Tracksmith Versus: Ed Caesar

Ed Caesar came to our attention last week, in the run up to New York, when we read his excellent piece on marathon running for the New Yorker. It’s a great insight into the birth of the modern marathon and how the current format sprang out of the last days of vaudeville, with runners often taking part in indoor matches at venues like Madison Square Garden or London’s Albert Hall. Amid other entertainment, like Italian tenors singing over the action, the runners pulled a crowd. So what happened?

Caesar was in New York this past weekend for the TCS New York City Marathon and to promote his book, Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible MarathonTracksmith took the chance to meet up and discuss the book and the state of modern marathon running.

Tell us where the book came from — you are a foreign correspondent, right?

EC: I was not, and am still not, a runner or a running journalist — I was a feature writer, someone who did long stories about a wide range of things. I’d worked a lot in East Africa, and while I was there on one trip, Sammy Wanjiru fell from his balcony at the age of 24 and died. He was an unbelievable talent and it struck me as an incredible story that here he was, an Olympic Champion, and he died at such a young age. I got out there to do a story on him for the Sunday Times Magazine and I found out that not only was he a great runner but a boozer and a womanizer, and there was all this chaos in his life. He’d spent time in Japan, come back to Kenya, won the Olympics and his life was just rattling off the rails. He was a hugely exciting athlete to watch — he ran with this huge love of running, he loved the competition and his finish against Tsegaye Kebede at the 2010 Chicago Marathon remains THE great race of the modern era. The lead changes six or seven times in the final mile or two and at that point everyone throws away their stopwatches and they start paying attention to something very primal: two guys just racing.
Everything he did exuded this natural brilliance and I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated what was going on in Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of people are all out there trying to be pro runners. They’re out there on dirt roads, slogging their guts out day-in, day-out and only a tiny percentage will ever make any money. I thought that was really interesting — I thought I had to write a book about it.
A lot of what’s in the book are the human stories and it’s that whole trajectory of distance running to the moment we’re at now, and what the marathon means both as a distance and as a metaphor.

Is there a chance Kenya will get rich before it gets really fast? Before we see the 2hr barrier broken?

EC: I was interviewing Haile Gebrselassie at his house and we were talking in his sitting room. He said to me, “If there’s a gene for running, if it’s all about genetics, why are my kids so fat?” And he looked over at the sofa in this beautiful house in the nicest bit of the city, with all this money he’s made not just from running but from all the other businesses he’s involved in, and he was right — his kids were kind of chubby. And they were watching TV on a flat screen, they’re never going to be runners in their whole lives. They have neither the will power or the need to do it?

It’s like boxing — very few fighters actively encourage their kids into the sport. That was their escape.

EC: I don’t feel like Kenya is going anywhere for a little while though. They have got so much depth, that’s what’s really interesting — you could invite 20, 50 or 100 different Kenyan guys to the New York Marathon and they’d still be the best. Big numbers win. What we might actually see is careers getting shorter as the training has to get increasingly intense to push for these faster and faster times.

What can the marathon event do to really recapture the imagination of the public? This is something you talked about extensively recently in your piece for the New Yorker — indoor marathons held on 90yd tracks with Italian tenors singing over the racers. Where are the spectacles like that nowadays?

EC: The New York City Marathon is often more of a parade than it is a race. I love it — to see a working city shut down for the day and be given over to this spectacle — but somewhere along the line we’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s actually a sport as well. And at the elite level, it’s one of the most truly astonishing sports you could hope to see. So first off, I would like to hear interesting, rich stories about the guys who are trying to win.

Whose responsibility is that?

EC: Athletes can get better at it, managers need to get better at it — there really is no impetus at the moment for these guys to get better at communicating with the press. That’s not entirely fair as some are really trying, but at the moment it does fell like everyone is really happy with the sport the way it is — they get their money, and there’s no impetus to change. What they don’t realize is that it’s killing the sport — in twenty years time, they’ll have just stopped paying the fast guys to turn up and make it all about mass participation.
I’d also like to see a lot more different types of racing. I was watching some footage the other day of Abebe Bikila running through the streets of Rome by torch light and that was amazing. We’ve somehow lost a bit of that drama. We’ve lost some of that intimacy.
I think these things need to be taken into account when inviting athletes to races. Organizers need to think beyond the athletes’ times but also be asking, can we tell a story about this person? Take Wilson Kipsang — he’s probably the best of the Kenyans when it comes to talking to the press and he’s a real character. He’s a businessman, he’s got an interesting story, he’s very eloquent, he’s respected by people in and out of the sport, and he’s also very handsome, so why isn’t he a total rock star? Same with the Dibaba sisters — why aren’t they the poster women for running everywhere? They’re scorchingly good at what they do and they’re incredibly good looking. Strong, beautiful role models, who look like Beyoncé — someone’s missing a trick there.

If you put a microphone in front of a Kenyan at the end of a race, you get the typical, “I tried my hardest, I ran well” stock answers. But if you go to Kenya and hang out and gain people’s trust, which is basically what I did for my book, my god! The stories! The love of running! Because of course, they’re interesting people, and the stuff they’ve had to go through to get to where they are, how they think about running, how reflective they are, it’s amazing. One of the beautiful things in the book was Geoffrey Mutaitalking about the feeling he gets when he’s at his best, what he calls “the spirit” — this total easiness, joy, a nirvana like state. It’s not runner’s high, it’s something much more profound, because of all the shit he’s had to go through to get to where he is: breaking rocks in quarries, getting beatings from his dad, seeing everyone around him turn to booze. He’s come through all that and he’s now able to totally express his talent. No one had taken the time to talk to these guys in that way. He’s very self deprecating, and it took me three years to get to build up that trust to get these insights — there are self deprecating people all over the world, people who’d rather tell a funny joke about themselves than seem big-headed, but it’s a journalist’s job to get through that.

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon
 is published by Simon & Schuster in the USA and is available now. Follow Ed on twitter @EdCaesar.
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