It was bound to happen sooner or later: Eliud Kipchoge’s unprecedented marathon win streak has come to an end. After ten consecutive victories—including an Olympic title in 2016 and new world record over 26.2 miles in 2018—the 35-year-old Kenyan finished 8th in a special, COVID-19 edition of the 2020 London Marathon.
Instead, it was Shura Kitata of Ethiopia who got the win in 2:05:41, holding off Kenyan Vincent Kipchumba (second) and Ethiopian Sisay Lemma (third) in a sprint finish. There was drama in the women’s race as well, though not for first. While world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya cruised to victory in 2:18:58, the American Sara Hall rekindled her past form as a track athlete to close an enormous gap over the final 400 meters, eventually outkicking Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich for second place and a 2:22:01 personal best. London typically nets the most competitive fields of any Marathon Major, and Hall’s performance was the first time a U.S. runner (male or female) had finished on the podium since Deena Kastor’s win in 2006.
But the story of the day was Kipchoge’s failure to win his fifth London Marathon in as many tries. Perhaps fittingly for a man who has achieved mythic status in his sport, his downfall stemmed from what, on the face of it, sounded like a trivial issue.
“I had a problem with my right ear. It was really blocked all the way,” Kipchoge, who was conspicuously shivering from the cold, told the BBC’s Gabby Logan after the race, before adding that eventually he started cramping as well. “But that’s how sport is.”
The race was an elites-only affair, staged on a closed course consisting of 19.6 laps around the perimeter of St. James Park. When the event was first announced, after the mass-participation edition of the 2020 London Marathon was canceled back in April due to the pandemic, there was speculation that the ersatz edition could produce a new world record. The 1.34-mile St. James loop was entirely flat and the world’s fastest runners were slated to compete—including a marquee clash between Kipchoge and Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele. Last year, in Berlin, Bekele had run 2:01:41 to come within two seconds of Kipchoge’s official world record. There was hope that, if the stars aligned, we could see a duel between Kipchoge and Bekele with both men at their best.
But the stars did not align. On Friday, less than 48 hours before the race, Bekele withdrew, citing a nagging calf injury. Meanwhile, the forecast was indicating that, rather than ideal world record conditions, Sunday’s weather would be stereotypically British. There would be rain. There would be wind. Bummer.
Combined with temperatures in the low 50s, it made for what were arguably the most hostile conditions that Kipchoge has faced during his stellar marathon career—though he ran in unfavorably warm weather at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and in the 2018 London Marathon. Unlike in those races, where the Kenyan looked unflappable as, one by one, he eased away from all of his challengers, there were moments in Sunday’s race where you could tell that things were not going to plan. The men’s lead pack came through halfway in 1:02:54—roughly two minutes slower than anticipated. Rather than taking over with a decisive move, Kipchoge seemed content to roll in a large pack that didn’t get any smaller even as the race moved into its final stages.
At some point in the second half, there was an ominous moment when Kipchoge missed one of his water bottles. But the biggest tell was the premature appearance of the famous “Kipchoge smile.” Normally, this deranged grin-grimace only surfaces after Kipchoge has dispatched all of his rivals and is soloing his way to glory. This time, it came while he was in a pack with eight other runners with a few miles to go. Before long, he was in the back of that pack, and the gap between him and the leaders was beginning to widen. It’s a testament to Kipchoge’s dominance over the years that the commentators deemed it necessary to point out that getting dropped probably wasn’t part of his strategy. “If he were intending to win this race, he would definitely not be doing this,” said the BBC’s Mara Yamauchi. Indeed.
In the days to come, there will no doubt be a fair bit of armchair analysis about why Kipchoge didn’t win. Was it the cold? The rain? (In the 2017 Berlin Marathon, which also took place in wet conditions, Kipchoge was briefly gapped late in the race by Ethiopian Guye Adola before retaking the lead and triumphing with relative ease.)
Of course, any such speculation only underscores just how improbable Kipchoge’s win streak really was. The narrative surrounding his sub two-hour marathon last year in Vienna, as well as the 2017 attempt in Monza, Italy, where he came up 26 seconds short, was that these feats were supposed to be the ultimate embodiment of his otherworldly talents. But any one-off event under optimized conditions will never be as impressive as going undefeated against the world’s best marathoners for seven years. We are likely to witness more sub-2s before we see another streak like the one that ended on Sunday.
If we’re being honest, there were certain factors that worked to Kipchoge’s advantage during his remarkable string of victories. With the exception of his Olympic triumph in 2016, he always ran in races that allowed pacers—a setup which tends to favor the fastest runners in the field. He had dibs on the latest shoe technology. Perhaps above all else, Kipchoge benefited from his own aura of invincibility.
And yet, I always rooted for him anyway. Kipchoge belongs to that rare category of athlete whose dominance seems to affirm a supernatural order. The notion that someone might actually be unbeatable in an event as difficult and unpredictable as the marathon was always ludicrous, but also strangely reassuring. At a time when we’ve already exhausted all the clichés about the trials of 2020, Kipchoge losing a marathon seems like further proof that the time is out of joint.
For those who might also ascribe to this (totally irrational) view, we could find some reassurance in Kipchoge’s post-race debriefing.
Would he be back? “Absolutely yes,” Kipchoge told the BBC interviewer. “I’ve still got more marathons in me. I’m still there to come back again.”