1:59 Marathon

Want to run your best marathon? Think Uber!

My ongoing series of articles about the 1:59 marathon began in the 1990s, when most laughed at it happening in our lifetime. This past October, perhaps the strangest sports story of the year had many people entertained, but plenty confused and dismayed. Some even laughed at the non-qualifying, non-record, unnatural sub-two-hour performance in a set-up symbolic event.

In this unsanctioned staged event, Eliud Kipchoge ran with a lot of help, including a rotation of 41 professional pacesetters and windbreakers, in a time of 1:59:40. Writing about the event in The Atlantic, Paul Bisceglio called it “a brazen defiance of the marathon’s spirit,” referring to it as a marathon paradox.

Kipchoge, a Kenyan, is not the first athlete to use theatre to perform in concert with his talents to make money.

One of the world’s greatest athletes, Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, also played professional football and basketball. In need of money, he also played semi-pro baseball before competing in the Olympics, apparently violating the rules, and was stripped of his medals and titles. In 1983, 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee restored his Olympic medals. Today, there is ongoing debate about athletic money — who gets it, why some can’t, and how it’s done.

Kipchoge is undeniably the world’s greatest marathoner, but not because he was artificially pushed along a 26.2-mile course in less than 2-hours. He does make a good living for himself and his family. Hooray for him. As a millionaire, he’s still striking while the iron’s hot, as he will soon step aside to let others run by.

Unlike too many other athletes, Kipchoge certainly appears clean and does not cheat.

In 1980, Rosie Ruiz crossed the Boston Marathon finish line as the first woman, a new course record, everyone thought. But a week later she was disqualified for not running the entire course (it was thought she stepped out onto the course about a half-mile before the finish).

Similarly, Fred Lorz won the men’s marathon in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics in three hours 13 minutes, roughly 15 minutes ahead of the next runner. It was later discovered he was driven for 11 miles in the middle of the event.

These days, some may have stepped out of the pack to take an Uber.

Virtually all sport has a history of athletes taking short cuts, or cheating. Following a U.S. Congressional investigation, The Mitchell Report, for example, named hundreds of current and former Major League baseball players that tested positive for steroids. Although, there are many taking amphetamines (most actually have a prescription).  Then there’s the current pro-baseball cheating scandal involving stolen signals.

Let us also not forget Lance Armstrong, whose seven consecutive Tour de France wins were taken away after admitting to performance-enhancing drug use throughout his cycling career.

We can only suspect that there are more athletes who don’t get caught.

But when performances enter that gray area, what do we do? In 1961, NY Yankees’ Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record by hitting 61 of them. Since baseball expanded the number of games from 156 to 162, Maris’ record was given an infamous asterisk, a story told in a 2001 movie directed by Billy Crystal (61*). It would be years later when that record was broken and the asterisk essentially removed (the new home run kings, however, were subsequently accused of doping).

In my book, 1:59, I mentioned Kipchoge as a sub-two-hour candidate due to his stellar career to that point. He is still a great runner more than capable of achieving the first world-record 1:59 marathon. I continue cheering for him. While we certainly can’t deny Kipchoge deserved credit for such a feat, it must come with an asterisk: 1:59:40*.

Even before this contrived commercial spectacle, Kipchoge was the greatest marathoner today.  Call it an exhibition event, a time trial, maybe even a circus act, one fact is that the race does not qualify as a marathon record because Kipchoge was greatly aided in his efforts — illegal by the official rules. Without taking anything away from such a talented athlete, it clearly was a commercial venture by others that many say cheapens sport. Two years earlier Kipchoge came close the breaking two hours during a similar venture, but didn’t succeed. The new challenge came after further tweaking more advantages on another improved mocked-up more-expensive course.

The remedy — confusion, debate, arguments, etc. — will soon be easily resolved. Like most unofficial sports results, or those with an asterisk, a greater, natural performance reveals itself — perhaps by Kipchoge himself, who already owns the world record of 2:01:39.


  • Gary Brackett says:

    So go ahead and place an asterisk by his name. Why not do the same with other records too, unless they were run without aid stations, rabbits, splits, shoes… where should we draw the line of fairness? Give the man some credit!

  • paul solon says:

    wow, Jim Thorpe a theatre performer, jim thorpe a cheater. Grow up flat broke on a okla reservation first b f one writes such stories.

    thorpe as a teenager was routinely beaten by a friend/colleague on that reservation who was bigger, stronger, and faster, and who never made it off the reservation as observed by doc harrington, of albuquerque who taught high school on the reservation for many yrs

  • Phil Wicker says:

    Eliud Kipchoge’s “sub-2:00” marathon is a bad joke and not even close to being worthy of being labeled or reported as a sub-2:00 marathon, even with an asterisk (or 2 or 3 asterisks, as the case may be), especially by credible sources like yourself (…? – I will now place an asterisk (*) by MAF and Phil Maffetone articles to remind me to check the credibility after you have, unfortunalely, given a certain level of credence to this charade simply by writing about it and acknowledging it.
    I can easily arrange a course to exceed EK’s “performance” with only a couple of “natural” enhancements and a timer/pacesetter to keep the runner on pace – The course will be all or 90%+ downhill with no steep gradients (or as close as I can find), no windbreakers or professional pacesetters, and any world-class marathoner who can run a marathon in 2:05 or maybe even 2:10 or so. The only enhancement (other than the downhill course) will be that the runner will be closely followed by a “wind machine” that will create a tailwind, probably in the range of 5mph to 15mph, more if necessary, to push the runner along at a pace guaranteed to exceed EK’s time, and probably by at least a full minute and maybe as much as 5 minutes (or more…), and it will probably be substantially less expensive that EK’s enhanced course and assistants.
    I have read that EK is an humble man. To this I must respond “LOL!” The whole purpose of this was so that he could be the “first” runner to run a “sub-2:00” marathon distance and go down in the sports record books and articles as such, even with an asterisk, in order to assuage what must be his giant ego. And guess what? I came across several articles on the internet that reported that he had run the first sub-2:00 marathon, and simply mentioned in passing (usually later in the article) that he had used a staged course, “rabbits”, and under ideal conditions.
    The result? It will diminish the (great) achievement of the first human to actually run a legitimate sub-2:00 marathon, since in the minds of many (casual) followers and observers of the sport it has already been done. Sad, just very very sad that this egomaniac would stage such a spectacle and rob the real champion (and very unlikely to be EK) of his/her just accolades. Case-in-point: YOU, Phil Maffetone, entitled this very article “1:59”. I rest my case.

  • Larry says:

    It will be interesting to see if it’s breaks the mental barrier for him and other runners, as with the 4 minute mile.

  • Sinisa Tatic says:

    Sorry but I did not get the point of this article. As far as the next natural runner who can say he was not pushed by this show event. Is his record any less worthy because of it. Kipchoge as a first man ran the distance in under 2 hours and showed its possible. Why read any more into it?

  • Neil says:

    Phil, I thought of you immediately when I saw the 1:59 marathon. We talked about it in the 1980s when I first met you. Yes, he had a team around him and I saw the claims that the Nike shoes propelled him forward. But, he still had to move his legs and keep a good mind to run that fast.
    I see this event as a breakthrough like Roger Bannister’s 3:59 mile. Now that runners know it’s possible, I believe it’ll be done again and again.

    Just the thoughts of an old friend,

    Neil Wood

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