Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya leads the New York City Marathon on November 3, 2013. Photo: Emmanual Dunand/AFP
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Will there ever be a marathon time under two hours?

Ed Caesar's new book asks if the record is breakable - and who could break it.

Two Hours: the Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon
Ed Caesar
Viking, 256pp, £16.99

The problem with most books about running is that they run out of steam. What is there to say about the act of putting one foot in front of the other at a pace faster than walking? That doesn’t deter many people. I have read books about running like a girl (Alexandra Heminsley), running with Kenyans (Adharanand Finn), running with your feet in the clouds (Richard Askwith). I’ve read about the philosophy of running (Mark Rowlands) and how to run like a Tarahumara Indian (Christopher McDougall), or with chi in your feet (Danny Dreyer). I’ve yet to read about how to run like a butterfly and sting like a bee but I would if someone wrote a book on it.

Most, however, struggle to make the experience of reading their books unlike running a marathon, which – as the tens of thousands of Britons who run them know – is a 20-mile warm-up followed by the hardest six miles of your life. Now here is the journalist Ed Caesar with Two Hours, his first book. Two is the magic number in modern marathon science, because the current world record, set by Dennis Kimetto in Berlin last year, is two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds.

Kimetto is Kenyan. Aren’t all the top runners? At any marathon start line, there will be a “parade of gaunt, lithe black men with low numbers on their vests, arrayed in the lurid uniforms of shoe companies”. At the finish line, “The chances are the victor will react the same, whoever he is. Confronted by a white man with a microphone and a television camera, he will give thanks to God in a voice so gentle it would not snuff a candle placed by his mouth, thank the organisers of the race, and then return home to spend his winnings.” These are exceptional men with “names that are as good as indistinguishable, their stories mysterious”. That is, except to the “tiny cadre of obsessives” who follow marathons – tiny, even in this golden age of popular running, when there are more than 500 marathons every year worldwide.

The modern marathon may seem streamlined and professional and it is. Yet it has a history of delightful eccentricity. It was predated by endurance races in which rich men’s servants ran for money. The standard distance was 25 miles but the biggest events “lasted as long as six days, over hundreds of miles, and took place in packed, smoke-filled halls, for huge cash prizes – and were guarded by dozens of policemen to stop bettors from interfering with the athletes”.

The official marathon was launched in 1896 at the Athens Olympics, the 25-mile distance based on the probably fictitious story of Pheidippides’s sprint from Marathon to Athens. Only at the 1908 London Olympics did the marathon acquire its peculiar distance of 26 miles and 385 yards, as the organisers wanted the Crown’s approval by having it begin at Windsor Castle and finish under the royal box in White City Stadium, with a final lap of the track for the royals.

The Kenyans haven’t always ruled the marathon. The Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie is considered the best in modern history. The Czech Emil Zátopek, despite running like “a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt”, won the 5,000-metre, 10,000-metre and marathon distances in three days in the 1952 Olympics. I’m also fond of Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian army captain who was the favourite to win the 1968 Mexico City Olympic marathon. After running ten miles with an injury, he chose to quit but first addressed a fellow Ethiopian competitor, Mamo Wolde. This, according to the American runner Kenny Moore, is what was said:

“Lieutenant Wolde.”

“Captain Bikila.”

“I’m not finishing this race.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“But lieutenant, you will win this race.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“Don’t let me down.”

And the lieutenant didn’t.

Caesar’s hero is Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai, another astonishing Kenyan from the Kalenjin tribe in the Rift Valley, which has produced the majority of elite Kenyan runners. In 2011, Kenyans won all five World Marathon Majors – Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York – each setting a course record. Mutai won in Boston in two hours, three minutes and two seconds, a world record time that was (probably unfairly) not counted as such because of Boston’s course and a tailwind.

The young Geoffrey grew up without shoes and with “manifold pressures”. He was poor; his father was violent and Mutai found solace with his grandparents and by running. Many of the greatest marathoners “carry with them the heavy reckoning of wretched childhoods”.

The book opens with Mutai on the start line of the 2012 Berlin Marathon. If he wins, he could take €40,000 for first place, €80,000 in time bonuses (€30,000 for a course record, €50,000 for a world record), plus a possible $500,000 for winning the World Marathon Majors prize. Mutai is a runner but he is also a local economy, supporting his family, his supporters and younger runners. Above all, he is an athlete who can run for over two hours at a speed that most of us can’t sustain for half a mile.

