By Michael Crawley
In a two-part series in the New York times entitled ‘Man vs Marathon,’ http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/sports/two-hour-marathon-yannis-pitsiladis.html?_r=0Jeré Longman has taken a thorough look at Janos Pitsiladis’ project to accelerate the process which will, almost certainly, eventually lead to a human being running the arbitrary distance of 26.2 miles in a nice even two hours.
In the article, Pitsiladis says that the most likely candidate to achieve this feat would be an Ethiopian or Kenyan athlete with a hard, rural upbringing, and that the best way for them to run that fast for that long would be for them to minimise the amount of weight on their feet, probably running barefoot or with merely ‘a film that covers the bottom of the foot.’
I read the first article whilst 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’ 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 article 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 festival,’ where people from the nine different regional 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 first-proposed start time of nine in the morning that people didn’t feel like it quite yet and we should come back at three in the afternoon. At three thirty, 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 which Pitsiladis’ 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 30 million dollars of investment and they raise their eyebrows. Running clubs in Ethiopia pay modest salaries to their athletes of around 100 dollars 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-2 hour project is focusing on cutting edge science to shave the remaining 177 seconds from 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, eying our tracksuits and saying, ‘you’re sportsmen, you can go on foot!’ No doubt Pitsiladis would agree. ‘Do you think she realises we got up four hours ago, at 5am, and that we’ve run 22 kilometers this morning?’ one of the athletes asked me.
When I asked my sub-agent friend Gebre about Pitsiladis’ 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’ research is based), and then it’s finished for the two hour marathon for them,’ he told me.
But is there really anything wrong with these young men wanting to live their lives a little bit? 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 last 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. The most exciting marathons in recent years, though, 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. And 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. Are scientists taking risks with other people’s bodies? These athletes have hopes, dreams and often families and other dependents to support. They are not merely expendible sources of research data. Perhaps we ought to spend more time asking them what kind of sport they want to be involved in.
Michael Crawley is an Edinburgh University PhD student in International Development, studying the links between distance running and development in Ethiopia. Here he reflects on the much talked about two-hour marathon, using interviews with young runners in Ethiopia.
* The athletes’ names are changed to protect their anonymity.