In a two-part series in the New York Times entitled Man vs Marathon, Jeré Longman took a thorough look at Yannis Pitsiladis’s project to accelerate the process that will, almost certainly, lead to a human being running the arbitrary distance of 26.2 miles in two hours. In the article, Pitsiladis, a sports psychologist, says that the most likely candidate to achieve this feat would be an Ethiopian or Kenyan with a hard, rural upbringing, and that the best way for them to run that fast for that long would be to minimise the amount of weight on their feet, probably by running barefoot or with merely “a film that covers the bottom of the foot”.
I read the first article while I was staying at a rural training camp in Gondar, Ethiopia, where I am doing anthropological fieldwork with aspiring young Ethiopian runners. They happen to fit Pitsiladis’s model: they come from remote rural areas and spent much of their childhood and adolescence running barefoot or in cheap plastic sandals. I read the second sitting at the side of a field in nearby Debre Tabor with some of the young distance runners from the camp, waiting for the start of the Cultural Sports Games, where people from the nine different states in Ethiopia came together to compete in horse riding, gena (resembling hockey with rough-hewn wooden sticks and fewer rules) and tigel, a form of Ethiopian wrestling. We were sitting at the side of the field for the second time that day, having been told at the proposed start time of 9am that people didn’t feel like it quite yet and we should come back at 3pm. At 3.30pm, there was still no sign of any action. The runners had put on traditional Amhara clothing for the occasion and didn’t seem concerned. “This is cultural sport, Mike. This is the good life, no one is in a hurry.” And running, I ask. Is that the good life too? “Sort of,” I’m told. “But running is always about condition, every day worrying about condition, condition, condition.”
This seems to be a good time to ask them about the possibility of a two-hour marathon one day; is there a way for them to work even harder, to go even faster? “Two hours in the marathon?” my friend Telahun* replies, before relaying the question for the others. “Yikabadal,” they murmur together: “This is heavy …” Telahun thinks for a while then adds, respectfully: “Maybe for Kenenisa (Bekele, world record holder at 5,000m and 10,000m) he says, “but the Kenenisa of six or seven years ago.” He then asks the question that Pitsiladis’s research seems to have missed: “Why is this man so obsessed with that anyway? Aren’t we running fast enough already?”
I tell them that the project is looking for $30m (£24m) of investment, and they raise their eyebrows. Running clubs in Ethiopia pay modest salaries to their athletes of around $100 a month. “So he’ll start a club with good salaries?” Telahun asks. I’m not so sure about that, I tell them. The irony is that the sub-two hour project is focusing on cutting-edge science to shave the remaining 177 seconds off the marathon world record. The project epitomises modernity’s project to keep pushing forwards, and to accelerate at all costs. And yet the life that Pitsiladis demands of his subjects is the opposite of this. His ideal candidate should avoid footwear at all costs. They should live off the land. Preferably they should live a life that enables them to practise discomfort, and they should have to walk long distances as well as run hard. On our way back from a training session the other day, we waited for an auto rickshaw to give us a ride back to the camp. A middle-aged woman pushed in front of us in the queue, eyeing our tracksuits and saying: “You’re sportsmen, you can go on foot!’ No doubt Pitsiladis would agree.
When I asked my sub-agent friend Gebre about Pitsiladis’s project, he told me that he thought it might be possible, but that you’d need to have a special training camp focused exclusively on that goal. “You’d have to lock them in,” he told me, “and only let them out to fly to races. And after the race they’d need to be straight back on the plane and back to the training camp.” He explained that most runners who run fast marathons and win good prize money want to enjoy life in the city a little bit. “They’ll buy a car, and drive back to Bekoji [the small town where much of Pitsiladis’s reseach is based], and then it’s finished for the two-hour marathon for them,” he told me.
Is there really anything wrong with these young men wanting to live their lives? One of the main problems with marketing distance running is that coverage fails to bring out the personalities of the athletes. Forcing an even more Spartan approach to training is hardly likely to solve this problem. Having become good friends with some Ethiopian marathon runners over the past year, this is a real shame for the sport.
My worry is that the obsession with the two-hour marathon will lead to races where a phalanx of identically dressed pacemakers attempt to escort one exceptionally talented athlete to a world record. Yet the most exciting marathons in recent years, have been the duals, the tactical victories and the upsets; Wanjiru vs Kebede in Chicago 2010, Stephen Kiprotich’s Olympic title in 2012 or Meb Keflezighi’s 2014 Boston win. Also, given the problems with performance-enhancing drugs both Kenya and Ethiopia are currently facing, now may not be the time to obsess over the watch. The athletes in Gondar were sceptical about the possibility until I mentioned drugs. “Well, yeah, with doping of course it’s possible,” they said, “with doping you can run like a car.”
