, but this does not prove that sub 2 is possible any more than some of his previous performances have. This was undoubtedly extremely exciting and inspiring, but doing sub 2 with aid does not prove doing sub 2 without aid is possible.

Achieving what seemed impossible means achieving what seemed impossible, not slightly modifying it to where it seems possible and then doing it.

I would much rather see someone reach too far and then know where the current limit is than lower the bar and never know how high they could have actually jumped.

Goals are meant to make us reach further, and lessening them is in a way just admitting that they’re not possible.

Better to be in Berlin

The 2:01:39 he ran in Berlin is likely a better performance and even more indicative that a sanctioned sub 2 is possible. I can’t think of any situation where adding variables to an equation just to then have to figure out how to subtract them back out (e.g. how much exactly did the drafting help) is a good strategy.

No one thought, I hope, that there was some magical threshold of exactly 2 hours where if someone’s legs moved that fast they might explode and we had to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

You know how I know Gary Robbins can finish Barkley? Because he came agonizingly close legitimately. If he had instead gotten his own special set of rules from laz and then finished that way, I would not be nearly as certain.

And no, the aided Sub Two isn’t like summiting Everest with oxygen first and then doing it without. Summiting Everest is a binary outcome and people who overcommit and come up short, well, they tend to die. So I guess I should modify my previous statement to say adding unnecessary variables is never a good strategy unless said variables prevent death.

Stealing the thunder of the first in competition

Whether it’s Kipchoge or someone else, I don’t want this to steal thunder from the first person to do it in a sanctioned race.

Everyone in the local running circle will know when it happens, but to the broader public it will be a sidenote – “oh, that’s cool but didn’t someone already do that?” Unless it is Kipchoge, that person will now also have a qualifier / footnote next to their achievement (first to break 2 in a sanctioned race), instead of just “first to break 2 hours.”

Photo: Virgin Money London Marathon

Has it lowered chances of Kipchoge running under two hours competitively?

My last bullet here, and the most selfish one, is that I hate seeing someone with his enormous capabilities investing time in something like this instead of trying to actually break 2 hours.

We unfortunately only get to witness a limited number of races from Kipchoge in his prime, and given the variability in race conditions our statistical chances of seeing him do it in an actual race just dropped significantly.

Maybe this will break some mental barrier in his head and make it more likely he can do it in any given race (I hope so!), but I would have thought that battling it out with Bekele two weeks earlier in Berlin would have not only been more exciting but would have also helped him improve more.

Human Potential

Human potential can be measured by the limits of an individual, or by the limits of humanity. Both are extremely valuable. Everyone’s strengths are different (Kipchoge might not be able to bake a very good cheesecake) and it is important for us all to explore what our strengths and weaknesses are, but it is the sum of those strengths that defines our collective potential.

Overall, my concern with the sub 2 event boils down to the lack of clarity between what type of potential was being measured.

Without a doubt Kipchoge’s individual potential under a set of specific conditions was measured, but the event has largely been portrayed as much more than that.

Even if it were truly a measure of human potential, it’s not clear what type. Physiological? Technological? Logistical? All of these have merit, but it’s great to be able to distinguish between them and acknowledge which it is, if only to better inform future endeavors to push those limits even further.

Fighting against technology to find true human potential

One of the more interesting aspects to me of Barkley is that as technology improves it gets harder, attempting to compensate and remove technological improvements from the equation to keep it all about the person.

So what we’re left with is a performance that will at least, I hope, inspire some kid out there who will one day break 2, but how the result stacks up against other performances and what it really tells us about human physiological limits will always very much be uncertain.

Being unable to compare performances from different eras is a norm in sports, but we can’t even really measure this against something from the same year. And please, let’s at least stop it with the moon landing comparisons.

John Kelly is an ultra-distance athlete and the 15th person to ever finish the Barkley Marathons. In his own words he likes to “take what should be a simple, straight forward thought and over-analyze it into a novel”. He has a personal blog here.