NO EVENT in athletics holds quite the same mystic or iconic status as the marathon.
The very first marathon commemorated the run of Pheidippides, who ran from a battlefield near Marathon in Greece to Athens in 490BC to announce the defeat of the Persians before promptly collapsing and dying.
Around 2,500 years later the idea of recreating a long-distance test was revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – the founder of the Modern Olympics.
Keen to retain the spirit of Pheidippides, a 40km marathon was held at the first Modern Games in Athens in 1896 as Greek water-carrier Spyridon Louis struck gold in a time of 2:58:50 to launch the marathon phenomenon.
The inaugural marathon proved so popular that one year later the Boston Marathon – the oldest annual marathon – was created.
Yet it was perhaps the marathon race at the 1908 London Olympics, which most significantly defined the marathon we know today.
The length of the 1908 London Marathon – from Windsor Castle to the White City Stadium – was initially fixed at 26 miles.
But, a late request from The Queen to move the start back to the East Lawn of Windsor Castle, from where the race could be seen by the royal children in their nursery, added a further 385 yards (352 metres) and so the official marathon distance was born.
The 1908 Olympic marathon is also remembered as one of the most iconic in history.
Italian Dorando Pietri entered the stadium first only to collapse near the finish.
He was helped over the finish line by a British official, but disqualified for achieving assistance.
The gold was awarded to American runner-up Johnny Hayes.
However, such was the public’s outpouring of sympathy for Pietri that he was awarded a special medal from the Queen.
NO ONE should underestimate just what it will take for Eliud Kipchoge to run 26 miles and 385 yards in 1:59:59.
Anyone, who has ever run a marathon, knows that.
British journalist Ed Caesar said that included professional athletes.
“Geoffrey Mutai’s prayer at the start line was not to win the race, but to finish it,” he said.
The body of a marathoner is believed to be burning so much fuel that it becomes a furnace on the move. Nothing but your own body will sustain you and there’s no charging station.
But that doesn’t stop the hordes of ordinary people who are drawn to test themselves to the limit every year by running a marathon alongside the world’s elite.
And every year the world’s best have been getting faster.
In 1988 Ethiopian Belayneh Densamo set a world record by running the Rotterdam marathon in 2:06:50.
Today Eliud holds the record as the fastest marathon runner, having completed the Berlin marathon in 2:01:39.
In his book, Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, Ed describes the sub-two hour marathon as ‘running’s Everest’.
“It is a feat once seen as impossible for the human body, but now we can glimpse the mountain top,” he wrote.
He believes it will require an exceptional feat of speed, mental strength and endurance.
“The pioneer will have to endure more, live braver, plan better, and be luckier than his forbearers,” he said. “So who is he?”
The team behind the INEOS 1:59 Challenge believe ‘he’ is Eliud Kipchoge. A 34-year-old Kenyan farmer who started running on a dirt track at 16.
And it’s with good reason. For Eliud believes he can do it too.
Tim Noakes, a retired South African professor who has run more than 70 marathons and ultra-marathons, said studies had shown that the brain controlled the muscles and the mind would be the greatest hurdle to breaking the two-hour barrier.
“You have to convince the brain it is possible‚” he said.
Eliud – and the team around him – have already cleared that hurdle.
“I have visualised it,” said Eliud. “I have put it in my heart and my mind that I will break the two-hour barrier.”
Today he will put Professor Noakes’ theory to the test of a lifetime.