"There's no such thing as world records in the marathon... Every course is different... The marathon is unpredictable. It's variable. It has a certain mystique and a romance about it that you can't put in a box and you can't write criteria for, you can't define. And that's the beauty of it."
That's what former marathon world record holder Rob de Castella told me in 2011 after we had watched Geoffrey Mutai win the Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds. At that point, Mutai's effort was the fastest marathon ever run, but it wasn't sanctioned as the official world record because the Boston Marathon course is point-to-point rather than a loop, so it's not sanctioned for records.
Record or not, Mutai's performance altered the landscape for world-class male marathon runners. They started to see the future, a future which could one day include a marathon run in two hours or less. That's the subject of Ed Caesar's new book "Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon." Caesar is in New York for Sunday's New York Marathon, where the men really aren't expected to threaten the two-hour mark for the 26.2-mile race, but he thinks it will happen one day.
"I think it can be done eventually," he told Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti in today's interview. "But I think it's going to take us a little while."
Fifty years ago, the fastest marathon time was 2:12:02. Today it's almost 10 minutes below that time. Dennis Kimetto of Kenya ran 2:02:57 in the 2014 Berlin Marathon. To get to 2:00:00 would mean shaving off 177 seconds from Kimetto's time. That seems like an incredible leap, but 50 years ago there probably weren't many who thought a 2:03 marathon was possible.
Book Excerpt: 'Two Hours'
By Ed Caesar
Chapter One: Tear Down This Wall
Shortly before nine on a bright fall morning in Berlin, Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai prepared to run a marathon faster than
any human being—even he—had run before. A wild, audacious proposition, to propel one’s body to such a ragged extreme, and he felt the walls of his quest closing in on him. Years of pain for this one opportunity. Competing voices crowding his head. The loudest saying, If only we could start running!
Mutai is five feet seven inches tall, and 125 pounds. He has a wide, expressive face, with a high forehead, elfin ears, and long, gleaming teeth. Most often, you find him amiable, amused, desirous of news and gossip, a flashy smile close by. But now, at this solemn moment, he looked as vulnerable as a foundling.
There were around 41,000 runners behind him. Penned together, they bobbed and lilted like a gentle sea against a harbor wall. Alongside Mutai at the head of the crowd, meanwhile, were two dozen professional athletes whose lives—like his—would be marked irrevocably by the minutes to come. As Mutai ran his final warm-up shuttles, the goosebumps on his chest were visible behind his blood-orange running vest: nerves, or the cold, or both.
Mutai attempted to relieve the tension by telling himself that he didn’t need to win the race, or make history, to be happy. Anywhere on the podium would be okay, this reasonable voice said. The marathon is tough. Anything can happen.
He knew he was fooling himself. It was true, yes, anything could happen in a marathon, and there were many events seemingly outside an athlete’s control—including the body’s reaction to the stress of racing. No athlete, not even a champion, could know when a cramp or an injury might destroy his chances. So Mutai told himself this thin truth—that his effort was enough. Although he knew that nothing but triumph could satisfy him, and even triumph might not suffice, the mental evasion somehow helped him relax. He needed to relax. Tense legs, he knew, couldn’t move.
Mutai said his habitual prayers. For clemency. For strength and for courage. For his stringy legs, veterans and repositories of tens of thousands of miles of training, to carry him another
26 miles and 385 yards. But not for a miracle. He would never ask God for a miracle.
Smiles all around him now: the effervescence of expectation. Mutai could not help but smile too. Despite longing for the starter’s pistol, there would always be a part of him that enjoyed these rich, electrified seconds—the warrior part. He was about to race. Yes, the eyes of the city, and the sport, were upon him.
But where else would he want to be? He would shortly express the purest version of his being on the grandest stage imaginable, without saying a word. If the race proceeded as he had dreamed it, he would become not only the world record holder, but a vindicated man. All in a little more than two hours.
