A FUNNY THING happened in Chicago on the weekend: Kelvin Kiptum, running in just his third marathon ever, pushed the limits of human endurance to never before seen levels, as he broke Eliud Kipchoge’s world record, in a blistering time of 2 hours and 35 seconds in the Chicago Marathon.
Let’s be clear here: Kiptum didn’t just break the world record, he smashed it by 34 seconds, in some part due to the rapid advancements in shoe technology in recent years. In doing, so Kiptum recorded an average mile pace of 4:36 and an average 5km pace of 14:17.3.
But the really astonishing part of Kiptum’s feat is that until 10 months ago, he had never before run a marathon. While it wasn’t exactly a couch-to-42.195k effort—Kiptum has been running since he was 13— Chicago was just Kiptum’s third marathon ever. He won the London Marathon earlier this year in 2:01:25—just 16 seconds behind Kipchoge’s world record at the time (2:01:09). This followed his debut at the Valencia Marathon last year, in which Kiptum announced himself to the world, winning in what was the fastest debut in marathon history, a time of 2:01:53.
Kiptum’s new record is also unusual for the fact that it wasn’t recorded in Berlin, the site of the last eight men’s marathon world-record runs. Not since 2002 had the men’s world record been broken away from the Berlin Marathon.
Given the 23-year-old is so new to the distance and appears to be on a steep upward trajectory, you have to wonder if he can break the mythical two-barrier in the next year or so. Kipchoge did run 1.59.40 under non-legal race conditions—including drafting and laser pace lights, back in 2019. But with the rate at which Kiptum is improving, lopping 34 seconds off the world record and 50 seconds off his previous PB in Chicago, the signs are there that the two-hour barrier, an even greater feat than the once hallowed four-minute mile, is in danger.
It also sets up a potentially mouth-watering showdown at Paris 2024, where 38-year-old Kipchoge will attempt to win his third consecutive Olympic gold medal. There are shades of the Djokovic-Alacaraz rivalry in tennis here, but you’d have to say, that at just 23, and with so much improvement in front of him, time is on Kiptum’s side. Indeed, the man appears to be in a hurry.
Who is Kelvin Kiptum?
Kiptum grew up in the village of Chepkorioin Kenya, where he was surrounded by some of the country’s greatest runners, including village mate Geoffrey Kamworor, a double New York Marathon winner. At the age of 13, Kiptum joined a village running group, and at 18 won his first road race: the 2018 Eldoret Half Marathon.
Unlike Kipchoge, Kiptum didn’t enter marathon running from a track background as his village didn’t have a track and he didn’t have the money to travel the 40km to Eldoret to do track sessions.
“When I started training, it was with the marathoners and road racers, and I just found myself running road races so young,” he said.
Kiptum’s first international race was in 2019, over 10km, where he finished second in 28:17. Later that year, he competed in Sweden’s Göteborgsvarvet half-marathon, finishing sixth in 1:01:36. He would run another five half-marathons before claiming his maiden victory at that distance at the Le Lion Montbéliard to Belfort half in 2019.
In 2021, he competed in his first race at the full marathon distance at the Valencia Marathon, posting 2:01:53. That debut time was over three minutes faster than Kipchoge’s 2013 debut at the Hamburg Marathon (2:05:30).
How ‘supershoes’ are slashing marathon running times
In Chicago, Kiptum and Dutch runner, Sifan Hassan, who won the women’s race in the second-fastest time in history, both wore Nike’s new prototype shoe, currently knowns as ‘NikeDev163’.
It is seen as Nike’s next version of the Alphafly—and its answer to Adidas’ Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1, which Tigst Asseefa used to smash the women’s world record in Berlin last month.
Second-placed male runner in Chicago, Benson Kipruto and Berlin champion and former world-record holder, Kipchoge, also wore the new Nike shoe.
So called supershoes have transformed distance running since Nike released the Vaporfly back in 2016. The subsequent supershoe war, has been likened to the constructor’s championship in F1, with technological advancements seeing records tumble in the past five years.
Nike’s Vaporfly and AlphaFly shoes have so far had the edge—in 2019, Nike athletes took 31 of the 36 podium places in the six marathon majors. But Adidas made themselves a player in the supershoe game at this year’s Boston Marathon, with runners wearing the Adizero Adios Pro 3 taking the top four places.
A study found the original supershoe, the Vaporfly, improved the running economy of highly trained runners by around 4 per cent, when compared to a control marathon shoe. In the years since its release, the times of the top 50 male marathon runners have improved by about 2 per cent on average. For the top 50 female marathon runners, the figure is 2.6 per cent.
So, what makes a supershoe? There are two main components: the first is a carbon fibre plate, running from heel to toe within the shoe’s foam sole. It causes a “teeter-totter” effect, which helps return energy to the runner each time their foot strikes the ground. The second innovation is the use of PEBA foam, which stores far more energy from foot strikes, and returns more energy to the runner, than the TPU and EVA materials traditionally used in trainers. PEBA foam is also lighter: the Vaporfly weighs around 50g less than previous competitors.
How much of a difference can a supershoe make to race times? British marathon runner Chris Thompson says the impact can potentially be record breaking. “The marathon now is a completely different event and it’s down to the shoes,” he says. “On average I reckon they are worth four minutes for a top male in a marathon.”
Geoff Burns, a biomechanics expert and sport physiologist, who works for the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, says “elite male athletes who run close to two hours are likely to receive up to three minutes of improvement, while for those in the 2:10-2:15 hour range it may be more like three to four minutes”. What about amateur runners? The potential benefit is even greater, as the slower you run, the more supershoe tech will aid your performance. A runner in the 3:30 to 4-hour range could cut their time by more than five minutes, says Burns.
The history of the marathon
As you may recall from school, the marathon was inspired by the legend of Philippides, the Greek messenger, who while taking part in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, witnessed a Persian vessel changing its course towards Athens as the battle was near a victorious end for the Greek army. He interpreted this as an attempt by the defeated Persians to rush into the city to claim a false victory, hence claiming their authority over Greek land. It is said that he ran the entire distance to Athens without stopping, discarding his weapons and even clothes to lose as much weight as possible, and burst into the assembly exclaiming nenikēkamen or “we have won!”, before collapsing and dying.
In 1896, the Olympic movement used the tale of Phillippides as inspiration for the first modern marathon to be held in the inaugural Olympic Games in Athens. The winner of the first Olympic marathon was Spyridon Louis, a Greek water-carrier, in 2.58.50.
In 1981, Australian Robert De Castella claimed the marathon world record, with a time of 2.08.18, an honour he held for three years, until 1984. Eliud Kipchoge first set the world record in 2018, with a time of 2.01.39, then bested that in 2022, with a time of 2.01.09 in the Berlin Marathon.
The first women’s world record for the marathon was set by French woman, Marie-Louise Ledru, who ran 5 hours 40 minutes in 1918. The current world record of 2.11.53 was set by Ethiopia’s Tigst Assefa at this year’s Berlin Marathon, lopping over two minutes off the previous world record mark.