In search of the defining moment
Editor's Note: The majority of the images used throughout this piece come from Dan Vernon and Zach Hetrick, two of the most accomplished marathon photographers in the world. We give thanks to them for sharing this work, and also to NN Running Team for allowing Dan's images to be presented here. I hope you'll agree that these incredible images do justice to the beautifully written story you're about to read.
Some of the most exhilarating seconds of being alive inhabit the moments that cause us to hold our breath – especially in sports. Think about it. Awaiting the arrival of a buzzer beater into a limply woven basket. Clenching a fist bound for the sky after a dented ball rolls safely into an underground grave. Witnessing a leather oval spiral through the air, with the namesake of a catholic prayer, searching for the hands of a numbered giant. These pivotal seconds in sports handcuff our existence into one final inhalation, where life before their outcome ceases to endure.
In the London Marathon, that moment is 200 meters from the finish line. One blind curve is the final turn of its runner’s illustrious 42.195km story destined for the end of the Queen’s driveway. But for the readers on the sidelines, this is the moment where they meet their protagonist. This is the one moment of the race where breath is in captivity, where a face emerges victorious and where life after the outcome happens. It’s supposed to only last a moment. One simple inhalation. One isolated snapshot. However, on April 28, 2019, I was holding my breath long before that.
These pivotal seconds in sports handcuff our existence into one final inhalation, where life before their outcome ceases to endure. In the London Marathon, that moment is 200 meters from the finish line.
Eliud Kipchoge is the fastest marathoner on the planet. His commitment to success is as incomprehensible as his rate of it across the marathon distance. In the many times he has covered the space from start to finish, only once has he fallen slightly shy of the color gold. Every other time, the man has delighted all but his brave contenders in what can best be described as a beautiful race (in Kipchoge terms, that’s defined as: complete awe-inspiring annihilation of the field over the distance). When it came time for the London Marathon in April of 2019 – the confidence I had for this treasured athletics hero remained unshaken. No one could defeat him, not even his own shadow with the sun on his heels. His face would be the only one to emerge victorious around that final turn, right?
The architectural symphony conducted by Barden and Brasher annually reveals itself to be irresponsibly harmonious. The maestros of the meeting and its contestants have the perfect storm on their side. The course, expeditious. The conditions, encouraging. The cash, enviable. The cast, embarrassingly exquisite. So, with that, the 2019 script was set for a perfect production. A perfect final turn. You had a fast course on a brisk spring morning acting as a canvas for a man indefinitely betrothed to the top of the podium. The field was strong and resilient; however, there was no clear contender to scratch the nearly unblemished reputation of the current world record holder.
Everything was fine. I, myself, sat in the finish tent, generously offering my unwarranted thoughts on the result to anyone within earshot. Eliud wins, everyone else follows. Easy. Well, I had one hour, twenty-seven minutes and three seconds of that elusive calm and ethereal confidence, until all at once and all too early…inhale.
1:27:04 (30k) into the race, my heart rate was flailing, my hands were caving indentions into my cheeks and my sense of understanding was unequivocally lost. Anxiety and confusion were suffocating me on the inside, but to those crowded around me, it respired like trivial nonsense. What is wrong with you, they would ask. Why are you freaking out? I didn’t know how to explain to them a place I had never been, so as I peered through stretched fingers that had established residency across my face, I muttered the only words I could get to escape from behind them: What are they still doing there?
Rarely does Eliud’s shadow contain the beating heart of another man in the final kilometers of a marathon. But that day, with only a few to go, he had three. Three men, brave enough to challenge the implausible strength and speed of the greatest there ever was, gripped his heels for a chance. A chance to dethrone royalty and earn the coveted crown built for the head of another. But right there was Eliud, as stoic and calm as ever. Each stride more humbling than the next. Blamelessly dispensing speed like breath. Nothing about him looked anything short of poetic. What are they still doing there?
