Marathon Reviews

In today's Sydney Morning Herald, I review two new books about marathon running - Ed Caesar's Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, and Catriona Menzies-Pike's The Long Run.

In the early-1980s, I remember watching Rob De Castella running a race through the middle of Sydney. At one point, a teenager on the nearby path tried to run alongside him. The kid was sprinting at top speed, but couldn’t keep up with Deek for even a hundred metres.

Watching top marathon runners on television, it’s easy to forget how blindingly fast they are. In 2013, Asics set up a treadmill ahead of the New York marathon to see how long people could keep up with the pace of the leaders. Most lasted only seconds. 

In Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, British journalist Ed Caesar points out that endurance running is one of the comparative advantages of humans. Many animals might have been able to outsprint us over short distances, but our ancestors had an advantage in running them down over long distances. Tribal huntsmen have successfully engaged in ‘persistence hunting’ of antelope, deer and even cheetahs.

The notion of running as something profoundly natural – a sport that any moderately fit person can enjoy – underpins Catriona Menzies-Pike’s The Long Run, a book to which I’ll return in a moment.

But let’s start with what’s going on at the front of the pack. As Ed Caesar documents, today’s elite marathoners are performing profoundly unnatural feats. Late-race surges now have runners covering five kilometre stretches at 14:15 or quicker – a pace that that would once have won Olympic gold for the five kilometre track event. In breaking the world record in 2007, one runner lost 10 percent of his bodyweight. Another compares the sensation of running a world-beating marathon to putting your hand in a bowl of hot water and keeping it there while the temperature rises. 

Today, the men’s marathon is utterly dominated by Kenyans, most from the Kalenjin tribe. As David Epstein pointed out a few years ago in The Sports Gene, Kalenjins have a number of genetic advantages. Being born at altitude makes your lungs more efficient, while slender limbs help dissipate heat. There are cultural factors too – Kalenjins may benefit from running barefoot in childhood, and learning to withstand pain through initiation rites

And then there’s the training. Marathoners have always clocked up serious miles, but the leading Kenyan runners are pushing the limits out further still, covering around 200 kilometres per week. That means two or three sessions per day, typically on rough roads. Today’s top marathoners are often former 5k and 10k champions; Caesar describes them sprinting so fast in training that they would sometimes overtake his 50cc motorcycle.

Antipodean running buffs will appreciate that Caesar acknowledges two training traditions originating in our part of the world. New Zealand’s Arthur Lydiard advised his runners to cover vast distances at a steady pace, while Australian running coach Percy Cerutty advocated brutal sprints, including up Portsea’s sand hills. The best Kenyans are doing both.

Kenyan runners eat a simple diet of ugali (made from maize flour) and local vegetables. They sleep a lot, and spend hardly any time in the gym or cross-training. And yes, some probably engage in blood doping, although Caesar makes a persuasive case that substances like EPO are significantly less prevalent in distance running than they were in cycling during the Lance Armstrong era.

Two Hours contains some delightful vignettes. Caesar tells the story Paul Rotich, an overweight Kenyan who was studying at a university in Texas when financial pressures pushed him close to withdrawing. Noticing that other Kalenjins were supported by running scholarships, Rotich took to the track. Within a year, he was among the top fifty college runners in the country, and had won a sports scholarship. When he returned to Kenya, Rotich’s cousin said ‘So it is true. If you can run, any Kalenjin can run.’

Another tale comes from a training run in Kenya. World champion Geoffrey Mutai leads a group past a fifty year old bearded farm labourer wearing a tattered suit and old shoes. The man joins the run for a couple of kilometres, before dropping out. As Caesar notes, the runners found it ‘utterly unremarkable that a middleaged workingman could keep pace with some of the world’s greatest athletes’.

Speaking of middleaged journeymen. When I managed to sneak just under the three hour mark in last year’s Sydney Marathon, Deek charitably sent me a text message saying ‘welcome to the two hours and something club’. For now, that club includes the world record holder, Dennis Kimetto, who ran 2:02:57 in Berlin in 2014.

But perhaps not for long. Since Deek held the men’s world record in the early-1980s, it has been falling at the rate of about 10 seconds a year. On that basis, we could expect a sub-two hour marathon within a decade or two. Caesar notes the conditions under which we might see it: chilly temperatures, no wind and top pace runners. He also notes that records are more likely to be broken if the pack doesn’t include too many top runners, since a surging pack tends to produce slower times.

To run 42.2 kilometres at a pace of 2:50 per kilometre seems almost unbelievable. Like the four-minute mile, the two-hour marathon will remain impossible… until someone cracks it.

And then there’s the rest of the pack. In The Long Run, Sydney writer Catriona Menzies-Pike tells of how she lost both her parents in a light plane crash when she was twenty years old. After a decade ‘knotting a string of variations on the themes of repetition, movement and forgetting’, Menzies-Pike turned to running. Beginning on a treadmill in a Kings Cross gym, she ran the City2Surf, then half-marathons, and ultimately full marathons.

Menzies-Pike’s running training is as different from the elites as the Kenyan Rift Valley is from harbour-side Sydney. Where their sole focus is speed, Menzies-Pike finds sprint sessions ‘too tumultuous’. Instead, she focuses on the joy of training amidst ‘the sandstone-edged paths of the Botanical Gardens… the rhinestone-speckled water to the Opera House… orange blossom in Lavender Bay… shafts of light breaking through the tangled branches of giant figs.’ She acknowledges running novelists Haruki Murakami, who sees running as form of human endurance, and Joyce Carol Oates, who cannot imagine an activity more exhilarating or nourishing to the imagination.

Woven through the personal journey are a plethora of vignettes about women running. Menzies-Pike points out that for every positive image – Atalanta in Greek mythology or the German movie Run Lola Run – there are plenty with negative connotations. Unclothed women being chased (in Benny Hill) or chasing (in Monty Python). Women running away from predators in horror movies and police dramas. Female runners attracting scorn or sexual attention for the shape of their body and choice of clothing.

On the track, women have had a tough run. For decades, sporting officials justified banning women from long-distance events on the basis that it might harm their ability to bear children. These rules were zealously enforced. In 1967, Katherine Switzer ran the Boston marathon, and was assaulted midway by a race official who grabbed her by the shoulder screaming ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’. Others stepped in, and Switzer finished in four and a half hours.

At the Olympic level, women weren’t allowed to run further than 800 metres until 1960, and didn’t run the Olympic marathon until 1984. The current women’s world record is 2:15:25, set by Briton Paula Radcliffe in the 2003 London Marathon. Since then, the rules have been changed, and future women’s world records will have to be set in women’s only events. No-one has come within 3 minutes of Radcliffe’s record, but among those with the best chance of breaking it are Gladys Cherono, Mare Dibaba and Florence Kiplagat.

Women’s-only events aren’t just proliferating at the elite level. During recent years, events such as Miss Muddy, the Thelma and Louise Half Marathon and She Runs the Night have attracted tens of thousands of women runners. Yet the idea still threatens some men. In Pakistan, officials arrested fifty women in 2005 for trying to run a marathon. Two and a half thousand years after the Battle of Marathon, some people still can’t seem to allow others the simple pleasure of a good long run.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and a supporting runner for the Indigenous Marathon Project. His most recent book is The Luck of Politics (Black Inc, 2015).


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.