To win a race, they say, you have to beat everybody who shows up on the day, but to set a world record, you have to beat everybody who’s ever shown up. Today at the Berlin Marathon, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto did both as he blazed his way to a marathon world record of 2:02:57.
As it turned out, he had to run a world record to beat everyone who showed up, as fellow Kenyan Emmanuel Mutai, running 2:03:13, also dipped below the previous best mark.
Kimetto’s run carved a whopping 26 seconds off Wilson Kipsang’s previous world record – a second for every mile of the race, which was held in near-perfect cool and sunny conditions on the pancake-flat streets of the German capital.
Kimetto and Mutai also finished 1-2 at last year's Chicago Marathon, where Kimetto set the course record of 2:03:45 and Mutai was second in 2:03:52. His time also removes an asterisk from the marathon record books. At the 2011Boston Marathon, Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02, faster than the world record, but ineligible for record purposes because of Boston's point-to-point course and too-great net elevation loss.
Kimetto’s run today surprised many, but not the man himself. After all, the 30-year-old had told anyone who would listen earlier this week that yes, he would break the world record, once the weather and the pace-making were good.
It was a confident prediction from a man so quiet and humble that it made everyone immediately sit up and take notice. After all, it was only a few years ago that Kimetto’s life didn’t appear destined to amount to much more than continuing his work as a hard-working subsistence farmer in Kapngetuny, Kenya.
Kimetto began training seriously only in 2010 after a chance encounter withNew York City and Boston Marathon course record holder Geoffrey Mutai, who invited him to join his training group. It was two years later – at the Berlin Marathon in 2012, when Mutai took a 1-second victory over Kimetto – that the world first learned of his true ability. It was a talent that one day seemed destined set a marathon world record, and all those around him knew as much.
Shortly after giving his protégé a congratulatory post-race hug today, Kimetto’s manager, Arien Verkade,, explained how he had spoken to Wilson Kipsang – who he also manages – before the race this morning and warned him that conditions were even better than when Kipsang set his record time last year. “Okay, let’s see, let’s see,” was Kipsang’s response.
As it turned out, it was only approaching the halfway mark that it started to look like history was indeed up for grabs today. Until then, the pace had lagged well behind the splits set by Kipsang last year. They passed 10K in 29:23, 7 seconds behind Kipsang’s split, and 15K in 44:09, 24 seconds slower than Kipsang had. Soon, though, the pacers realized their error and began to crank it up a notch, reaching halfway in 61:45.
At the 30-kilometer mark, the pacers stepped aside and the real race for the title began, with Emmanuel Mutai quickly ratcheting up the pace. Kimetto was the only one to properly cover the move, advancing swiftly into Mutai’s slipstream.
The pair covered the next 5K in a scorching 14:10, and by that point it became a question not of whether the world record would go, but by how much, and to whom? How incredibly refreshing it was that a race which has so often been built around one athlete chasing a fast time had morphed into an actual contest – two athletes out there on the road, head to head, with so much more than just the Berlin Marathon title at stake.
Something, or someone, had to give, and the first to crack was Mutai. Kimetto – eyes always focused straight ahead, jaw hanging low – cranked up the pace again at 38 kilometers, and gradually, a gap began to open between the two.
With the race in Kimetto’s control and the world record apparently assured, the question then was whether Kimetto could become to break 2:03. As he stormed through Berlin’s famed Brandenburg gate with just a quarter mile to run and got his first sight of the finish, he threw all the energy he could muster into trying produce a final kick. Unsurprisingly, there was precious little left in the tank.
Still, though, he crossed the line in 2:02:57 to record a little piece of sporting history. Shortly after, Mutai followed him home in 2:03:13 for what will surely go down as one of the most under-appreciated performances in marathon history. The contrast between the two was stark in those moments after the finish.
Kimetto, still on a high from his historic achievement, smiled and wrapped himself in a Kenyan flag, then trotted his way back down the home straight to salute the fans who had roared him home. Mutai cramped up badly, limped a few meters, then tried to drink some water. Twenty seconds later, it came back up, and Mutai doubled over in agony for many minutes before eventually being helped away.
There was some consolation for the valiant Mutai. Despite finishing second, he also set a world record – his 30K split of 1:27:37 took 1 second off Patrick Makau’s old mark. “I’m feeling good for the achievement,” said Mutai. “I was fighting to win, but my colleague was stronger. Maybe next year I will come back and try to smash his world record.”
As great as Mutai’s run was, the day undoubtedly belonged to Kimetto – the former small-time farmer whose achievement in dipping below 2:03 is anything but minuscule. “I’m so happy to break the record,” he said. “I knew coming here I could do it. I have to thank so many people who helped me: my coach, my family. There will be a big celebration back home after this.”
Now that the 2:03 barrier has been broken, the debate quickly emerged once more about the possibility of a two-hour marathon. For what it’s worth, the two fastest men in the books believe it’s possible. “I am expecting a marathon in two hours,” said Kimetto. Mutai agreed: “Today showed that the time is coming down and down. To beat two hours is possible.”
“I can break this record again,” Kimetto said. Like everything in Berlin this weekend, it seems just a matter of time.
The video below, with German narration, shows the last nine minutes of Kimetto's race.