Eliud Kipchoge has been pounding the pavement lightly and quickly on four continents for a decade. The 37-year-old Kenyan has won the last two Olympic men’s marathons and is the only human to break two hours over the distance. At this point in his career, it’s about boxes still unchecked and challenges yet to be conquered.
His most immediate To-Do item is winning all six major marathons.
“So Boston is in my bucket list,” said the planet’s fastest man over 26 miles, who this year crossed off his fourth by taking Tokyo.
Ever since he won in Chicago in 2014, Kipchoge has had a standing invitation to compete in the world’s most fabled footrace. But until recently, the clock took priority for him, which meant going to places with drag-race layouts and rabbits.
But now that Kipchoge has won London a record four times, Berlin thrice, and Chicago once, and has held the world record (2:01:39) for nearly four years, speed no longer is the obsession it once was. Rounding out an incomparable résumé is paramount.
“Obviously the lure is the history and the fame of Boston,” said Amby Burfoot, who won Boston in 1968. “You come to Boston if you have a real sense of the value of tradition.”
Next year, Kipchoge’s competitive calendar may well put him front and center at the starting line in Hopkinton.
“We believe in speaking with his group that New York is a nice option for him this fall followed by Boston in the spring,” said Mary Kate Shea, the professional athlete program manager for the Boston Marathon. “We would be very excited if Eliud chose to top off his stellar career with racing Boston.”
The postponement of the 2020 Olympics until last summer and the deferral until fall of London and Boston, the two spring marathons, scrambled Kipchoge’s schedule for 2021. So after retaining his five-ringed crown at the Games by the widest margin (80 seconds) since 1972, Kipchoge called it a season.
That provided him with ample time to prepare for the Tokyo race in March, which he won in 2:02:40, history’s fourth-fastest time, despite losing an estimated 10 seconds when the lead group took a wrong turn shortly after the 10-kilometer mark.
By running a winter marathon, Kipchoge gave himself the option of checking two more boxes this year: the world championships in Eugene, Ore., in July and New York in November.
That likely would be more than Kipchoge is willing to take on. He never has raced in more than two marathons a year, and he prepares punctiliously for them.
“Eliud is methodical in what he does,” said Carey Pinkowski, the longtime Chicago race director. “It’s a gradual buildup and he takes a very long recovery, which has extended his career. He doesn’t race a lot. You don’t see him in a lot of other events.”
If Kipchoge were to bypass the world championships, he would have eight months to train for New York and then five to get ready for Boston and a draining down-up-down course unlike any he has encountered.
“Boston has that big question mark,” said Tom Ratcliffe, director of KIMbia Athletics, which represents distance runners. “Can you actually run on the hills?”
Though Kipchoge hasn’t climbed the Newton tri-mountain, he’ll likely receive a detailed scouting report from training partner Geoffrey Kamworor, the two-time New York champion who is making his Boston debut this year.
“Eliud will get a lot of intel from this race,” said Shea. “Geoffrey is exceptional on hilly, strategic courses. He will go back and report, as will a number of other Kenyan athletes who are in the field.”
The Kenyan men have been running and winning Boston since 1988 and have claimed three of the last four laurel wreaths. So the topography and tactics are quite familiar to them. If you feel the need for speed, you go elsewhere.
Absent a 20-mile-an-hour tailwind, running a 2:01 in Boston is all but impossible. And because of the course’s overall differences in elevation and the quirks of its point-to-point layout, world records set here are not recognized by the international federation.
Given the mercurial April weather hereabouts, winning times fluctuate significantly; the men’s champions’ postings for the last five races ranged from 2:07:51 to 2:15:58. In Boston, you run to win however you can, because the clock is irrelevant.
Kipchoge’s two slowest marathon times — 2:08:44 and 2:08:38 — came in his Olympic triumphs, which were tactical races without pacesetters. So Boston’s format will be familiar to him and he’ll do the appropriate groundwork.
“Sometimes athletes will condense their training to six or eight weeks,” said Pinkowski. “Eliud takes a long preparation. He doesn’t rush things.”
Kipchoge invariably is in top form when he takes the line, as his results attest. Of his 16 marathons, he has won 14. His first loss came in his second outing in 2013 in Berlin, where he was second to countryman Wilson Kipsang, who set the world record.
The other was two years ago in London, where Kipchoge, hindered by hip and leg cramps, came in eighth in chilly rain on an altered course.
”Still Kipchoge is the king of us, even if we beat him,” said Ethiopian victor Shura Kitata.
Were Kipchoge to win New York in the fall, it would clear the path for him to complete his quest in a race that is more revered by his countrymen than any other.
“Winning Boston is life-changing, especially for Kenyan athletes because of the history that the country has with Boston going back decades,” observed Shea. “To be a Kenyan champion in Boston is career-defining.”
Given his extraordinary career, a victory here would be more affirming than defining for Kipchoge. And it would set him up for what could be a glorious denouement in the Paris Olympics in 2024.
No runner ever has won three Olympic marathons. Kipchoge will be pushing 40 that summer, but he has that date circled. Tokyo wasn’t his last run around the rings.
”You’ll still see me around,” he said.