Athletics-Kiptum cruelly denied sub-two dream, but shoes mean it is coming anyway


FILE PHOTO: Athletics - London Marathon - Elite Men Press Conference - London, Britain - April 20, 2023 Kenya's Kelvin Kiptum poses after the press conference ahead of the London Marathon. Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - Only time will tell whether marathoner Kelvin Kiptum was a generational superstar or just the latest hugely talented product of the East African running production line to benefit from shoe technology development that shows no sign of slowing.

Kiptum, 24, died in a traffic accident in his native Kenya on Sunday a week after his incredible Chicago marathon time of two hours and 35 seconds was ratified as a world record, slicing over half a minute off compatriot Eliud Kipchoge's 2:01.09 mark.

His Chicago performance ramped up the speculation about when - rather than the previous if - the sub-two hour mark would be broken in a legal race and though his death seems likely to have delayed the great day, it is unlikely to be for too long.

Kipchoge had blazed the trail in 2019 when he dipped under two hours in Vienna via various aids, principally a phalanx of pacers, that made his 1:59.40 an unofficial mark but nevertheless showed that a legal sub-two was within reach.

Kiptum, whose only three marathons were among the seven fastest in history in his short career, moved things on and with his age profile being young for a marathoner, the prospect of him finding another 36 seconds seemed inevitable.

Cruelly, however, the car crash that also killed his coach not only robbed his family of their loved one, but the athletics world of one of its brightest lights.

The scheduled showdown between the masterful Olympic champion Kipchoge, 39, and the brash new kid on the block already looked like being one of the highlights of this year's Paris Games and a dream marketing opportunity for Nike.

The two men hail from the Rift Valley region of Kenya that has produced a huge proportion of the world's best distance runners over the last 50 years and both were undoubtedly blessed with the extraordinary genes and commitment to training that elevated them to the top of the pile.

What they also had, however, were shoes that, in the simplest terms, enabled them to run far faster than with anything previously available.

The combination of highly-compressed foam and carbon plate came to public consciousness as Kipchoge started racking up big race wins in the shoes in 2015 and the development has continued apace.

MARATHON RECORD

For several years Nike seemed to have the entire sport of distance road running sown up, with their dayglow Vaporfly then Alphafly models routinely sweeping the podiums of all the big races and then filtering down to where the money is - the world's army of amateur runners.

Amid an outcry that "technological doping" was destroying the sport's heritage, the governing body World Athletics belatedly tried to slow the development but the genie was out of the bottle and its height and carbon restrictions have had negligible impact.

Unsurprisingly, rival manufacturing giants soon caught up and last year Ethiopia's Tigst Assefa astonishingly took well over two minutes off the women's marathon record in Berlin with 2:11.53 - wearing light-as-a-feather $500 Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 shoes.

Adidas was able to bask in the limelight for all of two weeks, however, as Kiptum ran his incredible world record in yet another Nike prototype, the Alphafly 3, also worn by women's Chicago champion Sifan Hassan as she took almost five minutes off her personal best with the second-fastest women's time ever of 2:13.44.

With the model newly available in shops to running mortals prepared to part with nearly $300, if they can find a pair, it is easy to see why the shoe companies continue to invest extraordinary amounts in development.

Last December, Nike CEO John Donahoe touted Kiptum's record-setting run and described the company's road racing shoes as the "pinnacle" of its running business.

The Alphafly 3 is currently sold out on Nike's website, with restocks not expected until early April.

The sub-two marathon was never likely to happen at this year's Paris Olympics, where a sub-optimal course for times and racing tactics work against consistent pacing, but it will come along soon.

Kiptum's premature death seems likely to delay the inevitable but in the not-too-distant future his place in the marathon firmament could well be reduced to a footnote of being the last world record holder of the two-hour era.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, additional reporting by Kate Masters, editing by Ken Ferris)

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