The Numbers That Prove Kipchoge Is the Undisputed Greatest (2024)

Breaking down the statistics, figures, and formulas that make up the world's best marathoner

By A.C. Shilton

If you’ve ever watched Eliud Kipchoge run on TV, it is possible that your brain has thought, you know, he actually doesn’t look like he’s going all that fast.

Your brain is wrong. If you cheer at his next marathon, he will seem to blow by. If he passed you on a running path, he’d be gone faster than your dignity after eating a pre-group-run burrito. But because the motorbike-mounted camera is keeping that same incredible 13mph pace, our gray matter fails us. Our visual perception of motion relies on our brain’s ability to compute how fast something is moving relative to objects around it. So if you’ve never witnessed Kipchoge in person, rest assured, he is going very, very fast.

At his marathon pace, he could literally run around the world in—wait for it—just under 80 days. He could run to the moon in 18,233 hours and 12 minutes. And he could kick it down Route 66 in just over a week.

It’s not like Kipchoge is the only fast marathoner on the planet. In a Kipchoge-less world (perish the thought), we could be writing here about the world’s second fastest marathoner ever, Kenenisa Bekele. His 2:01:41 from Berlin 2019 is not quite 0.4 percent slower—just 32 seconds—than Kipchoge’s official 2:01:09 world record. But it’s in that sliver of seconds where Kipchoge becomes a legend. It’s why he was chosen to break the two-hour barrier—and why he pulled it off.

Slapping GOAT on every athlete having a moment isn’t particularly scientific—or accurate. Superlatives unanchored by context tend to just float toward hyperbole. The greatest show on earth? Says who? The country’s best yogurt? Using what metric? We wanted to understand that line between great and greatness—both what defines it statistically and creates it physically.

When you look at Kipchoge’s race times, what really emerges, says Melissa Kovacs, PhD, a statistician and runner, is his consistency. Take all of Kipchoge’s marathon finish times over the past nine years: The mean—or average—finish time (2:04:25:18) is almost exactly the same as the median—or middle—finish time (2:04:10:99). That’s one clue that all the numbers are clustered together. Then there’s just how often he lands on the podium. He’s only once finished a marathon off the podium, and in all but two of his attempts, he’s come out on top.

Another indication of his consistency is his standard deviation, meaning how much each value varies from the mean finish time. Kovacs, who describes herself as a data-obsessed recreational runner on a quest to qualify for Boston, wanted to see how Kipchoge’s consistency stacked up to hers. She crunched the numbers for the 28 half marathons she’s run over the past 19 years. Even at a shorter distance—which should mean there’s less variation—her mean and median finish times varied by three minutes. Her standard deviation was over eight minutes. She also looked at another elite, Bekele, whose standard deviation for all of his marathon finishing times is three minutes and 14 seconds.

Kipchoge’s comes in at just over two minutes.

These numbers are complicated a bit by the fact that marathons happen outdoors in cities where elevation varies and weather sometimes doesn’t cooperate. When you just look at Berlin—a course Kipchoge has run five times—his consistency both over time and during the race is remarkable.

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He’s only once finished a marathon off the podium, and in all but two of his attempts, he’s come out on top.

The Numbers That Prove Kipchoge Is the Undisputed Greatest (3)

Kipchoge after winning the Berlin Marathon—and breaking the world record—with a time of 2:01:09.

Between all five Berlin attempts, he’s run the first 5K with a standard deviation of just nine seconds. Even at the half marathon, where he’s jockeyed with other racers for 13.1 miles and taken the occasional outside tangent, his standard deviation is only 47 seconds. Looking at his 5K splits from his 2022 Berlin race, his pacing from start to finish is metronome-like. At the tail end of the race, when anyone else’s exhaustion might have set in, Kipchoge takes just 29 seconds longer to cover the five kilometers between 35 and 40 kilometers than he took to cover the first 5K of the race. His standard deviations for all the 5K segments is just 11.24 seconds.

When it comes to the very top of our sport, the differences between athletes become minuscule. Many runners try to duck just under the world record, hoping for the second or two they need.

In 2003, Paula Radcliffe snatched the record from Susan Chepkemei by a mere 4 seconds. And when Kelvin Kiptum ran the Valencia Marathon in 2022, he fell short of Bekele’s record-setting Berlin time (2:01:41) by just 12 seconds, or a percentage change of 0.16.

In Kipchoge’s second attempt to run the marathon in under two hours, he shaved 45 seconds off his time, from 2:00:25 to 1:59:40. That was a 0.6 percent change—a huge improvement in a sport where gains of 0.4 percent differentiate a world record holder from just another great runner.

Running Sub-2 ▸ By The Numbers

When Nike began its Breaking2 Project, Kipchoge was one of 17 athletes under consideration to attempt to run a marathon in under two hours. A team of physiologists studied a host of factors about the runners, from calf girth to body-fat percentage. I talked to Andy Jones, PhD, a member of that team, about how Kipchoge can do what he does. “When it came to the actual marathon performance,” especially over time, Jones says, “he is head and shoulders above everybody.”

One of the most important metrics for elite runners is VO₂ max, which is essentially the amount of oxygen your body can consume during exercise, according to Aaron Parmar, an exercise physiologist who studies VO₂ max at Northumbria University in the U.K. While we don’t know Kipchoge’s exact VO₂ max—or any of his biometric data, as he has never released it publicly, and his press team denied my request to peep at it for this story—we do know the mean VO₂ max in Jones’s elite group of 17 was 71.0 ± 5.7 milliliters per kilogram per minute.