For most of us, the pace of these runners is sprinting. What Caesar wants to know is whether they can go even faster, shaving off 177 seconds from their marathon time. Only 177 seconds, the length of “a pop song; a long commercial break; the time it takes to soft-boil a small egg”. The question of whether this can be done, he writes, is also a dream and a science and something that can be answered only by running through history and philosophy, too. This is a book about numbers but it’s also about effort and endurance and limits. It is human to progress, so despite the premise of Caesar’s book, the 177 seconds are not the most interesting thing about his story. Someone will achieve it – and soon. Hopefully, without drugs.

Early on, we are introduced to the city of Eldoret, a centre of Kenyan distance running, where you can buy “knock-off Chinese car parts and synthetic erythropoietin – the hormone that boosts red blood cell production and has been at the centre of recent doping scandals”. The disgraced Kenyan Mathew Kisorio, who tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid in 2012, ended an Elysian time when people joked that the only things Kenyans tested positive for was ugali, the maize porridge. Two unnamed Kenyan athletes say, in their country, “There were so many bad doctors you can’t count them.” They scoff at Caesar when he expresses surprise that they think anyone who can run a marathon in under two hours and ten minutes is doping. “You think you can run two-oh-three, only with blood?”

How pertinent this is, after a recent Panorama documentary accused Alberto Salazar – who coaches top athletes including Mo Farah – of doping. (Salazar denies any wrongdoing.) Caesar quotes his 1999 speech in which he said, “It is currently difficult to be among the top five in the world in any of the distance events without using EPO or human growth hormone.” He also quotes a 2013 Wall Street Journal report that found that many of Salazar’s athletes were being treated by the same doctor for hypothyroidism. Neither Caesar nor Panorama know what advantage thyroid drugs would give; that so many athletes seem to have the same condition, however, is certainly disturbing.

It’s depressing to think that humans who stun and thrill us with their physiological abilities are doing so with chemical help. I write “humans” but I mean “men”. Women are rarely mentioned in this book – not even Paula Radcliffe or Mary Keitany – despite a polite acknowledgement that if someone breaks two hours, “he or she” will come from the Rift Valley.

Mutai is a likeable hero (and there is no suggestion that Mutai has ever taken drugs) and I’m glad that Caesar finishes on him and his attempt to beat his Boston record. Mutai talks of the “spirit”: a feeling he gets when everything works, when he runs with force and grace. There is much spirit in Two Hours and much human warmth. You may need a break at the 20th mile but take it and keep going. It will be worth it. 

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Matt Cardy
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The real Cornwall: a county poorer than Lithuania and Hungary

Food banks, domestic abuse and poverty in David Cameron's favourite holiday destination. 

At 10am Redruth is a quiet place, its narrow streets bereft of life. The food bank is different.

Dave, a former soldier, waited a week to notify the Department for Work and Pensions about moving in with his partner. His benefits were suspended, and, until they are restored, Dave has had to resort to picking up food parcels here. “I wouldn’t turn to crime but some people have no alternative. I don’t really know how I’d survive without this,” he says. “You know what they say about Redruth? It used to be the richest part of Cornwall and now it’s the poorest.”

Dave’s story is not unusual. In December, 2,095 people used Redruth’s food bank – a record high. "Seventy per cent of the people here are one pay packet away from poverty," says Mike, who works in the food bank.

Debt and benefit delays or sanctions are particularly common reasons for people to use the food banks at Redruth or Camborne, which is three miles away. A new food bank is about to open in Pool, situated halfway between the two, because “clients found it difficult to fund the bus into Camborne or Redruth”, explains Dom Gardner, who runs the food banks. When he opened the food banks six years ago, he envisaged they would only have a life as a crisis service for two years.

Only 40 miles away lies Polzeath, where David Cameron has holidayed every summer since 2010. Yet while the Prime Minister enjoys Cornwall’s alluring beaches, the scene in Redruth provides a better reflection of the county today. Cornwall is England's poorest county. If it were a country, it would be poorer than Lithuania and Hungary.

The constituency that includes the two small towns of Camborne and Redruth is Cornwall's largest urban area. It has been “shunned by the professional classes, and has poor educational attainment and low aspirations”, says Oliver Baines, the chief executive of the charity Cornwall Foundation.

“I always hate it when Camborne and Redruth become the butt of jokes, which does happen. I find that very annoying,” George Eustice, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, tells me. “It’s a low wage economy – a lot of people are on the minimum wage.”

