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Kipchoge, the monastic marathon man, aims for the moon

AFP

Nairobi (AFP) -

As he prepares for more assaults on the peaks of marathon running, Eliud Kipchoge stays true to an austere lifestyle despite his fame and fortune.

The Kenyan superstar, who holds the marathon world record and is reigning Olympic champion, hopes to become the first man to run the 42.195 kilometres in under two hours on Saturday in Vienna.

Despite his status and wealth, the 2018 world athlete of the year leads a monastic existence at a spartan running camp in Kenya's Rift Valley.

With the 30 or so runners living at the camp, Kipchoge sets off at dawn for the first of two daily training sessions. 

The rest of his time is spent resting, reading and eating, with a focus on simple Kenyan food staples. 

"I don't think I am different. I am trying my best to live a modest life," he said.

"I am a simple person, I try to stay calm and focus on what I do. There are no distractions."

The special event in Vienna, sponsored by British conglomerate Ineos, has been given a catchy marketing title: the "1:h59 Challenge".

Kipchoge, 34, went close to breaking the two-hour barrier when he was 25 seconds too slow in another staged run, at Italy's Monza race circuit in 2017. 

That time was not sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) because a vehicle and a squad of pacemakers aided Kipchoge in controlling his speed.

The same conditions will prevail for the Vienna attempt, preventing any potential world record from being validated.

- 'Landing on the moon' -

"This is about history," he said. "It's about leaving a legacy. It's about inspiring people," he said of the Vienna event.

"My main message to the 7.5 billion people in the world is that no human is limited.

"Breaking the two-hour marathon barrier would be like man landing on the moon," he said. He added that it would "show to the world that when you focus on your goal, when you work hard and when you believe in yourself, anything is possible."

Kipchoge was born in Kapsisiywa, Nandi County in western Kenya. 

At 18 he beat two legendary runners, the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj and Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele, to became 5,000 metre world champion in Paris in 2003 

In 2012, after failing to qualify for the London Olympics, Kipchoge switched to marathon running. 

With his compact silhouette and unwavering stride as the miles tick by, Kipchoge is perfectly suited to the longer distance. 

Out of 12 marathons, he has lost just once: in his 2013 debut in Berlin, against compatriot Wilson Kipsang, who broke the world record that day. 

Kipchoge set his world record, 2hr 1min 39sec, in the Berlin race in 2018.

He had met coach Patrick Sang in 2001 and joined the fabled running stable in the foothills of the Rift Valley a year later.

- 'Sense of sacrifice' -

Kipchoge enjoys no privileges at the Kaptagat camp where he is nicknamed the "philosopher" for his love of reading. The camp is a few hours' walk from his home village, Eldoret. On weekends, he returns to his family.

Coach Sang, an Olympic runner-up in the 3,000m steeplechase in 1992, remains impressed with his student's determination.

"He has continued to amaze me with his self-sacrifice and dedication. He has given 100 percent of his ability and total commitment to what he does," he told AFP.

The champion's often mischievous gaze hardens when the subject of doping arises. Kipchoge has never been caught up in scandal, but the reputation of his Kenyan compatriots has raised questions. 

Kipchoge, who will defend his Olympic title in Tokyo next year, is fixated on Saturday's challenge.

"I have visualised it. I have put it in my heart and my mind that I will break the two-hour barrier," he said.