Marathon runner Geoffrey Mutai training in Kenya
Marathon runner Geoffrey Mutai training in Kenya © Michel Temteme/LUZ Photo

This is a story about endurance. A skinny 18-year-old kid from a dirt-poor family in thin-aired, equatorial Kenya, with no prospect of wealth or even comfort in his adult life, who did not wear shoes until his mid-teens, decides to become a professional runner. He has some talent, but so do many other scrappy Kenyans from the lush highlands to the west of the Rift Valley. It’s the year 2000. As he watches famous African athletes compete at the Sydney Olympics on a bar-room television, he physically breaks out in sweats. He wants to become those runners on the TV: to win a brutal race, to drape himself in his nation’s flag, to stand on a podium as the anthem plays.

The years pass. Injuries dent his confidence. He takes back-breaking jobs: a rock-smasher in a quarry, a tree-cutter for a power company. His family don’t want him to be a runner. His domineering father thinks it’s a frivolous pursuit. He’s the eldest of 11 children. There are mouths to feed. The family begs him to find a proper occupation. Gently, he defies them. He joins a training camp full of professional athletes, who welcome him, as long as he can keep up. He runs 125 miles a week. It’s hard, but he’s doing what he loves. Little by little, he improves. It takes two years of full-time training, in which he earns no money, before he has a chance to show his talent. When the moment comes, in 2007, he runs hungry, in every sense, and places second in a local marathon. A European manager spots him. He signs a contract. Two months before his first professional race, he’s nearly killed as tribal violence engulfs his country. Somehow, he survives.

In 2011, the skinny kid has become the king of the marathon. In a sport where the elite only run twice a year over 26 miles and 385 yards, he destroys the course records at arguably the two toughest major marathons in the world: Boston and New York. In Boston, he wins in 2.03.02. His finishing time is nearly a minute faster than anybody has run a marathon in the history of the sport (although, much to his annoyance, it won’t count as a world record, for finicky reasons connected to the shape of Boston’s course). In New York, he wins in a scarcely believable 2.05.06. His finishing time beats the course record by nearly three minutes.

The one-time marathon king is today a millionaire in his mid-thirties approaching the end of an extraordinary career. His name is Geoffrey Mutai, and he understands endurance perhaps better than anybody on the planet. But if you were to ask him when he truly suffered in his life, he would not mention sport. For most people in the western world, running a marathon is the ultimate challenge — it’s the product of months of aches, blisters, fund-raising and the obsessive Instagramming of muddy trainers. Chris Brasher, one of the co-founders of the London Marathon, often called the race “the great suburban Everest”. But for Mutai, and for many like him, the tough part was arriving at the start line.

Mutai’s story is instructive, because if you take a look in your nearest bookshop, you cannot help notice: we have once again gone crazy for endurance. There’s nothing new in publishing. Tales of mountaineers, or runners, or explorers beating the odds have always been popular. The Odyssey, a founding text of the western literary canon, is an epic of endurance. But we go through odd and interesting periods where stories of adventure and hardship speak particularly loudly to us. (I would argue that another such moment came in 1997, when Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, about a fishing boat caught in a tempest, and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about a disaster on Everest, both rode high in the bestseller lists for weeks on end.) Now, it seems, we are in the thick of another endurance season.

A glance at the New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list reveals three such titles in the top six: Unbroken (the adventures of Louis Zamperini, a runner who survived a plane crash, 47 days on a life raft, and a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp), The Boys in the Boat (about Americans rowing against the Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and Wild(a memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in order to banish the author’s demons). What’s striking about these titles is not just their presence on the list, it’s their longevity. Unbroken, which was published in 2010 and has since been made into a film, has sold more than 4m copies worldwide. Not only do these books catch the eye but, like their characters, they endure.

I have no idea what readers will make of my own book, Two Hours, about the quest to break the two-hour marathon, but I have spent considerable time thinking about why such stories are attractive, and what kind of endurance we’re really interested in. One easy explanation for the success of the endurance-lit phenomenon is that it’s more enjoyable to read about great hardship than to experience it. Because of the disparity between the circumstances of the characters and those of the reader, the process becomes something like a benign version of schadenfreude. It is a double pleasure: not only are you mercifully not there (the freezing mountain, the unforgiving jungle, the final mile of a race) but you are guiltlessly and assuredly here (filling an armchair, warmed by single malt, kids asleep).

Riders negotiate cobblestones during the Tour de France on Tuesday
Riders negotiate cobblestones during the Tour de France on Tuesday © Bernard Papon/AP

I became most aware of this split sensation when reading Wade Davis’s haunting book Into The Silence, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2012. Davis tells the story of three British expeditions to Everest in the 1920s — the last of which claimed George Mallory’s life. These men, in their tweed suits, were tortured by the elements. One mountaineer, Charles Howard-Bury, observed that on Everest: “Your feet can be suffering from frostbite while you are getting sunstroke at the same time.” Wherever I was when I read that sentence, I made a double-exclamation mark in the margin — one of dozens with which my copy of the book is punctuated — and, I imagine, drew the duvet in a little closer.

It’s facile, however, to suggest that we only read about adventure as a displacement activity. All books ask us to empathise with experiences and worlds that are not our own. It requires as great an act of imagination to attend a ball in the Regency England of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1816) as it does to shiver on board the USS Jeanette on its doomed Arctic adventure in Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice (2014).