Mutai is a Kenyan, a Kalenjin, and a Kipsigis. He was born in the village of Equator, which sits at nearly 9,000 feet in the lush highlands at the western escarpment of the Rift Valley, and, as its name suggests, at the beltline of the world. He is a husband, a father, a son, a grandson, a nephew, a cousin, a coach, a businessman, and a potentate. He is a rich man who grew up without shoes.
As the minutes became seconds, and he toed the Berlin startline in his featherweight Adidas racing flats, he was aware that dozens of less successful athletes depended on him for clothes, accommodation, and transport. He knew his family relied on him for their houses, their food, their televisions, their children’s school fees, and their cars. He also knew that in this race, he had the chance not only to win 40,000 euros for first place and a possible 80,000 euros in time bonuses (30,000 euros for a time under 2:04:30;
50,000 more for a new world record), but also, if he won in Berlin, the chance to seal a $500,000 jackpot for winning the cumulative World Marathon Majors prize for 2011–2012. And that was just from the organizers of the marathon. His sponsor, Adidas, would also kick in bonuses if he won or became the new world record holder. After agent’s fees, he could be more than half a million dollars richer by lunchtime. Back home, his friends and family would be huddled around televisions, watching.
In these final moments of stillness, however, Mutai banished impure thoughts and the crowding, conflicted voices. He attempted to focus. Psychologists talk about a Zen-like state of instinctual action in which the greatest sporting performances are attained. They call it Flow. The French cyclist Jean Bobet described a similar but distinct experience called La Volupté, which “is delicate, intimate and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up and then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness.”
Mutai has his own term: the Spirit. The way he understood it, the brutality of his training regime—125 fierce miles a week— was endured to attain this sensation. Thousands of hours of suffering for these minutes of sweetness: speed and ease, force and grace. The more harder you train, he would say, the more you get the Spirit. . . . It gains on you. So far, in his career, the Spirit had allowed Mutai the courage to remake the sport of marathon running, and to destroy previous conceptions of what was possible; to lose his own fear, and implant it in the hearts of his competitors.
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 on 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, in English. Nine! Eight! Seven . . . 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.
Nine a.m. The gun.
The crowd cheered as thousands of electric-blue balloons
were released into the air. The lead athletes shot off and quickly assembled themselves into a group. Within a few hundred meters, these contenders tucked in behind the four elite pacemakers, wearing black-and-white striped vests to distinguish themselves, who in turn followed a BMW on which a digital display was mounted, showing both the elapsed time and the split time for the last kilometer.
In that first group along with Mutai were a handful of extraordinary athletes. Dennis Kimetto had been “discovered” by Mutai in 2008 and now trained in the same group. Nicknamed “Mwafrica,” or “the African,” by his fellow athletes on account of his coal-black skin, he had progressed rapidly—breaking the
25km world record earlier in 2012—and was now running his first marathon outside Kenya. Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor, meanwhile, was widely considered to possess a profound natural talent. And, although the nineteen-year-old former junior world cross-country champion was also running his full-marathon debut, he had some experience of Berlin. The previous year, he had paced Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian who is considered by many to be the greatest distance runner of all time, in the race. Haile was so impressed with Kamworor’s performance that day that he made an instant prediction: the young Kenyan would one day break the world record himself. And then there was Jonathan Maiyo, who had run a 2:04:56 marathon and a 59:02 half marathon earlier in the year, both world-class times.
Within a couple of kilometers, after the adrenaline burst of the opening section faded, Mutai once again felt freighted with pressure. As the star man in the race, he believed—correctly— that the eyes of his fellow athletes were upon him. If he pushed, he thought, they would push. If he slowed, they would slow. He tried to relax. He prayed again. God, you know I am fighting. Lead me to the end of the race. He attempted to put his competitors out of his mind and concentrate on the workings of his own body.
