As he prepared for Saturday’s historic assault on the two-hour marathon barrier, Eliud Kipchoge stayed true to an austere lifestyle that belies his fame and fortune.
The Kenyan superstar, who holds the marathon world record and is reigning Olympic champion, became the first man to run the 42.195 kilometres in under two hours, clocking a jaw-dropping 1hr 59min and 40sec in Vienna.
“That was the best moment in my life, it is the time to make history,” the 34-year-old said after crossing the line to be embraced by his wife Grace.
Despite his status and wealth, the 2018 world athlete of the year leads a monastic existence at a spartan running camp in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
With the 30 or so runners living at the camp, Kipchoge sets off at dawn for the first of two daily training sessions.
The rest of his time is spent resting, reading and eating, with a focus on simple Kenyan food staples.
“I don’t think I am different. I am trying my best to live a modest life,” he said in the run up to Vienna.
“I am a simple person, I try to stay calm and focus on what I do. There are no distractions.”
At least not until the eve of his record attempt.
“I had a lot of pressure yesterday (Friday), I received a lot of phone calls from the president of Kenya… I received a lot of calls from all over the world… and when you receive a lot of calls from high profile people it’s a lot of pressure!”
Kipchoge, 34, went close to breaking the two-hour barrier when he was 25 seconds too slow in another staged run, at Italy’s Monza race circuit in 2017.
That time was not sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) because a vehicle and a squad of pacemakers aided Kipchoge in controlling his speed.
The same conditions prevailed for the Vienna attempt, preventing his time from being validated as a world record.
– ‘No human is limited’ –
Kipchoge had said breaking the two-hour mark would be like “man landing on the moon”.
Having made history he said: “I’m the happiest man today that the message that no human is limited is now in everybody’s mind.
“That if you believe in something and you put it into your mind, and in your heart, and in your mouth, then it can be realised. So I’m happy.”
Kipchoge was born in Kapsisiywa, Nandi County in western Kenya.
At 18 he beat two legendary runners, the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, to became 5,000 metre world champion in Paris in 2003
In 2012, after failing to qualify for the London Olympics, Kipchoge switched to marathon running.
With his compact silhouette and unwavering stride as the miles tick by, Kipchoge is perfectly suited to the longer distance.
Out of 12 marathons, he has lost just once: in his 2013 debut in Berlin, against compatriot Wilson Kipsang, who broke the world record that day.
Kipchoge set his world record, 2hr 1min 39sec, in the Berlin race in 2018.
He had met coach Patrick Sang in 2001 and joined the fabled running stable in the foothills of the Rift Valley a year later.
– ‘Sense of sacrifice’ –
Kipchoge enjoys no privileges at the Kaptagat camp where he is nicknamed the “philosopher” for his love of reading. The camp is a few hours’ walk from his home village, Eldoret. On weekends, he returns to his family.
Coach Sang, an Olympic runner-up in the 3,000m steeplechase in 1992, remains impressed with his student’s determination.
“He has continued to amaze me with his self-sacrifice and dedication. He has given 100 percent of his ability and total commitment to what he does,” he told AFP.
The champion’s often mischievous gaze hardens when the subject of doping arises. Kipchoge has never been caught up in scandal, but the reputation of his Kenyan compatriots has raised questions.
Kipchoge, who will defend his Olympic title in Tokyo next year, was fixated on Saturday’s challenge, skipping the Berlin marathon and world championships to concentrate on Vienna.
“I have visualised it. I have put it in my heart and my mind that I will break the two-hour barrier,” he said.
He kept his word.