On October 12, 2019, Eliud Kipchoge did something that no other person on earth had ever been recorded when he ran the 42-km Vienna City Marathon in just under two hours. A benchmark that at one time was thought to be physically impossible, the run from the Kenyan long-distance specialist was at once a product of singular determination and as Kipchoge would be the first to admit, a team effort, extending from the long line of African athletes that have excelled at marathons to the trainers, teammates and scientists that helped him achieve peak performance.
It is with that in mind that Jake Scott crafted “Kipchoge: The Last Milestone,” inevitably titled after the man of the hour, but following his humble lead in acknowledging all the people who are involved every step of the way. Kipchoge, who recently could be seen winning a gold medal in Tokyo, had been compelled to race in Vienna by the chemical conglomerate Ineos, which had set the 1:59 Challenge with the aim of optimizing the runner’s full potential, allowing him teams of pacemakers comprised of fellow Kenyans to run with and eliminating traditional distractions like hydration detours. The accommodations may have deprived of Kipchoge of an official world record, but still his fleet feet are remarkable to watch in motion and Scott manages to keep up and then some, employing the race to show where his own unique mentality and scientific innovation has met to shape a runner unlike any the world has ever seen before when everything from muscle control to water intake can be scrutinized and subject to reconsideration.
“The Last Milestone” grows into a bit of a misnomer when as difficult as Kipchoge’s efforts will be to surpass, there are future generations of Kenyans right behind him, and Scott, criss-crossing between the Kaptogat Training Camp where Kipchoge prepares for the race and the finish line in Austria, captures the energy that he runs with and the inspiration he provides, taking pain and turning it into fuel. With the film available to rent on Amazon in the States and a number of other digital services globally, Scott spoke about what sold him on making his first documentary after recent dramas such as “Welcome to the Rileys” and “American Woman,” as well as how the story transcended a single race and all the prep required to capture it in all its glory.
This seems radically different than anything you’ve done before. How did this come about?
I was asked to come to a meeting at INEOS to hear about this project they were doing with a guy called Eilud Kipchoge and in the meeting, I’m going, “This is really interesting.” I was there to represent my company as a producer and I [thought], “Well, we need to get the best documentary director out there” and I thought Kevin Macdonald would be good, so I asked him to do it and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and he went off to start shooting. But very shortly after, Kevin had to step away because [another] film he had been prepping was suddenly greenlit, so he had to drop it. I was the only director available at that moment, so I jumped on it because I’d never done a documentary and I really was fascinated by Eliud. I really, really wanted to know more myself and I’d never done a documentary, so why not? You can learn on the job and it’s a great opportunity and I’m glad I did.
Was this always set around Vienna and one race?
The story was more than Vienna because I felt that if it was just about sport, we were missing a trick. This is about a human being who has a message that he applies to every aspect of his life and he means it as something that one can apply to every aspect of their life, so it’s a great mantra to have, really saying we can achieve anything we put our mind to. He already holds the world record, so the film to me was an opportunity to really go into a remarkable human being’s mindset, thought processes and disciplines and Socrates said, “Know Thyself,” and it’s a corny thing to use, but to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom and I think Eliud embodies that idea. But [while] he’s so charismatic and really compelling, he’s very quiet and very careful with his words. In his own words, You can see it in his style of running, you can see it in his expression, you can see it in the way he holds himself — I live a simple life and I’m honest, I don’t go for drama — and I think it was just a really fascinating thing to document.
You end up speaking to dozens of people for this, and I can’t imagine you thought you’d be talking to a professor of evolutionary biology, for instance?
There’s so much literature on running already, and I did a lot of research and realized there was a huge amount of science involved in this. It is fascinating to look at the dominance of African runners in athletics and to understand why this particular area, this particular region produces such great long distance runners and that led me to Oxford University and University of Brighton and some controversial and contentious viewpoints — things I don’t necessarily agree with, but I also thought it was important to show the opposing points of view. I didn’t want to avoid the technical doping or the shoe — I wanted to go at that a little bit, though it wasn’t about that. I concluded personally what makes the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate so much is they train harder than anybody else. They approach it in a system of living that’s almost acetic, you could liken the training camp to a monastery, and there’s a lot of self-sacrifice, a lot of physical and personal discipline and a lot of rest. But they train so hard and it’s unbelievable when you see it. That’s the secret. It’s actually called hard work.
What was it like going to the Kaptogat training camp?
I wouldn’t just say it’s one of the high points of the film, I would say it’s one of the high points of my entire career and life to have that opportunity — you’re right on the edge of the Rift Valley, in the highlands above and human history is thought to have started there. It’s the crucible of life, so on that level, it was just mind-blowing and the Kalenjin that live up there are incredible people, and it’s very rural. It’s a farming community and running is a way of life and they’re up above the clouds and it came across as something that had this quasi-religious quality. And like Eliud says, it’s an opportunity to transcend, but it’s also a vocation and it’s how you feed your family. [Kipchoge’s coach] Patrick Sang says it too, this also comes from necessity – it changes lives, but this keeps food on the table. I was really floored by that.
What was it like to engage the community? You got those great scenes in the film of first the young boy running through the village, but then there’s an entire landslide of kids you show at one point coming over the mountains.
I was actually in Vienna when that was shot, but I have a friend, a British filmmaker named Adrian Moat who I sent there to cover the crowds when they were watching [the race] in Eldoret and I wanted him to go shoot children running. I shot the boy running [earlier], but it was the same location, and I said, “Go and find a kid…” because I wanted him to shoot that story of the boy running and he went to the school and all the kids turned up at the school wanting to be the kid, so he just said, “Look, why don’t I shoot them all running? They all want to run.” [laughs] I said, “Do it!” He’s got a good eye and it’s just magic, that, and I thought that really embodies after all this money and research and development, I really wanted to take the story back to Kenya. In my mind the road in Vienna always led to Kenya and the road in Kenya led to Vienna, and the two were connected. To me that shot is a river of hope and of joy and exuberance and living and I just thought, my God, that shot embodies everything this film is about, so I think it’s my favorite shot in the film and I didn’t shoot it. [laughs]
It looked like you might’ve actually shot the race in Vienna and retraced the steps afterwards to make sense of it with the 1:59 Challenge team. Was that actually what happened?
No, that’s not how it laid out actually. They had a rehearsal week in August 2019 and during that rehearsal weekend, I was able to meet all the personnel or what they call the performance team – not Eliud, who wasn’t there, but some of the pacemakers. That led me to think in the week preceding the event itself in October this is the perfect opportunity to get them in anticipation of the event when all the focus was on the event itself and that’s when I got access to [INEOS Athlete Managers] Robby Ketchell and Valentijn Trouw and [long-distance runner] Jos Hermens and all the performance team who were really open and great to talk to. [INEOS coach] Dave Brailsford I interviewed when he was training with the cycling team in Mallorca. A lot of the science stuff was covered in Vienna before.
What’s it like to watch a race with Eliud now, knowing all that goes into it?
Watching him in Japan [at the Olympics recently], I was riveted to it and in understanding him more, I could watch it and have an insight. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to run in that heat — apparently, it was sweltering, and his time reflects how difficult it must’ve been because it was four minutes slower than Vienna, so it also helped me understand how all of that science and all of that incredible staging of that event in Vienna really provided him, as Victor Chumo says, with the perfect storm of conditions — the pacemaker formation, the temperature, the humidity, the trees — every detail was considered and it’s what got him over the line in 1:59. And what I love about him [is he doesn’t say] “I hold the world record for the fastest time run in a marathon,” [but] “I just wanted to show proof a man could run in under two hours.”