October 18, 2019

The Greatest Marathon

On October 12, 2019, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) in 1:59:40, the first time a runner had broken two hours for the marathon. For perspective, in the first modern Olympic marathon in 1896 the Greek winner, Spyridon Louis, ran 2:58:50, nearly an hour longer.

Over the decades the world record has been steadily dropping: to 2:29:01 by 1925, 2:18:40 by 1953, and first breaking the 2:10 mark with Derek Clayton of Australia clocking 2:09:36 in 1967. As the record has gotten lower and lower, however, additional seconds, not to mention minutes, have been harder and harder to chip away, with the current world record standing at 2:01:39, set by Kipchoge at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Kipchoge’s 1:59:40 will not count as a world record because his race was run under conditions to optimize his speed, some of which are not allowed in official marathon races: no competitors, a group of elite pacesetters on a rotating schedule to pace him and provide an aerodynamically designed windbreak pocket for him to run in, a pace car with a laser beam to project the ideal position on the road and pace, drinks being handed over by other runners and cyclists to keep Kipchoge from having to slow down, and special Nike shoes with a carbon fiber insert (you can purchase a pair online for $250). The race organizers also selected a very flat and straight course and aimed for ideal temperature and humidity conditions. In short, everything possible was done to optimize Kipchoge’s chances of running the fastest time possible. That being said, every advantage was needed to help Kipchoge run at an incredible pace of 4:34 per mile for 26 plus miles.

I can’t help seeing Kipchoge’s accomplishment through a biblical lens–and Kipchoge, by the way, is a Christian. The apostle Paul enjoyed running metaphors. He admonished the Galatians: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5:7, NIV). To Timothy he wrote: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). But I want to focus on this passage at the beginning of Hebrews 12:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3).

The image of the great cloud of witnesses–we have just finished a chapter on the heroes of faith–is supposed to motivate us to do our best. Cheering crowds supported Kipchoge all along the route and got louder and louder in their support as he neared the finish line. He had trained with dedication for years and stripped away every possible deterrent to reaching his goal.

As we train year after year with Christ, our “form” should also improve. Kipchoge’s pacesetters, like our brothers and sisters in Christ, surrounded him all the way (until the last minute, when they parted to allow him to finish the race on his own), keeping him on the exact pace to accomplish his goal.

We have a unique pacesetter. We are to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He knows exactly what we need to run our race, and he will see us through to the finish.

And one more thing: we have the privilege of being pacesetters, helpers, to others in the great race of life. We can encourage them; we can deflect some of the wind for them; we can help pick them up when they fall. And then, as happened with Kipchoge and his team, we can all celebrate together on the golden streets of the earth made new. Let us run together with perseverance for the joy set before us.

Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University. He has been running on a regular basis ever since a health science course from professor David Nieman at Pacific Union College, several decades ago.