The Long and the Short of Competitive Running

Preview of the London Sports Writing Festival 2015

Caesar, Two HoursMoore, Bolt Supremacy

If you want to understand Jamaican sprinting or Kenyan marathon running, the place to be on 15 November is not Kingston or Iten but Lord’s Cricket Ground, where the London Sports Writing Festival will take place. Richard Moore and Ed Caesar will both be there to talk about their latest books (above) in discussion with Orla Chennaoui of Sky Sports.

Click here for ticket details and information about the other events on the programme. I have already reviewed Richard Moore’s “The Bolt Supremacy” here, so now I will look at Ed Caesar’s “Two Hours”, to compare and contrast the two extremes of the running art.

Creating Bonds

Marathon runners are unfamiliar, like a distant leading group. As Caesar says, “We know nothing of their homes, or families, or desires or vices . . . We do not know how much they are paid. We do not know if one of them cheats.” He then chases after these details.

The most intriguing question is that of payment. Caesar explains the economics of the running camps, and sheds a great deal of light on why Kenya succeeds. Just as Jamaica developed its system by building links with US coaches, Kenya has established its own niche, in a complex global network of camp owners, agents, sponsors and race directors.

Geoffrey Mutai NYC

But this is no dry analytical text. For it is an exploration of human limits, of whether a marathon can be run in less than two hours. The attempts of Geoffrey Mutai (above) to break the world record are at the heart of this book, and provide its emotional heart too.

Caesar does not let talk of money drain the romance from the narrative. He poignantly contrasts Mutai’s wealth with his previous life breaking rocks, and deftly handles the tragic morality tale of Sammy Wanjiru, whose flashy lifestyle may have led to his death.

One Hundred and Twenty Years of Cheating

As with Jamaica, and indeed with all countries that participate in athletics, the lingering stench of doping hangs in the air. Like Moore, Caesar does not shy away from the issue.

Kenyan doping is messy. Crooked doctors act like dealers at a dodgy nightclub and are not always honest about what they are giving to the athletes. This messiness reveals a lot about its sophistication and likely effectiveness. Lance Armstrong was never messy.

And there have always been cheats. In a non-Kenyan interlude, Caesar outlines the truly unbelievable history of the early Olympic marathons. Drug taking, aggressive dogs, fruit stealing, shortcuts and a lift in a car all feature. If nothing else, it will persuade you that the slow burn excitement of a marathon race can be just as dramatic as that of sprinting.

Next week: My preview of the events at the London Sports Writing Festival continues


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