How the obsessions of Ratcliffe and Kipchoge aligned for sub-two hour conquest
Analysis, Joshua Robinson
The original plan was to help a British sailing team challenge for the America’s Cup. Then the plan was also to win the Tour de France. And after that, the plan expanded to buying a soccer club on the French Riviera.
It was all simple enough for Jim Ratcliffe, the 66-year-old British billionaire behind this sprawling and seemingly random collection of goals. The man who made his fortune by founding the Ineos petrochemical company had a deep love of sports and cash to burn.
Now the owner of a sailing team, a cycling team and a soccer team decided to take down one of the last great barriers of human athleticism by staging the first marathon to be run in under two hours.
On Saturday, weather was permitting, Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge ran 4.4 laps of a Viennese road circuit in an elaborate, highly-controlled bid in covering 26.2 miles in just over 1 hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds. Why? Because Ratcliffe and Kipchoge both happened to be obsessed with the idea at roughly the same time.
“There’s no clear strategic direction that’s led to the choices that have been made,” said Fran Millar, the CEO of Ineos Sports. “Jim’s a very passionate guy…He’s at a stage in his life where I think he’s making decisions based on what’s a fun, interesting, cool thing to do.”
It’s a luxury few sports fans can imagine. Ratcliffe is fond of sailing, so he bought the British America’s Cup team. He and his sons are keen cyclists, so he took over and rebranded six-time Tour de France champion Team Sky. He loves soccer and the South of France, so he picked up OGC Nice. So the decision to back Kipchoge’s tilt at a 1-hour-59-minute marathon came from the same golden armchair instinct.
In Kipchoge, Ratcliffe found the perfect partner—no runner in the world was better positioned to break the 2-hour mark.
A winner of eight major marathons and three Olympic medals, the 34-year-old has even been through this once before. Kipchoge was one of three elite marathoners to take a crack at the 2-hour mark in a Nike-backed stunt called Breaking2 in 2017.
On that occasion, Kipchoge ran around the Monza motor racing circuit in Italy and narrowly failed, clocking 2:00:25. Though it was the fastest anyone had ever covered the marathon distance, it didn’t count as a world record, because the attempt didn’t come in race conditions and Kipchoge used a squad pacemakers who rotated in and out. Still it was more than 2 minutes 30 seconds faster than he’d ever run.
Since then, Kipchoge has also broken the official marathon world record, lowering it to 2:01:39 in Berlin last September. Which means that on Saturday, he needed to improve on his personal best by 1 minute and 40 seconds—less time than brushing your teeth, but an excruciating margin to someone essentially sprinting for 26.2 miles – and he did, clocking 1:59:40 to invoke acclamation from stars across the globe.
Except Kipchoge sees challenging the world record yesterday , which was streamed live on YouTube, as entirely different exercises. Running below two hours, in his opinion, is freighted with nearly absurd levels of significance.
“Berlin is running and breaking the world record,” he said. “Vienna is running and making history in this world, like the first man to go to the Moon.”
Once again, Kipchoge ran with a pace car and a squad of deluxe pacesetters galloping in aerodynamic formation ahead of him. But based on the Monza attempt, they have tweaked how they rotate in and out of their shifts. (Kipchoge’s team even took advice from Tim Kerrison, the coach of four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome, on team time-trial practices in cycling.)
“Luckily, it’s all taken care of for you,” said American pacemaker Matt Centrowitz, who also happens to be an Olympic champion at 1,500 meters. “You just fall in line.”
Kipchoge also altered his fueling strategy through the race to make sure he is taking on enough fluids—the simple act of drinking from a bottle becomes immensely more complicated while running at 4:34-mile pace.
One thing that practically stayed the same, crucially, is Kipchoge’s shoes. Even without Nike orchestrated the event, the manufacturer will still came in for plenty of scrutiny once Kipchoge’s laced up his pair of white Nike Vaporfly 4%. They are so widely believed to enhance running performance—thanks to a carbon fiber plate in the sole—that there are questions as to whether they should even be legal.
The past 13 months alone have seen racers post the five fastest marathon times in history, including two by Kipchoge. All five were run in Vaporflys, according to LetsRun.com.
The focus on his footwear however didn’t take away from Ineos’s goal of making sure that this project, in Millar’s words, “didn’t look like a science experiment.” Everything else about it was designed with that in mind.
The first criterion was that it had to be run on city streets. Because Ratcliffe is British, and because his partner in this is the London Marathon, the initial idea was to have Kipchoge run the British capital. But ultimately, according to Kipchoge’s manager Valentijn Trouw, they required more than just a good-looking course. They also needed “serious chances of having acceptable weather.” In other words, England was out.
So with help from the Ineos sailing team’s meteorologists, the focus shifted east, onto the continent. That’s when they settled on Austria. Not only was the weather easier to predict, but Vienna offered them a course on the tree-lined Prater Hauptallee, where Ineos mapped out a flat 9.6-kilometer circuit.
More than 90% of the race was on a straight line, and for the two roundabouts at each end, Kipchoge had orange lines painted to guide him around the quickest path. The start was 8:15 a.m. local time (2:15 a.m. ET).
Authored by Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org