Of the contenders in Berlin, Geoffrey Kamworor (who, like Geoffrey Mutai, pronounces his Christian name “Jo-ffrey”) has the most idiosyncratic style. He is powerfully built by marathon runner standards, and has a wide, gap-toothed grin. In training, he looks like a bull before a matador. He runs with one shoulder tucked in and his legs flying straight out behind him. At the dusty athletics track at Chepkoilel, near Eldoret, he leans into tight bends shoulder-first, explosions of orange dust bursting behind him like airstrikes in the desert. Kimetto and Maiyo run more upright. But, while Kimetto’s straight back can make him look rigid and uncomfortable, Maiyo’s gives him a regal bearing.
Geoffrey Mutai is a paragon of economy. A high-definition, slow-motion camera was once trained on him from a side angle at mile 21 of the 2011 New York City Marathon. At that moment in the race, Mutai was running a 4:31 mile, which is under a two-hour marathon pace. The resulting footage, which is nine seconds long, and available for all to see on the Internet, is hypnotic, and beautiful. Mutai’s speed is maintained by a series of sharp midfoot strikes. He doesn’t brake at all, or strain for forward movement. There is no tension in his arms. It’s as if he is on wheels, not legs.
Watching Mutai in the flesh, head-on and in real time, is no less pleasurable. He runs splay-footed, low-hipped, each stride working the most out of his sinuous calves, while his torso remains as still as a rifle target. Because of this impeccable form, it’s sometimes hard to tell when he decides to push the pace. Only the speed of his turnover and the attitude of his head—cast down and bent forward as if at the prow of a clipper—betray his intentions.
The official marathon world record on the morning of September 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 eighteen 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 broken a course record at a major marathon by nearly three minutes 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 straight shot 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 finish 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 30km, 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 twenty-mile-an-hour wind that had blown that day. The way people now had it, Mutai had effectively been escorted to the finish line by a hurricane. Not only was his time not an official world record, but it was also 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 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.
September 29, 2012, was a good day for a man with such intentions. Many factors must align for the marathon world record to fall. One of them is the weather. The conditions should be chilly, dry, near windless—just as it was in Berlin that morning. The spectators wore gloves and sunglasses, and there was only the lightest of southwesterly breezes. On the Strasse des Juni, where Reagan once implored Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the leaves had turned the color of used teabags, and the Brandenburg Gate framed a cloudless cerulean sky.
Mutai knew that any further incursions into the world record would reignite the long-smoldering debate about the possibility of the first sub-two-hour marathon. The argument about the feasibility of that performance raged both between fans and between scientists, and became increasingly heated whenever the world record fell. But, the way Mutai understood it, the debate was framed front to back. It missed the point.
Mutai had no doubt that running 26 miles and 385 yards in less than two hours was physically possible. The performance, he believed, was within his own body. What stopped marathoners from running faster, he believed, was not so much the structure of their bodies as the structure of races. There was no point thinking about the two-hour marathon when you saw how the sport existed in 2012—namely, a few exceptional athletes lined up twice a year in a great world city, barreling 26.2 miles through the streets. Occasionally, at night in his mountain hideaway, Mutai would fantasize about how the sport might evolve so that it became more about the limits of physiology than about winners and losers. He knew that in the right set of circumstances, people could run so much faster.
These were dreams for another day. Mutai focused on what he could realistically achieve on Berlin’s broad, gorgeous avenues. Two-oh-two and change was, he believed, within his compass.
The race directors were naturally keen for Mutai to break the world record. For a niche sport like professional marathon running, record times at a Sunday marathon are sometimes the only way to generate a Monday headline. So, between the organizers, the athletes, and Mutai’s manager, a plan was drawn up. The pacemakers were to take the lead pack through the halfway mark in 61 minutes and 30 seconds. If all went according to schedule, Mutai would finish the race in an “even” split (for exactly two hours and three minutes), or he would run the second half faster than the first for a “negative” split of 2:02 and change.