There weren’t hours to be found, only minutes. Each lasting a lifetime longer than the one before it. The clock drooled insensitively in the corners of my eyes. Each glance at it relinquishing fear from them like prayers. Is this it? Is this where Cinderella tells her story? Is this where the dog comes out from under wherever he was? Is this truly where the marathon’s divinest protagonist trips on a plot twist?
Someone once wrote that in order to achieve great things, two things are needed - a plan, and not quite enough time. That fabled morning in London, Eliud proved that he always had one and that not quite enough time was still plenty. In the next few kilometers, he would bury the hopes of those clinging to his elusive talent and create the inevitable separation of space between medals. The crowd gathered by the thousands along the final stretch of road and waited for their protagonist to appear from the beyond the bend. The clock mouthed 2:02:07 and it happened…inhale. It could be missed in a blink, but all at once, for one moment, the city held its breath and life after the outcome began. The visibility of Eliud was followed by an eruption of selfish congratulations. You could hear it everywhere.
Someone once wrote that in order to achieve great things, two things are needed - a plan, and not quite enough time. That fabled morning in London, Eliud proved that he always had one and that not quite enough time was still plenty.
I knew he would win! I never doubted him for a second! No one else stood a chance! King Kipchoge can’t be beat! Each exclamation as shaky as the other. Because even with the guarantee of his victory 30 seconds later, there still had once existed a blur in that final photo. That one inhale was exhaustive and deep, for it brought with it the emotional abnormalities of the moments before it. The ones that opened our lungs to a colossal width, preparing them for the desperate sigh of relief on the other side of the incoming reality. That’s the thing about these final moments, the ones that make you hold your breath. They give us one final chance to live all together in the life as we knew it, the life before the outcome.
So here we are in this new lifetime. The one where Eliud is the proprietor of 8 world major marathon victories. The numbness that I had felt surrounding the possibility of his tally living at the number 7 had been left behind in yesterday, and breathing had returned to a mindless melody. Months had fast forwarded, Eliud had run into a new realm of understanding in a staggering 1:59:40, and the gentle hum of the world’s confidence in him returned to a steady purr. But then, January 17th happened.
Kenenisa Bekele to take on Eliud Kipchoge at London Marathon 2020, read the headline that day. Arguably the most notorious adversaries in the world of athletics had been called to bring an old famed rivalry back to life. The inconsistencies of Bekele’s career in the marathon could debate the need for a labored breath at this headline; however, just a few months prior in Berlin, he had come within two seconds of Eliud’s documented world record (2:01:39), in one of the most dominant performances the marathon had ever seen. This was it. This was the guy. This was the race of the century. This was the moment that could launch us swiftly into our next lifetime, even though we just got here.
Over the next few weeks, race organizers would challenge their audience to build that picture. That one of the final curve. That one that would forever be the cause of death of last year’s London. That one that would symptomize the emotional disruption of that steady purr. Lovers of the marathon and of these two extraordinary protagonists, dreamt of that photo. Dreamt of that one sharp inhale. Dreamt of that outcome. I, myself, cowered from dreaming, in fear of an incoming nightmare. I had already lived through my worst one just one year before. For 35 minutes and 3 seconds, I wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t imagine that lasting one second longer. And then, March 13th happened.
This was it. This was the guy. This was the race of the century. This was the moment that could launch us swiftly into our next lifetime, even though we just got here.
The 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon has been postponed and is now scheduled to take place on Sunday 4 October 2020, read the headline that day. As no strangers to the damaging effects of the newly discovered COVID-19 virus infecting the well-being of our world, the collapse of gatherings, social interactions and sport competition crumbled to oblivion at its feet. These moments of bated breath, that once deafened sport, were hidden away. These eminent photos of our anticipative outcomes were corrupted. The life we are in, remains. The intangibility of our dreams are all we have to hold onto. The outcome of two ferocious lions, battling across 42.195km, escaped from the present. The moment where a bend in the road could manifest into a bend in the truth of the marathon as we know it, would remain fictitious. The moment where the bricks of the royal mall beckon a victor to its surface would remain a distant whirr. The moment, on April 26, 2020, of a valiant face appearing from 200m away would now, instead, become that moment…the one that never happened.