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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.


City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.


Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.


Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue