Walker The Talker: Eliud Kipchoge's The Star Attraction At Hamburg Marathon

The elite-only race in April will provide the Kenyan with the perfect opportunity to bounce back after a poor showing in London
11:30, 18 Feb 2021

The greatest is back. That's the headline this morning from NN Running, the Dutch Sports agency who look after Eliud Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic Marathon Champion and the first man in history to run the iconic distance in under two hours.

Last week they announced an innovative partnership with the organisers of the Hamburg marathon to lay on a closed doors looped course event on Sunday April 11th, providing more than 100 elite men and women a vital opportunity to chase an Olympic qualifying time for Tokyo. 

Today they officially reveal the icing on the distance running cake with the news that Kipchoge will be the star attraction for viewers all over the world. 

The significance of his participation is two-fold. It's likely to be our only chance to see him in action before he attempts to successfully defend his Olympic title in Toyko later this summer (touch wood!). But perhaps even more important than that, it's an opportunity for him to bounce back from the only disappointing marathon of his otherwise glittering career in London last autumn.

Hugh Brasher's team did a fantastic job to provide a safe platform for two elite fields on October 4 and for the men's race in particular we were all looking forward to watching a duel between the two fastest men in history. 

It was billed as Kipchoge against Kenenisa Bekele, his great rival on the track all those years ago and the man who came within two seconds of Kipchoge's world record the previous year in Berlin. Sadly for Bekele, (who I still think has another fast one in him,) a calf injury ruled him out at the last minute. That led us to believe we would be watching another procession for Kipchoge, who was attempting to win his fifth marathon on the streets of the capital and the 12th of his career. (The only time he hadn't won over the distance was his second marathon in Berlin in 2013, in which he finished runner up in a PB of 2.04.05 behind compatriot Wilson Kipsang's world record breaking 2.03.23.)

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For most of the race it all seemed pretty smooth for the world record holder. The pace wasn't searingly fast but we were aware it was a chilly morning and this was meant to be an occasion more about winning and celebrating the sport than watching the clock. But all of a sudden the famous half smile half grimace for which he's famous, began to look uncomfortable in a way we hadn't seen before. 

I was commentating with the excellent Mara Yamauchi (sixth in the Beijing Olympic marathon 2008 and second in London in 2009,) and neither of us could believe what we were seeing. No-one could. 

Kipchoge was dropping back from the leaders at what was - for him at least - a relatively modest pace. 

The story of the race had changed. Now it wasn't a case of how fast he would run but how many would pass him before the finish line. Ethiopia's Tola Shura won in 2.05.41 and (almost unthinkably before the race,) another 6 finished ahead of the defending champion. 

Kipchoge was 8th in 2.06.49.      

The reaction from those around the finish line was not too dissimilar to the stunned second of silence that greeted the end of the men's 100m final at the London World Championship in 2017, as the crowd tried to compute that they'd just seen Usain Bolt beaten into 3rd by Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman. 

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In those rare moments it's as if the athlete's own personal disappointment and disbelief is also somehow yours as well. Such is the excitement and emotional investment you make in sharing some-one else's remarkable journey. Kipchoge is the epitome of graciousness and dignity (in all areas of life) and after a few minutes he duly appeared for a live interview with Gabby Logan. You could tell straight away something wasn't right. His answers spoke of disappointment and he alluded to a problem with his ear which had potentially affected his balance and sense of equilibrium. But he was also visibly shivering and looked freezing. 

I was later told by a coach on site that the weather down on the course itself was far far colder than it had appeared on tv. 

Whatever the reasons for how it unfolded, the simple fact was that the greatest had run an average marathon. And anyone who knows him will tell you, this proud Kenyan will be burning to get back on the big stage. 

His team will have analysed every second of that race and such is his own drive for perfection, those moments at the end in London will have added even more motivation on the long winter runs back home. And in a funny kind of way, I think Kipchoge's tough day in London was actually a timely reminder of just how good he is. 

Elite male and female distance runners sometimes make running a marathon look a lot simpler than it actually is. 26.2 miles is a significant test for the body and mind, at any age and at any pace. And the faster you run, the closer you are to that invisible line beyond which even the most finely tuned bodies can falter. 

What we saw from Kipchoge last autumn was that he is human and that what he has managed to do in his other races so far is almost superhuman. 

He is now 36 years of age. And just as was proven with even the brilliant Usain Bolt, father time waits for no man or woman, irrespective of ability. We should savour what we see in Germany. 

I have no doubt he will be back to his best and that he will lay down the perfect marker for Tokyo. And IF there is Games and IF he wins gold again, what would there be left to do or to prove? He is a once in a generation athlete and the end of his career is beginning to loom large over the horizon. Hamburg on April 11 is not to be missed.

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