Eliud Kipchoge’s Olympic Warmup: 2:04:30

Globe-trotting to traditional marathons is not back quite yet so Kipchoge made do by circling on airport tarmac. (NN RUNNING TEAM)

ENSCHEDE, NETHERLANDS, April 18 — Reigning Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge returned to competition, of sorts, and logged a 2:04:30 tune-up at the NN Mission Marathon. Three months out from the Tokyo/Sapporo Olympic race, it appears the 36-year-old Kenyan is back on form after an inner-ear issue derailed his efforts last October in a London Marathon event.

“It’s mission accomplished,” Kipchoge said of his return-to-form effort, adding “the NN Mission Marathon was the real test for the Tokyo Olympics. It was good a few months before Tokyo to test our fitness.”

With pandemic-induced cancellations of most mass-participation marathons, Kipchoge’s management team at Global Sports Communication staged this Olympic Qualifying event at the Twente Airport. Contested on a 5K loop around the tarmac, this event was a quick fix a week after the originally planned race in Hamburg was scrapped and forced to relocate across the border.

While the organization sorted out the venue, they could not escape the cold spring weather that has enveloped Europe, and the race went off under gray skies and a brisk 40 degrees (c5C). Not the cold and rain combo that Kipchoge experienced in his 2:06:46 stumble in London, but definitely chilly — and evident in the opening 3K (9:04) as the competitors warmed up at 2:07:31 pace.

With a nudge from the WR holder, pacers Philemon Kacheran and Noah Kipkemboi got after it, rattling off a string of low 2:50 kilos to cross 10K in 29:15, a 2:03:35 pace. Zipping the ensuing 3K in 8:37, the pace dipped to 2:02:54, with only one other competitor, Jonathan Korir, in the lead quartet.

Kipchoge, running in his familiar white kit, arm warmers and hat, ran ever-efficiently, in form reminiscent of his pre-pandemic 2:01:39 WR race at Berlin ’18 and claiming his fourth London title the following April in a CR 2:02:37.

While the eyes saw the Kipchoge of old, the clock began to tell a different story as a 2:55 for the 14th K gave way to a string of high 2:50s. The pace crept over 2:03, and halfway was passed in 61:43.

Doffing his hat and gloves, Kipchoge seemed determined to stop the slide, but neither the weather nor the pace warmed up and the second half of this morning run turned into a cold grind. With only Kacheran left to pace, 25K was crossed in 1:13:17 — 2:03:42 pace — and slipped to 2:04 flat at 30K.

Sans pacer, Korir could only manage another kilometer of accompaniment before falling off the pace. Kipchoge soloed the final 10K in 29:46, slowing a bit but never really struggling. Putting a little zip into the final kilometer he stopped the clock in a world-leading 2:04:30 and noted, “The race was really perfect. It was a bit windy but I have no complaint.”

Korir held on for 2nd in a PR 2:06:40. In total, 15 bettered the 2:11:30 Olympic standard, including 2012 London champ Stephen Kiprotich (2:09:04). Nine women bettered the 2:29:30 Olympic standard with German Katharina Steinruck taking the win in a PR 2:25:59.

Overall, it is hard to say how significant a gauge this was of Kipchoge’s Olympic prospects. The chilly conditions made for tough running, and scant few athletes could crank out a 2:04:30 time-trial effort. While Kipchoge is well accustomed to these staged races, you sensed a motivational void as he circled around the tarmac with no competitor in sight and only the ghosts of decommissioned 747s looking on.

Two years is a long time from his last major win in London and his 10-race winning streak. Only time, and Olympic competition, will tell if we saw the Eliud of old, or an older Kipchoge.