BERLIN — Eliud Kipchoge, the most decorated marathoner on the planet, is a man of immense self-discipline. He rolls out of bed at 5 a.m. for his morning runs. He splits his time between his home in Eldoret, Kenya, where he lives with his wife and three children, and a training camp up in the hills, 8,000 feet above sea level, where he shares chores with teammates.
Kipchoge is the distance running version of Usain Bolt. He is a wealthy man, but he still scrubs the toilet.
Since he began to take the sport seriously, he has recorded every workout in a notebook. He has 15 notebooks now, one for every year he has spent on the world stage. The thousands of miles contained within have propelled him to the pinnacle of his profession, a runner driven to trim seconds from performances that already stretch comprehension.
But perhaps what is most unusual about Kipchoge, 33, and his diet of monastic extremes is the one thing he does not do: overextend himself in training. He estimates that he seldom pushes himself past 80 percent — 90 percent, tops — of his maximum effort when he circles the track for interval sessions, or when he embarks on 25-mile jogs.
Instead, he reserves the best of himself, all 100 percent of Kipchoge, for race day — for the marathons he wins, for the records he chases.
“I want to run,” he said, “with a relaxed mind.”
Kipchoge, the sport’s philosopher king, plans to do that again on Sunday at the Berlin Marathon, a race that he has already won twice. He has won nine of the 10 marathons he has entered. He is the reigning Olympic champion. He has never sustained a serious injury. His personal best of 2 hours 3 minutes 5 seconds, which he ran at the London Marathon in 2016, is just 8 seconds off the world record held by Dennis Kimetto, a fellow Kenyan. Conditions permitting, no one would be surprised to see Kipchoge obliterate it this weekend, though he is the only one who does not seem consumed by the quest.
“To be precise,” he said, “I am just going to try to run my personal best. If it comes as a world record, I would appreciate it. But I would treat it as a personal best.”
At 5-feet-6 and about 115 pounds, Kipchoge has the shrink-wrapped physique of an anatomical sketch, a body engineered for peak cardiovascular performance. There is not a gram of excess material. At the same time, crevices on his cheeks give him the appearance of someone older, lending him an air of hard-earned wisdom. It is not false advertising. When he speaks, the words come slowly and carefully.
Kipchoge is the type of person who says stuff like: “Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.” And: “It’s not about the legs; it’s about the heart and the mind.” And: “The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.”
More to the point, Kipchoge is the type of person who can slip self-styled proverbs into casual conversation and somehow come across as sincere. An avid reader, his literary tastes range from Aristotle to sports biographies to self-help manuals. “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey, is one of his favorites.
“I think you’d find it really interesting,” he said during an interview here at his hotel before Sunday’s race.
Whenever Kipchoge reads — often in the library at his team’s training camp — he keeps a notebook handy so that he can take notes.
“When you write, then you remember,” he said.
He once wrote down a formula:
Motivation + Discipline = Consistency
No marathoner in the modern era has been more dominant. Even the greatest distance runners had days when a strained muscle or an upset stomach kept them from winning. Not Kipchoge. And recently, murmurs have grown into a chorus, led by people like David Bedford, a former world-record holder for 10,000 meters and an organizer for the London Marathon. Bedford thinks that Kipchoge could be the greatest distance runner ever.
“Can he be beaten?” Bedford asked in a telephone interview. “No, I don’t think so.”
As a child, Kipchoge jogged solely as a form of transport — so that he could get to and from school. He had no idea that all those miles were forming the foundation for an eventual career.
The youngest of four children, Kipchoge grew up in Kapsisiywa, a small village in Nandi County. His mother worked as a teacher. His father died when he was very young.
“I’ve only seen pictures,” he said.
After finishing school as a teenager, Kipchoge helped support his family by collecting milk from neighbors and selling it at a market. He continued to run, inspired in part by Patrick Sang — a respected figure in the region. Sang had left for the University of Texas and won an Olympic silver medal in the steeplechase before returning to Kapsisiywa, where he organized sports events. He met Kipchoge at one of them in 2001, when Kipchoge was 16.
“There was this kid who would come and ask me for a training program,” Sang said in an interview recently. “So every two weeks, I would give him a program to follow, and this went on for months.”
Kipchoge eventually entered a regional race and won. Sang finally asked the boy’s name — and was taken aback.
“Your mother was my kindergarten teacher,” Sang told him.
Kipchoge did not own a watch, so Sang gave him his Timex. They have been nearly inseparable ever since, their relationship as much mentor/protégé as coach/athlete.
“When you’re young, you always hope that one day you’ll be somebody,” Sang said. “And in that journey, you need someone to hold you by the hand. It does not matter who that person is, so long as they believe that your dreams are valid. So for me, when you find a young person with a passion, don’t disappoint them. Give them a helping hand and see them grow.”
Kipchoge is even more direct about their bond: “If I hadn’t met him, my life would be different.”