To a marathon runner of almost any standard, these numbers are enough to provoke nightmares. For an elite competitor, one’s predicted halfway split time is significant because it is a marker of what one hopes to achieve in the race. The marathon is, at its highest level, a delicate exercise in expending energy evenly over the entire course, and the fastest times are generally achieved when the second half of the race is run at the same speed (an “even” split) as, or slightly faster (a “negative” split) than, the first. Sudden rises or dips in pace can kill a record attempt stone dead. At many marathons, race organizers employ pacemakers, or “rabbits”—other athletes who for reasons of schedule, finance, or talent are paid a few thousand dollars each to run only a limited section of the race—to ensure that the lead athlete’s desired pace is adhered to, and to offer some protection against the wind. The rabbits are generally paid by distance: some will travel to halfway, some to 25km, and the strongest to 30km or 32km. From there, the racers are on their own.
At the prerace technical meeting in a drab conference room at Berlin’s Maritim Hotel, at noon on the day before the marathon, it was confirmed that Mutai had asked the rabbits to take him through halfway in 61:30. No athlete in the history of the sport had ever asked for such a fast split, but the other Kenyans in the room didn’t flinch. At least four of them felt confident that they could run 61:30 for the first half and still finish strong. However, when Jan Fitschen—an affable German marathon runner in the twilight of a career in which he had won, among other honors, the European 10,000m gold medal—was asked about the split Mutai had requested, he made an unfamiliar sound, somewhere between a giggle and a cough. A few minutes later, when the meeting was finished, he walked away shaking his head and laughing. Fitschen hoped to run the first half of the race in 67 minutes.
Ten years earlier, running the first half in 62 minutes and 30 seconds was considered suicidal. When Haile Gebrselassie ran his first marathon in London, in 2002, he asked the pacemakers for this very split—62:30—to widespread amazement. There was a belief that if a runner, even one as talented as Gebrselassie, were to start so fast, he would inevitably “blow up” in the second half of the race as his energy reserves dwindled and lactic acid flooded his muscles. A 62:30 split, it was thought, was a sure and painful way to lose money.
One of Haile’s competitors for the 2002 London Marathon was the world record holder Khalid Khannouchi, who was raised in Morocco and became an American citizen in 2000. When Khannouchi’s wife, Sandra, heard about the split Haile had proposed, she was apparently so incensed that she made a noisy demonstration of her feelings at the prerace technical meeting. There was no way, she said, that her husband would be joining this idiotic early pace. But come halfway, Khannouchi was with Haile and the other challenger, Paul Tergat—and evidently the pace did not finish him off. He went on to win the race and break the world record in 2:05:38.
Strange things had happened to professional marathon running since 2002. Not only had two minutes fallen from the world record, but the distance appeared to have changed genre. By
2012, the elite no longer considered the marathon a pure endurance event. It was a speed-endurance event. The world’s best had, in the words of the American commentator Toni Reavis, “outtrained the distance.” To explain the difference, many of the most experienced coaches used an automotive analogy. It used to be the case that marathon runners needed a diesel engine. Now the best had turbo-diesels. They were capable of both doughty endurance and devastating pace.
Within 5km of the startline in Berlin, a disaster occurred. The display on the pace car froze. The time it showed was 2 minutes and 50 seconds per kilometer. (A marathon run at this pace would finish in 1:59:33.) But the speed the lead group was actually running was around 3 minutes per kilometer, good enough only for a 2:06 finish. For a few klicks, the athletes appeared not to have noticed that they were being fed erroneous information. In fact, Maiyo later said that for the first part of the race, the group actively held the pace back on account of the frozen display, believing they were running too fast. It wasn’t ridiculous, he said, to believe that they were traveling at a 2:50/km pace, per se. The whole group had run in the 2:40s per kilometer while running sub-one-hour half marathons.