So why now? It’s possible that stories of adventure, peril and hardship have become crucial to the stories we tell about ourselves. There is a clue as to the current boom in the pages of Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run (2009), about the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico and their extraordinary facility for running long distances. In that book, McDougall explains a recent breakthrough in evolutionary science called the Running Man theory, which suggests that “endurance hunting” — the tracking of prey over many miles — was a cornerstone of human development.

The proponents of the Running Man theory contend that certain physical characteristics in human beings show that we were, literally, born to run. For instance, unlike non-running mammals, but like horses and dogs, human beings can hold our heads still because of the nuchal ligament at the base of our skulls. We have strong gluteus muscles to power our legs and to counterbalance our heavy chests. Our feet and ankles are spring-loaded with tendons and ligaments. We sweat, so our bodies cool themselves quickly (meaning that we can outrun a furry quadruped and have him for dinner). And, most significantly of all, perhaps, we possess what the biologist Bernd Heinrich describes in his 2007 book, Why We Run, as “visionary power”.

“The key to endurance, as all distance runners know, is not just a matter of sweat glands,” Heinrich argues. “It’s vision. To endure is to have a clear goal and the ability to extrapolate to it with the mind — the ability to keep in mind what is not before the eye. Vision allows us to reach into the future, whether it’s to kill an antelope or to achieve a record time in a race.”

McDougall’s book has sold more than half a million copies, and has been wildly influential in exercise circles. It is the central text in an atavistic, back-to-nature fitness movement whose adjuncts include Tough Mudder, a competitive obstacle course craze, the caveman diet, whose disciples eat no potatoes and supernumerary eggs, and those odd, chicken-like Vibram Fivefingers neoprene slippers that some runners wear instead of trainers. A recent survey by Sport England confirmed what most of us who have been anywhere near a London park in the past few years could see with our own eyes: people are spending less time in gyms and more time exercising in the open air. Indoor swimming has rarely been so unpopular.

Perhaps the most significant influence of McDougall and his subsequent acolytes has been in motivation. A few years ago, people ran to burn a few calories or lose some paunch. Many still do. But some in the swelling legion of weekend warriors and Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra) may now believe they are doing something more than exercising. Their Sunday ride up Box Hill now connects to some deeper level of what it means to be a human being. It’s unsurprising that if your exercise regimen becomes bound up with your identity in this way, you might want to read stories about endurance.

Here’s the most revealing facet of endurance-lit: most of the bestsellers in this genre are about self-imposed hardship. They are about sport, in its widest sense. True endurance is the kind shown by the sweatshop worker who arrives for her 14-hour shift, day after day, and is paid buttons. (Or, perhaps, it’s the kind shown by Geoffrey Mutai, before he had even become a professional runner.) But books about sweatshop workers do not sell by the lorry load.

1924 Everest expedition, on which George Mallory died
1924 Everest expedition, on which George Mallory died © The Granger Collection

The precise delineation of the genre tells us much about its appeal. By the time Krakauer stood on Everest during the 1996 climbing season documenting the tragedy that would later form Into Thin Air, none of the climbers was there to pioneer a new route to the summit. They were tourists. (One of the book’s most poignant themes is the idea that perhaps every mountaineer is now a tourist of some kind.) In Wild, Cheryl Strayed didn’t need to walk the Pacific Crest Trail for any scientific or exploratory reason. She needed to walk it because she was hurt and wanted to prove something to herself. She takes two journeys in Wild: one on the map and one of the heart.

Similarly, the self-aware marathon runner would ask himself what the hell he is doing. Like climbing Everest, or hiking the PCT, running a marathon appears to be a pointless activity. You have endured, but to what end? If you raised money for a charity, terrific, but was that the reason why you wanted to enter the race? So many general-participation adventure and endurance sports spark these questions. What am I, a fund manager, an accountant, a journalist, doing on the side of this mountain? Why have I run so far my feet are bleeding? Wherefore all this suffering?

Here are some reasons: we are distracted 12 times a minute; we spend too long in air-conditioned offices; we are chained to our telephones; we can access limitless entertainment; our shopping comes to our front door; our children arrive at school by car; our churches are empty.

It is this last point that interested me most while writing Two Hours. The language of team sport is predominantly martial: we speak of winners and losers, strategies, injuries and campaigns. The result is everything. But for participants in endurance sports, there is a quieter and more spiritual register. Mountaineers, for instance, talk about “peaking” — which describes both the arrival at a summit and the accompanying blissful sensation.

For Mutai, running was never just sport; it was the means of achieving a state of grace. There is a term that sports psychologists use to describe when an athlete is performing with unconscious ease. They call it “flow”. The French cyclist Jean Bobet described a similar but distinct state 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 calls it “the spirit”. The way he understands it, the brutality of his training regime — 125 fierce miles a week — is endured to attain this sensation. “The more harder you train,” he says in his idiosyncratic English, “the more you get the spirit. It gains on you.”

Running a marathon, then, is not so pointless. Most people who do so are seeking something if not numinous, then meaningful. We no longer need to go and kill the antelope to eat for dinner. Supermarkets will do that for us. But, for profound and perhaps evolutionary reasons, we do need to test ourselves from time to time. Moreover, many of us, who don’t find it easy to talk about the state of our souls, find it easier to address those questions of our identity through certain narratives. And these books that have entranced us, about acts of fortitude and courage and endurance? The bookshops should move them out of General Non-fiction and into Self-Help.

Ed Caesar’s new book, Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon’ will be published by Penguin on July 16

Photographs: Michel Temteme/LUZ Photo; Bernard Papon/AP; The Granger Collection

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