His astonishing rise included a world championship in 2003, when he out-sprinted Hicham El Guerrouj in the 5,000 meters at Stade de France outside of Paris. El Guerrouj, a Moroccan who was already the world-record holder in the mile, was a legend at the height of his powers. Kipchoge was just 18 at the time.
Kipchoge would go on to win a pair of Olympic medals in the 5,000 meters: bronze in 2004 and silver in 2008.
On a rare bad day, he finished seventh in the 5,000 at Kenya’s Olympic trials for 2012, and was left off the Olympic team. It was his greatest disappointment. Kipchoge channeled his frustration into a new endeavor. He decided to move to the roads and tackle the marathon. Liberation from the track breathed life into his career.
He won his marathon debut in Hamburg in the spring of 2013 running 2:05:30. He finished second in Berlin a few months later behind Wilson Kipsang, a fellow Kenyan who needed to set what was then a world record to outlast Kipchoge in the final miles. Since then, Kipchoge has gone undefeated: 8 for 8, including gold at the 2016 Olympic Games, which has made the running world wonder if there is anything he cannot do.
His mechanics are remarkably efficient. His shoulders barely sway — a telltale sign of fatigue for even the finest runners in the world — and he seems to tap the asphalt with his forefoot on every loping stride.
“When I run,” he said. “I feel good. My mind feels good. I sleep in a free way, and I enjoy life.”
Last year, on a racecar track in Italy, Kipchoge nearly pulled off his most audacious feat to date: run a marathon in less than 2 hours. He had a starring role in a project organized by Nike called “Breaking 2.” Aided by a rotating cast of Olympic-level pacesetters, he finished in 2:00:25, covering the marathon distance faster than any human in history. For various reasons, including the use of those pacers, his time was not ratified as a world record. But it was extraordinary. Kipchoge averaged 4:36 per mile.
Dr. Andrew Jones, an endurance expert who was an adviser on the project, recalled the night of Kipchoge’s near miss. The group had gathered to celebrate, and Kipchoge stepped forward to say a few words.
“He started by saying, ‘A wise man once said…’” Jones said. “I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was some philosophical thing that he’d read from Confucius.”
Bernard Lagat, a two-time Olympic medalist who worked as one of Kipchoge’s pacesetters, joined him on a subsequent promotional tour in Asia. They made several appearances for fans and sponsors. Lagat, who is a decade older than Kipchoge, said he wound up feeling like a student rather than a participant during their question-and-answer sessions.
“He could be a motivational speaker,” Lagat said. “We were there for two weeks, and I never heard him use the same material twice.”
It is impossible, of course, for any athlete of Kipchoge’s caliber to avoid the dark cloud of doping. Dozens of Kenyan runners have tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs in recent years. Kipchoge, though, has a clean record, and by now he can anticipate the questions and is adamant that he has never cheated.
“I always tell people that this is a really simple deal: Work hard,” he said. “If you work hard, follow what’s required and set your priorities right, then you can really perform without taking shortcuts. If you’re taking shortcuts, you can’t be free.”
Bedford, the London Marathon director, said, “In the eyes of people who know and understand the sport, there is no doubt at all that he is anything other than clean, legitimate and honest.”
Kipchoge has outsize goals. He wants to defend his Olympic title. He wants to continue to set personal bests. He wants to influence future generations — “Billions,” he said — by traveling the world to spread the Gospel of running. He also said he would like to run the New York City Marathon someday.
“We would welcome him with open arms,” said Peter Ciaccia, the president of events for New York Road Runners, the organizers of the race.
Kipchoge was at the finish line last year to watch Geoffrey Kamworor, one of his training partners, come across first. Kipchoge’s presence served as motivation.
“I don’t think there was any option but for Geoffrey to win,” said Valentijn Trouw, one of Kipchoge’s managers with Global Sports Communication.
Elite distance runners generally run no more than two marathons each year. When Kipchoge actually enters a race, he sends ripples through the field before his races even begin. Kipchoge has that rare LeBron-esque quality. He is the outlier among outliers. His races will never be slow and tactical.
Lagat said that when he competed against Kipchoge in the 5,000 meters, there would be whispers within the field. “‘Man, this is going to be something,’” Lagat recalled the racers saying to each other. “Because Eliud doesn’t play games. The guy is fierce, and he’s not afraid of anyone.”
In his hunt for ever-faster marathon times, Kipchoge has not gotten a ton of breaks. Most famously, the insoles on his racing flats came loose when he competed in Berlin in 2015. By the end of the race, it looked as if his sneakers had exploded. More recently, the weather has caused problems. (Berlin, 2017: steady rain. London, 2018: warmest race there on record.)
He still won those events — convincingly. The forecast for Sunday morning in Berlin calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 50s and 60s.
Kipchoge has a habit of smiling whenever pain sets it. Pain, he said, is nothing more than a mind-set. So he distracts himself with other thoughts — the joy of running, the finish line ahead. Then the pain fades. In the process, he has proved himself singularly capable of elevating the sport into something that more closely resembles performance art.
His coach described his general approach. “Let’s just have a beautiful race,” Sang said.