You might be thinking, How exceptional can elite runners’ lungs really be? We’re all human, after all. But a 2020 study published in Sports looked at the physiology of 15 mid-pack marathoners as they geared up for the Athens Marathon. Eight were considered “moderate” athletes, finishing the marathon in under four hours. The other seven, finishing over four hours, were considered “low-level” athletes. (This four-hour marathoner would like a word.) The VO₂ max for moderate athletes was 27.7 percent lower than the elites in Jones’s study. Low-level athletes, meanwhile, had VO₂ max numbers that were 45.2 percent lower than Kipchoge and his friends.

To run a marathon like an elite, you have to be able to sit and suffer at a slightly lower intensity than what you might choose for a few-minute sprint. That makes lactate threshold another crucial measurement for distance runners, which is the percentage of your VO₂ max you can hold before your body starts creating lactate—that substance that makes your muscles feel like they’re burning. The faster you can run—or the higher the percentage of your VO₂ max that you can sit under—without creating a ton of lactate, the more successful of a runner you’re going to be.

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“When it came to the actual marathon performance,” especially over time, “he is head and shoulders above everybody.”

The Numbers That Prove Kipchoge Is the Undisputed Greatest (5)

INEOS 1:59 Challenge pacers raise Kipchoge to their shoulders after he breaks two hours in 2019.

Kipchoge, assuming he runs around the middle of the 17 participants in Jones’s study, would be able to run 62.9 percent faster than the moderate finishers in the Athens Marathon, and 105 percent faster than the four-plus-hour finishers, without reaching his lactate threshold.

The third big physiological measure that sports scientists look at when measuring elite distance runners is running economy, or the amount of oxygen their bodies consume to cover a distance, says Kyle Barnes, PhD, an associate professor of exercise science at Grand Valley State University. We don’t know Kipchoge’s exact running-economy numbers, but, Barnes says, “he’s got to be incredibly efficient at these crazy paces that he’s running,” adding that running economy is a mix of being biomechanically expedient, having the physiology to distribute oxygen to muscles, and having a robust army of mitochondria in your cells that convert fuel into energy.

“When we selected the three runners for the original Breaking2 Project, we were looking for somebody who had the right combination of those three numbers, and Eliud was certainly one,” says Jones, adding that, while he can’t share Kipchoge’s numbers, he’s the rare athlete that seems to be strong in all the ways that count.

In that co*cktail of things that make a runner excellent, there may be other factors, like bodyweight and power-to-weight ratios—i.e., how much power a runner’s legs generate relative to how much their bodies weigh. Kipchoge is 5-foot-6 and weighs between 115 and 125 pounds. Jones’s study found the average body-fat percentage of his 17 elites to be just 7.9 percent, which is far below the 16.3 percent that a 2013 study found to be the average for recreational male marathoners.

Likewise, Hannah Margaret Rice, PhD, an associate professor at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, took force and stride-length measurements as part of the study of these 17 elites. Rice says that using a forceplate, which captured the runner’s force as their feet hit the ground, actually shows that elites running at race pace use less force than you or I would if we were trying—just for a few minutes—to hold 13.1 miles per hour.

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The second-fastest marathon ever run is not quite 0.4 percent slower—just 32 seconds—than Kipchoge’s official 2:01:09 world record. But it’s in that sliver of seconds where Kipchoge becomes a legend. It’s why he was chosen to break the two-hour barrier—and why he pulled it off.

However, compared to us plebian runners, elites are moving their feet much faster. Rice looked at ground-contact time, or how long these 17 elites had one foot on the ground before pushing off for another stride. They averaged just 0.16 second.

Shorter contact times tend to correlate with better running economy, Rice says, as you’re essentially spending less time with your foot in the breakover phase, when it’s stationary on the ground.

Taken together, all these numbers show a man who perhaps has an edge over his competitors here and there through biomechanics and physiology—though, of course, they’re always nipping at his heels. But Kipchoge, like all athletes, is more than just consistent split times and impressive lactate threshold values.

It is Jones’s job to look objectively at data. And yet, his just-the-facts approach gets fuzzy around the edges when he starts to talk about what makes Kipchoge so great. “He’s just a very special person,” he says, adding, “and he just exudes class, and calm, and he’s just so intelligent, and he’s just...there’s just something zen-like about him.”

Rice is similarly mesmerized—and a little stumped—by exactly how Kipchoge is just so good. For her, the ease with which Kipchoge seems to run blazing-fast mile after blazing-fast mile is mind-​bending. “I don’t think the scientific community has put their finger on why and how this happens,” she says about the fact that Kipchoge seems to run almost as effortlessly at the end of a race as he does at the beginning. “He is a little bit of a mystery and a wonder.”

But these, of course, are qualitative descriptions, not quantitative data points. Which is why Jones has his own favorite, nonstatistical term for describing Kipchoge: He isn’t so much of an outlier as he is a trailblazer.

What makes Kipchoge’s racing exceptional, Jones says, is that Kipchoge is one of the rare runners who doesn’t seem to be constrained by numbers.

Limits seem to only be suggestions to Kipchoge.

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