Elite marathon running suffers from what I call the “Kiprotich Problem”. The men’s Olympic marathon in 2012 featured high drama and one of the most shocking turnarounds and upsets in the sport. Having been whittled down to a leading pack of 3 runners, one of them fell off the pace, apparently in some pain. The question now was whether gold would go to the world champion, or to the man who had won the London Marathon earlier in the year. Instead, out of nowhere, the man in pain suddenly came surging back, overtaking the other two and claiming a surprise gold. The fact he was an unheralded Ugandan, from a country that hadn’t topped a podium since 1972, made it all the more inspirational. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Uganda, he was rewarded with $80,000, a presidential state breakfast, and promptly promoted to Assistant Superintendent at his day job in the Ugandan prison service.
If you follow elite marathon running, all of this was genuinely exciting. Your non-running friends and family, on the other hand, would have seen a race where a runner called (Stephen) Kiprotich beat another runner called (Wilson Kipsang) Kiprotich. Admittedly silver went to a man called Abel Kirui, which is a cracking name for anyone’s firstborn, but the fact remains that elite marathoners come across to the uninitiated as…well…samey.
Ed Caesar’s excellent Two Hours has an admirable mission. The East African runners that we see winning big city marathons are not boring, identikit athletes, blessed by good genes. Instead, in a phrase I love, he describes them as “rare, intriguing men”, and he sets out to prove it.
Caesar has spent considerable time in Kenya, getting to know top athletes such as Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Geoffrey Mutai. In TV interviews, these men come across as polite, easy-going and somewhat shy, and generally being unbothered if beaten in a race. What is very apparent from this book is that this is all a facade. These are intensely driven and competitive men, who kick themselves for months if they lose. It is Mutai’s story around which Caesar chooses to structure his narrative, providing a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of an elite marathoner. Boring? Hardly. This is a man who was nearly chopped up by a machete-wielding mob in 2008. These are not ordinary, mundane lives.
When Mutai won Boston in 2011, he ran the fastest time ever recorded over 26.2 miles. What he didn’t realise until afterwards was that this could not be an official world record, because Boston, with its net downhill and point-to-point course, is not eligible for records. On top of that, people talked about his performance being wind-assisted. In Caesar’s account, despite clinching $500,000 in that race, Mutai was privately tortured and infuriated by this downgrading of his achievement, and from that point on he had something additional to prove to his critics. That something was the quest to set a new world record, and perhaps be the first man to run a sub-2.
Is a sub-2 physically possible? Interestingly, a peer-reviewed paper was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1991 by scientist Mike Joyner, who calculated that if a man had the best possible values for lactate threshold, running economy and VO2 Max, they could run 1 hour 57 minutes and 58 seconds. 1:57:58. This highly specific time has been the subject of controversy ever since, with “dreamers” believing it gives evidence we will smash the barrier one day, perhaps within the next decade, while naysayers such as Ross Tucker (of the Science of Sport blog) think that it simply will not happen because we are already at the edge of racing performance; shaving seconds off the record is conceivable, but knocking off 3 minutes is fantasy.
Perhaps there are other means of making the fantasy a reality? When you read Adharanand Finn’s enjoyable Running with the Kenyans, based on Finn’s experience of living in Iten, you see Kenyan training centres as places of harmony, fellowship and neighbourliness. Ed Caesar certainly shares that view, but he also presents an interesting balance to this image; the East African running community is also a snakepit of gossip, rumour and slander. All the top marathoners, including Mutai, are suspected (on minimal evidence) by their slower peers of doping. “You think you can run 2:03, only with blood?” said one 2:10 marathoner to the author with incredulity, claiming that anything faster than 2:06 was suspicious. Caesar, for his part, believes that Mutai is clean, but he makes a good point that is obvious when you read it: we should pity the poor bastard who does break two hours, because he will be hounded by accusations of cheating for the rest of his life.
For me, one of the highlight sections of the book is the breathless account of the 2013 London Marathon, which could also be named The One Where It All Went Pear-Shaped. This race featured the greatest line-up ever (including me), and everything about it suggested “fast time”. Then the men went off at a phenomenally quick pace, led by Emmanuel Mutai (no relation, again exemplifying the Kiprotich Problem), who threw in surge after suicidal surge to break up the pack. The elite group consequently detonated, with the world’s top runners crossing the line in relatively embarrassing times, and the eventual winner coming from around 12 places down to overtake a spent Emmanuel Mutai in the last mile, breaking the tape in a “pedestrian” 2:06:04. Mutai apparently came in for a lot of anger behind closed doors from the other runners for “killing” them and denying a 2:03 or 2:04 finish, but he was simply treating it as a race, not a time trial. And in a race, a winner aims to bury his competitors.
This is why, both Caesar and Geoffrey Mutai conclude, we are unlikely to see a sub-2 in the current climate. Not because the runners can’t do it – Mutai is convinced it can be done – but because the events are not designed to facilitate it. Most of the main city marathons are big-money races, where winning will always take precedence over setting records. What is needed is a special event where a sub-2 is the only goal, with a huge number of pacemakers acting as windbreakers, and a team of stars driving each other on, all of whom would get big paydays whoever actually broke the barrier. To generate the money needed to make this happen, Caesar envisages a big show modelled on championship boxing matches, where much of the excitement is generated in the build-up, accompanied by attention-grabbing HBO-style documentaries about the training and preparations for the race.
But first, marathoning would have to overcome the Kiprotich Problem, and get the wider public interested in these characters, their stories, and what is at stake. A copy of the superb Two Hours, pressed into the right hands, would be a good start.