There is some dispute as to when, exactly, the pacemakers and Mutai’s group discovered the mistake. The lead group was accompanied by at least three motorcycles, which carried the race organizer Mark Milde, as well as two athlete managers, both from Holland: Van de Veen of Volare Sports, who represented Mutai and Kimetto, and Valentijn Trouw of Global Sports Communication, who represented Maiyo and Kamworor. Managers are not permitted to coach during the race, but they were within their rights to tell Milde about the frozen screen on the pace car. At least one of the pacemakers was also wearing a GPS watch.
However they were alerted, the athletes in the lead group understood the problem sometime between the fifth and the tenth kilometer, and raised their pace accordingly. But the delay might already have cost them a shot at the world record. The time they lost in the confusion could be recovered later, but maybe at too great a cost. They would need to accelerate sharply, and world record attempts are rarely successful when there is a dramatic spike in pace.
Of course, Mutai would not have been thinking in this way. Marathon runners, by default, must have resilient minds. He set about retrieving his vanished seconds. Having recovered somewhat, he was led along with his competitors through the halfway mark in 1:02:12, some 42 seconds down on his intended split.
By his own recollection, it was only at halfway that he seriously considered the scale of the challenge confronting him. Having run the first half slower than he had hoped, he understood dimly that the sub-2:03 marathon was gone already. But he still believed he had a shot at Makau’s world record of 2:03:38. In order to break it, he would need to run the second half of the race in 61:26. Only two men in history had run that fast in the second half of a marathon: the Brazilian athlete Ronaldo da Costa, in Berlin, in 2003, after a sluggish first half; and Mutai himself, on that windy day in Boston, in 2011. The question was: Did Mutai have the legs? Was he the same athlete who had recalibrated the world of marathon running in 2011?
Mutai would not die wondering what might have been. In previous races, he had proved a ferocious competitor. In the next
10km, just as the course rose slightly in gradient, he caught fire. At 25km, as planned, two rabbits dropped out, leaving the lead group paced by only one man—Victor Kipchirchir, a training partner of Mutai’s. The pace quickened. Jonathan Maiyo felt tight and began to weaken. He was soon dropped from the lead group. Geoffrey Kamworor also failed to respond to the rising pace in his first marathon and lost touch with the leaders shortly afterward. At 30km, the final rabbit, Kipchirchir, made his scheduled exit.
Now it was only Kimetto and Mutai, head-to-head for the final quarter of the race. As they had done many times together, training at nearly 9,000 feet on the rough hills around their base in the forests of Kenya, they drove each other on. From 30km to
35km, the pair ran a 14:18 split, which is absurdly fast. (A whole marathon run at this pace would finish in 2 hours and 40 seconds.) As Mutai led the charge, with his stiff-backed protégé at his shoulder, he dipped his head in trademark fashion, and a hint of a snarl appeared at the corner of his mouth—a look he refers to as “Now, business.”
Within his body, there was a tumult of exertion. His lion’s heart pistoned at more than 160 beats per minute. His lungs bellowed half a gallon with every breath. He took three strides a second. In his cells, a complex process was taking place to power his heart and lungs and legs—the burning and resynthesizing of adenosine triphosphate (or ATP)—creating three times as much heat as it did energy. And so he was hot, too hot. His body, losing around three liters of sweat an hour, grew slick with moisture.
Lactic acid began to singe his muscles. Everything but his conscious mind screamed Stop! And still he ran.
How does it feel to travel so fast, so late in a marathon? Mutai described the sensation as “fighting inside”—as if your body is at war with itself. Another former runner said it was like putting your hand in a bowl of hot water. You have to keep your hand in, while the water just keeps getting hotter and hotter. Take your hand out, and you lose the race.
Mutai is, of course, accustomed to these sensations. In the four or five months of specific training he undertakes before each major marathon, he runs around 125 miles a week. His total mileage in that period is the equivalent of running in a straight line from New York City to Los Angeles. Moreover, the training is savage—up and down hills, at altitude, at alternating speeds, on rough roads. Many sessions, he says, are much harder than a race. Indeed, while competing, the natural discomfort of powering his body along at 13 miles an hour is balanced by the joy he feels in doing it. If training has allowed Mutai to breathe the Spirit, a race should feel like one steady exhalation.