Trevor Chalker, the mayor of Camborne, observes: “For many people, 50 per cent of their earnings are going just to put a roof over their head before they buy food.”

Such strains feed into wider problems, including domestic abuse. “The Camborne, Pool and Redruth areas have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country and this may be the cause of the high levels of domestic violence,” says Sally Piper, the chief executive of Skoodhya Limited, a Cornish charity tackling domestic abuse.

Eustice adds: “Some primary schools tell me that up to 40 per cent of children in their schools have some kind of intervention from the social services or local authority.”

When I visit Camborne, one part of the town is heaving with activity: the local Wetherspoons. It is a Tuesday evening, which, as one couple tells their children as they arrive, means only one thing: “steak night”. The pub was only opened in 2011 – “a sort of vote in the confidence in the town”, Eustice says – and over 100 people are crammed in to enjoy the food and selection of ciders.

This branch of Wetherspoons has made an effort to be more homely than most: on the walls hang old photos of the area. These pictures have taken on a rather nostalgic quality, documenting the area’s descent from its position as an international mining hub. Between 1820 and 1840, an area of land near Redruth produced so much copper that it was known as "the richest square mile in the old world". And in the late nineteenth century, Cornwall produced 80 per cent of the world’s copper. Until the last tin mine closed in 1998, they provided jobs-for-life for those who wanted them. Now all that is left is the area’s status as a mining world heritage site.

Romanticising the hard lives of miners should be avoided. Indeed, when I meet Eustice in the Wetherspoons, he is greeted by an ex-miner pursuing a compensation claim into damage he suffered working in the mines. Yet mining gave this part of west Cornwall an identity and provided work for thousands who did not go down to the mines.

A two-minute walk from Camborne station, past a rather unkempt overpass, lies the barren old home of CompAir Holman, a mining and equipment company that once employed around 3,000 people in the area.

“I remember as a lad 90 per cent of students after college would go into work allied to the mining industry,” reflects Chalker, who went to Camborne Engineering College. He likens the impact of the collapse of mining to “Canary Wharf disappearing overnight in London”.

The secure jobs lost have never been replaced. Today, as in Cornwall generally, Camborne and Redruth’s problem is less one of unemployment but underemployment – a large proportion of people are engaged in low-skill or part-time work, such as in agriculture or the declining fishing industry, which is often seasonal too. What has happened is “definitely relative decline”, Eustice says. “Confidence was broken when the mining industries went in the Eighties and it's been difficult to get that back.”

Yet there is a sense that no one has quite noticed: the image of Cornwall as the charming seaside duchy is not eroded easily. It is true that considerable sums have been invested in regenerating Cornwall since the collapse of the mining industry, including by the EU, but basic symptoms of neglect remain: the 95 miles from Exeter to Camborne take over two and a half hours by train.

The modern world has not been Cornwall’s friend: the proliferation of low-cost flying means that families who would once have spent their summers in Cornwall often now travel to France or Spain instead. Meanwhile, many of the county’s most talented and ambitious young people move away. “Lots of people who go to university tend to stay away,” Chalker laments. “What is there to come back for?”

Perhaps the internet will provide one answer. About 95 per cent of properties in Cornwall are now able to access fibre-optic superfast broadband, after funding from BT, the EU and Cornwall Council. The hope is this broadband will make Cornwall into a tech hub.

“It breaks down that barrier of being a peninsula a long way away from the rest of the country,” Eustice says, envisaging that people will “get the Cornish lifestyle without having to downshift and accept a compromise on their income.” Still, the digital sector remains “a tiny part of the economy, in spite of all the hype”, as Baines reflects.

Some also believe that granting Cornwall more autonomy can help to transform the region. The Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow would like a parliament as powerful as the Scottish Parliament. Even many of those who do not agree think Cornwall could be empowered.

This year, George Osborne announced plans to give Cornwall greater control over health, transport, skills and business support, although the deal still fell well short of the powers Cornwall Council had requested. “I see that as a beginning,” Eustice says, though no one pretends devolution is a panacea. Chalker “would have great reservations if powers were all shifted to Cornwall overnight as to the ability of our councillors to handle that power with efficiency”.

Even in the most deprived areas of Cornwall, the St Piran's flag flies proudly: a mark of the pride people feel in the Cornish life and also, perhaps, a show of quiet defiance against feeling shunned by the rest of the UK.

“We seem to be forgotten down this way,” Dave laments back in the Redruth food bank. “We seem to be pushed out because we're a long way out the way.” 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.