Kipchoge’s INEOS 1:59 challenge shows IAAF rules need to adapt

Image courtosy of Reuters

Eliud Kipchoge’s record breaking run has brought to a head the crossroads marathon running is facing. World record attempts and entertaining racing should be thought of separately, as it is in cycling with the UCI Hour Record as compared to one day classics.

Running at the relentless pace of 2:50km/h, covering the 42.2km in 1:59:40 is a monumental achievement. Although, one that will not be counted by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) as a true marathon record. The governing body’s’ rules stipulate there has to be more than one competitor. While drinks and energy gels are not allowed to be passed by a support team on bikes, in an IAAF approved race Kipchoge would have to collect these by the roadside himself. Pacers providing an aerodynamic advantage, rotating in and out after 4.5km stints, are also forbidden.

Enthralling as it was to see the successful execution of the INEOS 1:59 challenge around Vienna’s Prater Park, some have complained about the aerodynamically optimised V-formation and carbon plated trainers. One critic compared these marginal gains to “breaking the high jump record on Mars where there is less gravity”. But the 5 million viewers of the YouTube live stream show that, in the public eye, these concerns do not detract from Kipchoge’s achievement. Support for the attempt was wide within distance running as well. The likes of Olympic 1500 metres champion Matthew Centrowitz and the on-form Selemon Barega, who won world 5,000m silver last week, signed up as pacers following Kipchoge’s plea for drafting assistance. Humble despite his greatness, Kipchoge said: “You cannot run alone and expect to run a fast time. 100% of me is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team.” One of the three Norwegian Ingebrigsten brothers, Henrik, captures the mood amongst the pacers who committed themselves to the Kenyan’s challenge: “Being able to participate in an event like this and helping the marathon improve as an event—I feel happy to be part of this.”

Finishing what Nike’s 2017 Breaking2 project started, Chairman and CEO of INEOS, the petrochemical company which pumped £15 million into the 1:59 project, Sir Jim Ratcliffe is aware of the paradigm shift that is building, he said: “It's so nice to see the 'pacers' be part of the team. Normally running is such a solitary sport. You run for yourself but here they are all running for someone else. They have never done anything like that before. It’s almost like a new sport for them.”

The next milestone, perceived by many, will be to see this sub 2 hour time achieved under the conditions of a competition legal marathon. But why not use Kipchoge’s achievement as a cue to rethink the structure of marathon running?

Currently, there is an incentive for marathon race organisers to make their courses as flat and have as few corners as possible—everyone wants the publicity of a marathon record being broken in their race. The Berlin marathon is the course that has best been able to achieve this. Race director Mark Milde explains: “The way our streets are built we have corners that are not too tight. They are a little bit more open so it is easier to run around”. A total ascent of 37.5m makes it one of the flattest in the world. Since 2003 the last seven marathon records were broken at this race with Kipchoge himself having set the current record at 2:01:39 in 2018. The 1:59 challenge has simply taken this philosophy to its logical conclusion. Constructing a course with even fewer corners and less elevation, while also optimising other areas of science and technology, enabling a benchmark human performance to be set.

Once it is accepted that the world record will not be broken in the prestigious city marathons, this would free these organisers to take more adventurous routes past new sights to showcase each city. Have more corners to make the course more technically challenging. Intentionally include hills that athletes must balance their efforts up. Show off different landmarks of the host cities. In the case of the London marathon, dare to go further north and venture through Camden Town then up to the peak of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath park. Or add a loop further south to the Grade II listed Crystal Palace Park and through the vibrant hub of Brixton. Endless possibilities exist if twists and turns, steep inclines and descents, are sought after rather than seen as a logistical nightmare to avoid.

Splitting awe-inspiring record breaking and lively racing, already has a precedent in cycling’s delineation between the hour record and one-day road races—in which the total race time is irrelevant and courses alter year on year. The former rewards perfect optimisation, whilst the latter keeps the sport alive in the drama as the race unfolds.

Cycling’s hour record has attracted renewed interest with 20 attempts—five of which were successful—since the UCI, cycling’s governing body, adapted its rules in May 2014 to allow riders to utilise the latest technology. UCI President Brian Cookson said in the 2014 press release announcing the decision: “There is a general consensus that equipment used in competition must be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent. This record will regain its attraction for both the athletes and cycling fans.” Cycling’s UCI Hour Record is a template for how the IAAF should react to the 1:59 challenge.

Kipchoge’s history making run, combined with the proven example set by the cycling world, marks a clear cue for a rethink of how marathon running is structured. It would be edifying to see the IAAF accept Kipchoge’s record as legitimate and it would be thrilling to see marathon races freed from the homogeny which the pressure to produce records brings.