The marathon, at 26 miles and 385 yards, is running’s Everest — a feat once seen as impossible for the human body. But now, elite marathoners are setting their sites even higher than that mountaintop, in hopes of completing the course in under two hours. Below is an excerpt from writer Ed Caesar’s latest book, Two Hours, which follows some of the greatest runners on earth to trace the history of the marathon as well as the science, physiology and psychology involved in running so fast for so long.
Now, on this bright cold day in Berlin, he wished to upend the marathon world once more. As he stood at the head of the vast herd, high banks of loudspeakers began to play the kind of jangling, electronic string music you hear in game shows before the host tells a contestant whether he’s landed the big prize.
Over these shifting arpeggios came the sound of a stout man with a microphone, counting down the final seconds before the gun. Ten!, he shouted. Nine! Eight! Seven . . . Geoffrey Mutai stood still, his chest pushed forward in anticipation of movement. At that instant, the world receded. Mutai became the instrument of a single imperative — to run a marathon in less than two hours and three minutes.
The official marathon world record on the morning of Sept. 29, 2012, was 2:03:38, set the previous year in Berlin by Patrick Makau, of Kenya. But Mutai was not interested in 2:03:38. Although he made no announcement of his intentions to the media, he wished not only to break Makau’s world record, but to annihilate it — to erase those digits from his mind. Neither fame nor money was his principal motivation. He needed to run so fast for a simple, private reason: He believed something precious had been stolen from him.
Mutai’s grievance dated back 18 months, to the 2011 Boston Marathon. Mutai had arrived at that race as a serious prospect, with fast second-place finishes at his previous two marathons in Rotterdam and Berlin. At that time, he was, in the sonorous, antiquated parlance of Kenyan marathoners, an athlete who was “picking.” To “pick” is to quicken. It can refer equally to a race or a career. We start slow, they might say, and then we pick.
In Boston, Mutai picked as never before. On the cold morning of April 18, 2011, with a breeze at his back, he beat his countryman Moses Mosop in a thrilling race, and finished in a time of 2:03:02 — a course record by nearly three minutes, and almost one minute faster than Haile Gebrselassie’s world record of 2:03:59. Mosop finished four seconds behind Mutai, in 2:03:06.
These were absurd, freakish times. Despite its length, the professional marathon is a sport of tiny margins — a few seconds here, a few seconds there. Nobody in the modern era had destroyed a course record at a major marathon in such a fashion before Mutai. Looking on, the American marathon great, Bill Rodgers, who was himself a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, thought the clocks were broken.
“It was something incredible,” said Rodgers. “I ran with a tailwind in Boston one day, and I ran 2:09:55. He ran more than six minutes faster!” The clocks were working. However, Mutai’s run would not stand as an official world record. It is one of many bizarre quirks of the sport of professional road running that, despite being the oldest continuously contested marathon in the world, Boston does not count for world record purposes. Before 2003, when the International Association of Athletics Federations designed regulations so that the marathon could be measured for a world record like any other distance, there had only been marathon “world bests” at 26.2 miles. (The pre-2003 rule was, in many ways, a more satisfactory situation, because it recognized that every marathon course, and every marathon day, is different.)
When the IAAF stipulated its criteria, it decreed that a world record must be run on a looped course, with the start and finish separated by no more than 50 percent of the distance, and that the net downhill must be no greater than 1 meter per kilometer. Boston, which runs in a single direction from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to the city’s downtown, and which is downhill on aggregate, fails to fulfill these conditions.
These thoughts — of the record, and its ineligibility in Boston — had not entered Mutai’s mind until the finishing line. Boston is not traditionally considered a fast race. It has plenty of hills, and employs no pacemakers. Only a fool would start the Boston Marathon in the hope or expectation of breaking a world record.
During the race itself, Mutai’s pacing calculations had been thrown off by his failure to properly analyze the lead vehicle’s display — which showed minutes per mile, rather than the kilometers he was accustomed to. Occasionally he would see a metric marker, but the numbers would not compute. (At 30 km, he read the split and thought, Wow! What is this? He then wondered whether to trust the numbers he had seen.) Of course, he knew within himself that he was running quickly — his body was in a kind of delicious agony — but he had no idea how quickly. And so he simply dedicated himself to besting his closest rival and winning the race.
It was only when he crested the line in first place, and hugged his Dutch manager, Gerard Van de Veen, that he began to process what he had just accomplished. He looked at the clock: 2:03:02. A crazy time. And then Van de Veen broke the news that his run in Boston would be only a personal best — that the world record had evaded him because of a technicality. What was worse, everyone started talking about the 20-mile-an-hour wind that had blown that day. The way people now had it, Mutai had effectively been escorted to the finishing line by a hurricane. Not only was his time not an official world record, but it was adorned with asterisks.
Mutai was wounded. He knew there had been a tailwind in Boston that day. But Boston is hilly. And even downhills, he knew, destroyed the legs. What’s more, he thought, where were those asterisks in all those races where a gale blew in his face? And, even more galling, why was he given no credit for the fact that he and Mosop had fought to maintain their speed without the aid of professional pacemakers?
In short, he believed in what he had achieved — wind or no wind, hills or no hills. In the form of his life, driven on by a fierce competitor, he had been possessed by the Spirit, and had run an unprecedented time. Those kinds of days didn’t come around too often. Marathon running is a tough, capricious sport. Mutai knew he might never rediscover that alchemic combination of shape, conditions and competition that had pushed him to such an extraordinary performance. And now people wanted to tell him it didn’t count?
“It was painful,” he said. “It hurt me. But then I sit down and I tell myself, ‘This is not the end . . .’”
Mutai made a pledge. Before he retired, he would beat 2:03:02 on a recognized course in unimpeachable circumstances. Even when his countryman Patrick Makau broke the world record in Berlin, in September 2011, Mutai paid it little mind. He had run faster than Makau’s official world record, and would do so again. He believed in his gift. He would silence the talkers. Two-oh-two or die trying. Nothing else could satisfy him.
Extracted from Two Hours by Ed Caesar, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, at £9.99 (roughly US$14). Copyright © Ed Caesar 2015. penguinrandomhouse.co.uk