To say Eliud Kipchoge’s Boston Marathon didn’t go the way most people anticipated is putting it mildly. And yet this performance was actually more revealing about what makes him one of the greatest marathoners of all time than his many successes have been.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling a baffled sense of unreality as I watched him running alone and well behind the lead men late in the race. His left hand was open–his “tell” that he’s getting fatigued. But most importantly, his cadence seemed increasingly uneven, with his left foot staying on the ground longer than the right. The difference wasn’t large, but again and again it was there, and I began to suspect an injury.
In a novel I recently read, a normally inexpressive character’s slightly raised eyebrow was described as the equivalent of a scream from anyone else. That’s how it is with anything anomalous in Kipchoge’s form. Although not perfectly symmetrical–no one is, after all–his form is incredibly even and consistent. And apparently a slight change in Kipchoge’s ground contact time for one leg is the equivalent of anyone else completely falling apart.
However this was not the first time in the race that Kipchoge slightly raised his eyebrow, so to speak. Right from the crack of the starter’s gun his form was slightly off-kilter, with his right foot nearly at his midline in stance, his head shifted right, and his race bib sliding to the left as a consequence. And on top of that, both his thumbs were lifted, which I can’t recall ever seeing him do before. That’s not so much a problem itself as it is a sign of other issues.
Take a look:
My very first analysis of Kipchoge’s form, when he first won Berlin in 2015, was about this asymmetry, more or less. I wrote about it again in the first Breaking 2 Project and at various points since. But in none of those instances has his right foot come all the way to the center (or rather, his center hasn’t come all the way to his right foot). And in any case this imbalance has historically shown up as he fatigues rather than right from the start.
So it caught my attention right away in this race, and afterwards I looked back at my folder of screenshots from the 2022 Berlin Marathon, which is full of shots comparing his right and left sides at different points in the race. Back then I saw his asymmetry shift more than once during the race–possibly even reversing at one point–and I tried to map out the sequence of events.
Looking back at my notes and those images now, in light of what happened in Boston, it seems like he started Berlin absolutely even, then had some trouble with his left leg in the middle, at which point he opened his left hand, turned his upper body more left than right, and his left leg started lagging. Then he recovered, the left leg picked up again, his left hand started coming to his midline in front again (which is how arms are supposed to swing), and he not only won the race, but actually set a new world record.
At the time I wasn’t thinking in terms of left leg trouble specifically. I was simply astonished that Kipchoge had the capacity to regulate his symmetry like that, because I’ve never seen anyone do it before.
Normally if a runner’s form becomes more asymmetrical during a race, the problem simply continues to get worse, they slow down, and maybe they drop out. Or occasionally they summon so much grit that even as their form continues to fall apart they keep running harder and harder in response, gutting out a finish that’s impressive and horrifying in equal measure and is usually hard to recover from afterwards.
Kipchoge’s apparent capacity to find his way back to balance mid-race is undoubtedly another aspect of his greatness.
However he wasn’t able to repeat the performance in Boston this year… or at least not fully. In his press conference the following day he said he “tried to do the necessary, but it was not working, so I put my mind to just run a comfortable pace.” He succeeded to such an extent that amid all the speculation about why he didn’t win, I didn’t hear a single mention of the possibility of injury until he explained it himself.
This leads me to think that we may have misunderstood the difference between Kipchoge and many other elite runners. He is clearly physiologically gifted and he makes the most of those gifts with his training. His mental game is outstanding. And his consistency is truly remarkable–both in form and of course in performance–and I think that’s where the outcome we see is likely so different from his actual asset.
The Running Machine Myth, by John Kiely, has been my favorite article on gait training for runners for a full decade. In it, he clearly explains how apparent consistency is actually produced by variability and attention in training, and how this makes runners adaptable and resilient.
This is the only route to the kind of consistency Kipchoge has displayed over his career, and it leads to a richly developed homunculus or sensory-motor map in the brain. We cannot see how he experiences himself when we watch him run, but we do see that he is able to go within himself–to tune into his body–to a profound degree, and this enables him to regulate his movement in a way that less self-aware runners cannot do.
This is why it’s such a pleasure to watch him run–usually uncontested–for mile after mile at the end of his marathons. There’s little drama or suspense, and that should be boring, but it isn’t. It’s profound and beautiful and deeply inspiring.
He’s been telling us this all along, but we didn’t pay enough attention. Before races, he doesn’t say anything about winning or the competition. He just talks about running a beautiful race. It seems that is the way he performs–by going within and feeling for beautiful movement, for the capacity that he’s developed in training, and the groove where it all comes together.
And that, I think, is why a problem with his left leg resulted in a barely discernible limp and a slower pace rather than a spectacular breakdown. He felt a change in his left leg action–probably a pretty small one, which many runners would have tried to ignore–and tried to modulate his movement to bring it back to normal coordination. In the end, the only way he could do that was by slowing down, which he did so he could finish.
As far as we know, Kipchoge is seldom injured, and this gives us a window into how he manages that feat.
Since the race, people have been wondering aloud if this might signal the end of Kipchoge’s dominance. I don’t know the answer, just as I don’t know whether Kipchoge’s left leg difficulty in this race was a new thing or an issue he’s been dealing with since Berlin or even earlier.
But in my experience, Kipchoge’s rich self-awareness is the ultimate asset for masters runners. Physiologically there comes a point when a runner can no longer get faster, but you can keep improving your skill and self-awareness until the day you die. The runners who commit themselves to that path just get better and better because of their movement skill, ability to make the right decisions, and ability to stay healthy. So I would not count him out yet.
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