It is a measure of Eliud Kipchoge’s mastery that his name can sum up everything important about a major race. Kipchoge: The word means epoch-making excellence, it means a unique combination of record-breaking pace and tactical versatility, it means adaptability to conditions and competition, it means deep understanding of the science of training and the practice of racing, it means one of the most wise and intelligent men ever to be sports star, it means the world record, the Olympic gold medal, winning ten out of eleven major marathons, not coming close to defeat since 2013, and having a PR 1min 18sec faster than anyone else in history.

Most astonishing, it means never having failed at the marathon. Kipchoge’s only loss was in his second marathon, as runner-up to Wilson Kipsang’s world record, breaking his own PR by a minute in 2:04:05: hardly failure. In racing action and in conversation, Kipchoge makes you realize what the ancient Greeks meant by a demigod.

Will his time at the top end? Inevitably. Abebe Bikila was hobbled by a stress fracture at his third Olympics. Haile Gebrselassie limped off the New York course in 2010, and openly wept at the media conference because he knew the end had come. Will that time come for Kipchoge on Sunday?

Highly unlikely.

We might think that a man of 34 who has been racing hard since he won the world championship 5000m at eighteen, has run peak marathons for six years, and who subjected himself to the extreme stress of 2:00:25 in the “Breaking Two” project time-trial in 2017, must soon begin to decline. But Kipchoge’s last race, at Berlin last September, was a PR by almost two minutes. The world record, 2:01:39 (it seems presumptuous even to type those figures), was run on a hot day, run in great part alone, after his pacers were fried soon after halfway. He cavorted like a roguish kid after the finish line, and cracked jokes at the media conference. That didn’t look like decline.

It’s always worth listening to Kipchoge himself. He tells it straight.

“I am coming to London to win the race and defend my title. If I can win again in London, I will be a happy man because it is my first race after running the world record. London is crucial to my career. I’m coming here to try to win the race but the world record is out of my mind right now,” Kipchoge said in London Wednesday.

For the last two years, he has also said consistently that he wants to defend his Olympic title in 2020. An informed historian, he knows that to align himself with Bikila (1960, 1964) as the only double Olympic marathon gold medalist (excluding the drugs-tainted Waldemar Cierpinski) is the surest way to legendary status, unless he can break two hours. He is likely to see Sunday mainly as a stepping stone to Tokyo.

With any other defending champion, London’s stellar field of challengers would have us anticipating a classic. The Brits are optimistically promoting the race as a match-up between Kipchoge and their adored Mo Farah, superlative for a decade on the track (four Olympic, six world gold medals), and an impressive winner at the Chicago marathon last October in a European record 2:05:11. The publicity photos show Kipchoge and Farah forehead to forehead.

Eliud Kipchoge and Mo Farah
Eliud Kipchoge KEN and Sir Mo Farah GBR. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 24 April 2018.
Photo: Bob Martin for Virgin Money London Marathon

Three factors count against that tennis-final interpretation. One, Farah seems to be having a more fervid head-to-head with Gebrselassie, trading embarrassingly public accusations of theft, assault, and misconduct during a stay in Gebrselassie’s Addis hotel. It does not sound calming three days before a big race.

Two, Farah’s 2:05:11 looked good at Chicago, but Kipchoge’s three London wins have all been much faster, and the last time he won in a time outside 2:05 was in the steamy hot Rio Olympics. Kipchoge praised Farah’s Chicago win as “tactical,” and for learning the marathon so quickly. Both could be interpreted as encouragement from the master.

Three, Shura Kitata (2:04:49), Tamirat Tola (2:04:06) and Mosnet Geremew (2:04:00) don’t buy into the Farah v Kipchoge script. Kitata beat Farah for second place in London last year, and went dramatically close to winning New York in November, in 2:06:01, the third-fastest ever on New York’s challenging course. And Geremew has podium places in Chicago and Berlin as well as his super-fast Dubai PR.

Finally, Wilson Kipsang is back, the only man ever to beat Kipchoge in a marathon. Kipsang, 37, six years on from his world record 2:03:23, has looked a little in decline for the last two years; but decline is relative, he knows how to get the best from himself, and he almost always makes the podium.

With Kipchoge seemingly still the name that says it all, the podium is most likely the best any of the others can hope for.