However good his preparation has been, there are moments in races when Mutai needs to fetch water from a deep well. After halfway in Berlin, he lowered the rope, hand over hand. Mutai recalls, in this moment of profound athletic endeavor, that he drew strength from the crowds that lined the roads. He said he could feel that “people love me” and he determined to repay that affection with a Herculean effort—to consciously override the signals his body was sending him. “I sacrificed myself,” he remembered.
At 35km, the sacrifice appeared to have paid off. Despite the botched beginning, both Mutai and Kimetto were now inside world record pace. All they had to do was hold on. If they ran a 2:56/km pace for the final 7.2km of the race—which seemed, given their earlier pace, to be possible—the world record would fall to one or the other.
Perhaps inevitably, they couldn’t do it. The prodigious acceleration just after halfway exacted its reward, and, by 40km, slowing markedly, both athletes were eight seconds outside world record pace and spent. Mutai’s right hamstring began to tighten—the product, he believed, of slipping on wet mud while completing his training in unseasonably rainy conditions at home. The pain moved to his hip and back. He wanted desperately to stop. He believed that if he had done so, even for a second, his race would have been over. He couldn’t look left or right. His pain was so great that he said he could not bend to take a water bottle at
40km. And still, Kimetto—high-shouldered, and seemingly in better shape—ran at his back.
Facing the final two kilometers, this unhappy pair ran into the breeze, rather slowly. They seemed headed for a very fast time, but not a world record. For the crowd on the home straightaway, there was at least the prospect of a manful tussle to see which athlete would prevail. And, as Mutai and Kimetto ran through the Brandenburg Gate shoulder to shoulder, 400 meters from the end, the spectators raised their voices in anticipation of a sprint finish.
But the kick never came. In a finale in which a burst from either man would have sealed the race decisively, Kimetto finished the race as he had run most of it: just behind his colleague. Mutai raised his arms weakly as he crested the line in a time of
2:04:15. It was the celebration of a boxer whose opponent could not lift himself from his stool, not the roar of a fighter who had knocked out an adversary. Seconds later, the two men shared a limp, exhausted hug.
Why no sprint? There were half a million reasons why. If Kimetto had beaten his training partner, Mutai might have lost the $500,000 World Marathon Majors jackpot—money that Kimetto had no chance of winning himself, this being his first marathon. Meanwhile, Kimetto was not just Mutai’s training partner. For the previous few years, like many in the village where he trained, he had been fed and housed by Mutai. If he had sprinted past his boss under the Brandenburg Gate, everyone in that village would have lost. When Mutai won, everyone in the village—and many others—won. Marathon runners are not just athletes; they are economies.
The tacit arrangement between the two men seemed obvious to most observers with some knowledge of the sport. But when Van de Veen was later confronted about the apparent pact, he was furious. “There was no deal!” he told journalists.
As a statement of literal fact, Van de Veen might be correct— there may have been no exchange of words between his two athletes. There wouldn’t have to be. Kimetto is a quiet man, but he is not stupid. For his part, Mutai said both he and Kimetto were dog tired at the close of the race and neither man could have done anything more. Of course, Mutai may be right. And, of course, he would say that. We will never know.
Mutai’s finishing time of 2:04:15 was the fastest time that anybody ran in 2012. For the second year in a row, he was the quickest marathoner on the planet. But these statistics brought him little comfort. Although, in the aftermath of the race, he signed autographs and smiled for photographs, he left Berlin with the sense of an opportunity lost—of a tide untaken.
Excerpted from the book TWO HOURS by Ed Caesar. Copyright © 2015 by Ed Caesar. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster.
This segment aired on October 30, 2015.