It is important to think about who the two-hour marathon is for. At one point in the interview with Pitsiladis, he talks about testing new and eccentric training theories, stating “it may not work but let’s try it and see what happens” and says he is a “risky person”. This attitude is fine if we’re talking about an experiment in a lab, but these are young men from poor backgrounds whose livelihoods depend on their running. Pitsiladis is taking his risks with other people’s bodies. They have hopes, dreams and often families and other dependants to support. They are not merely expendible sources of research data.
The project’s hypothesis goes something like this: “In spite of the fact that no one has so far got within 177 seconds of breaking the two-hour marathon thus far, and given the widespread accusations of doping in Ethiopia and Kenya, we can assume that some of those athletes were taking drugs. We nevertheless believe we can develop special drinks, ‘pre-hab’ exercises and other unspecified technologies that we can’t go into the details of to make it happen within five years, without drugs.”
In Berlin, Kenenisa almost certainly the most talented distance runner in history, ran 2.03.04, having worked with the Sub2Hr project for the last few months. He and Wilson Kipsang ran the fastest half-marathon split ever recorded in a marathon, 61.11. Yet to run sub-two hours you would have to replicate that fastest-ever half-marathon split and then follow it with a 58.48 half marathon, that is, with the sixth fastest half marathon of all time.
So why would the Sub2Hr project claim to think it will happen so soon? Let’s start by considering how they wrote about Kenenisa’s incredible run in Berlin. On their website they published an article about a special drink: “We are proud of the fact that in just a few months we were able to take two minutes off his marathon PB.” Kenenisa, in this statement, did absolutely nothing to effect the change: it was all in the drink. Kipsang was only a few seconds behind, in spite of not having access to the magic drink.
The article goes on to discuss the founders of the company of the drink, listing their names and inviting their reader to ask the questions they seem to think we all want answers to: “Is the drink commercially available?” and: “When will the new product be available?” In the “our objectives” section of their website, they list “major and unlimited prospects for commercial benefit”. Now it starts to make more sense.
I want to make clear that I think a project that took a long-term approach to breaking the two-hour barrier, and which genuinely did focus on investment in the grassroots of the sport, could be extremely successful. My criticisms of the project, however, are twofold.
Firstly, timing. I think it is inevitable that someone will eventually run the marathon in under two hours, and I will be as excited as any other athletics fan when it happens. I’ve spent more than a year in Ethiopia as an anthropologist. However, I’ve learnt Amharic and spent countless hours talking to people about doping, and people’s concerns (in a context where the anti-doping infrastructure is in its infancy and many athletes live too far away to be tested) have grown louder in the course of my stay. Here is the coach I work with speaking to the athletes on the subject of gradual improvement:
You have to plan to increase your performance level over a long period of time. It needs strategic planning that brings development for you and brings progress through time. If you are concerned only with running fast, then most of the time you will be exposed to doping. Short cut.
As we have seen with the revelations surrounding the Oregon project and unnecessary therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), there is an extremely fine line between “science” and “medicine’. As far as I’m concerned, injecting huge amounts of money into helping a select group of athletes, regardless of whether they are technically overstepping the line, is not in the spirit of the sport.
When I spoke to Kenenise’s first coach in Bekoji, he became animated when I asked him why he thought Kenenisa was so good. He took the Oromo newspaper he had in his hand and rolled it into a telescope, peering through it at me. This is what he said:
When he was 13, he knew what he wanted. He was like this (he mimes looking through his newspaper telescope). He told me he wanted to be world and Olympic champion. He was so focused so young.
This is the kind of motivation athletes need, and it is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Coach Sentayehu shared with me his concerns about the money in the marathon. He couldn’t see himself producing another Kenenisa, capable of breaking world records on the track, he said, because all of his runners want to move to the marathon when they’re too young to do so, in his opinion. I worry that the Sub2Hr project will merely exacerbate that problem.
The Sub2Hr project describes itself thus: “The first research initiative made up of specialist multidisciplinary scientists striving to achieve the sub-two-hour marathon with a scientific approach.” The athletes themselves are notably absent from this statement. The implication is that it is the work of the scientists themselves that will “achieve” the two-hour marathon. Is this the kind of sport we want? One that pits various groups of scientists against each other? “Science is for farenj (foreigners)”, the athletes often tell me, “running is for us”.
Rather than seeing elite athletes as sources of data for the betterment of science and medicine, we should spend time with the athletes themselves, and find out what kind of sport they want to be involved in.
*I have changed the athletes’ names to protect their anonymity.
A shorter version of this piece was first published on the University of Edinburgh’s Sport Matters blog. Michael has extended the piece to address the concerns raised by the Sub2Hr project’s response to the original article.
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