The race is on to become the first marathon runner to break the two-hour mark
The little detail caught Ed Caesar off guard. He came across an account of the death of Sammy Wanjiru, the Kenyan marathon runner, and the revelation he’d apparently fallen from a balcony after being found in bed by his wife with another woman struck Caesar as incongruous.
“The fact that he wasn’t living the monk-like life I assumed all marathon runners had to live made it more interesting. What was he doing living like an on-the-slide Premiership footballer?”
Caesar persuaded his editor at The Sunday Times Magazine that it was worth pursuing. Having plenty of experience of Africa helped his cause and he went out to Kenya knowing little about marathon running. There he found a writer’s nirvana, a fascinating subject nobody knew much about.
“These great stories, all these people trying to become professional runners, and the marathon itself, which nobody seemed to know a lot about. I got more and more obsessed with this corner of the world and the sport, and here we are, four years later.”
Caesar has written a book about marathon running and runners entitled Two Hours, a reference to what many see as the ultimate test of human endurance, running 26 miles and 385 yards in 120 minutes. It’s a fine balance of the science of athletic performance and the personalities of those involved.
“What I saw any time I worked in Africa was that if you took the trouble to listen to what people were saying, you’d find the same number of stories you would in a bar in Dublin or wherever.
“They were all individuals, all forged by particular circumstances, and those stories existed. It took me a long time to burrow down deep into those stories but it was worth it, because one of the nice things is that there are plenty of Africans who are heroes and not victims in this narrative.”
Caesar describes the marathon runners as a mixture of the monkish and savagely competitive: “The first thing to say about them is that no matter how quietly they speak or how often they refer to God and so forth, they’re all tough as old boots. They have to be.
"To me, their default position is to be humble and quiet, and for me the challenge, and joy, was getting them to discuss what was really going into the reality of their lives.”
Part of that reality is adapting to widely differing marathon courses. Some are far more record-friendly than others, which isn’t the case with every athletic discipline.
“If you talk to the majority of people who prepare for marathons, training to get a personal best or for charity, they know that New York is tough, that Berlin is fast and what have you, but that knowledge hasn’t penetrated to normal conversations about the marathon.
"You just have this notion that these guys are superhuman, that they should be able to run whatever time on whatever course.
“But there’s huge diversity in marathon courses, and it’s one of the beauties of the sport that no two marathons are the same, even on the same course.
"What you’re dealing with in every event is a one-off situation, so it’s almost ludicrous to be talking about a world record. What you’re really talking about in those terms is the Berlin course record because it’s the fastest.”
As for the two-hour record itself, Caesar records strong scepticism about the feasibility of reaching it from well-known scientists such as Ross Tucker.
“He has his solid physiologically grounded reasons, he’s a fine scientist as far as I can understand. These people are dealing with the realities as they see them, but it seems to me that we’ve always been wrong about the possibilities of the human body. We’re always pessimistic and we’re always proved wrong.
“One of the things that was very interesting about that whole debate was what it says about us as human beings.
"We’re always telling ourselves that wherever we are, that’s the peak of progress, but someone will play a game of soccer that’s better than what we’re doing now, it’s just the way we are. We acknowledge that things can improve, it’s just that we can’t see how.”
One particular challenge in seeing improvements is the racial element. Author David Epstein, who features in Caesar’s book, has instanced scientists who are reticent about discussing race and physiological ability, and Caesar was conscious of the potential pitfalls involved.
“I did feel that, I am a white fella in an African world, and the last thing you want to come across as is some kind of neo-colonialist.
"It appears to be true that there’s a trend that some tribes like the Kalenjin in Kenya have thinner lower legs, which help them run expending less energy. And if that’s true, why not say it?
“I don’t think I was saying anything particularly radical, and one of the reasons I quoted David’s tremendous work was that he’d been courageous enough to do some of that donkey work already.
“He’s not the only one and if you look at the science, it’s unambiguous.”
Having hung out with some of the great distance runners himself, the obvious question is...
“I have done some running but if I tell you I was a second-row forward, that I’m 6ft5in and 17 stone, then my genetic predisposition to running fast marathons is slight.
“I’d run with 2:08, 2:10 marathon runners, and it shouldn’t make a difference to run with the fastest marathon runner in the world, but it did.
"On the last day of my last trip to Kenya, Geoffrey Mutai, with whom I was pretty close, went for a run with me. We did about half an hour near his training base, and I was telling myself not to look at him while I was running, because I was going as fast as I could, obviously, and I knew he’d hardly be moving.
"Towards the end, when I was just about to call for an ambulance, he looked over at me and I saw one drop of sweat roll slowly down his forehead. That was my Olympic gold medal, right there.”
Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar (RRP €20.99).
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