Jolyon Attwooll talks to Ed Caesar about his highly praised first book “Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon".
Can you tell us how the idea for the book came about?
I used to know almost nothing about the marathon but had worked quite a lot in East and central Africa. I went to Kenya to cover the story of the 2008 Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, who died falling off a balcony at the age of 24. While I was there I saw thousands of people trying to be professional runners and I became really fascinated by the whole scene. I was trying to think of a way to write about it at greater length. Then the world record fell about three months later, in September 2011 [Editor’s note: 2:03:38 by Kenya’s Patrick Makau in the Berlin Marathon] and everyone started talking about the two-hour barrier again.
It’s a very unusual angle to get interested in running from.
Yeah, I wasn’t a runner back then. I was much more interested in the people than in the sport. I think it helped me. I was able to see bigger picture stuff that you wouldn’t be able to see if you were a running journalist or a real running aficionado.
Even though you weren’t a runner, did it feel like a privilege spending time with the Kenyan athletes?
It was a huge privilege – not just to spend time with them, but to really dig in and live with them. It was stunning watching these supreme athletes training, and being the only other person there. There’s no PR structure or publicist – and these guys are millionaires. It was a really happy time for me in terms of reporting.
The story centres around Geoffrey Mutai, who was the fastest marathon runner in the world at the time and there seems to be a lot of warmth between you. Are you still friends?
For sure, we’re having lunch in a couple of weeks. His ability to run was what drew me to him, but the thing that made him interesting was his deep – for want of a better word – soulfulness. He was very reflective about his life, his gifts and how he trained and lived, If you want to hang a book on someone you need them to have something to say, and it’s the reason we stayed in touch afterwards.
In your book you discuss a study that pinpoints the fastest marathon conceivable at 1:57:58. How did that land on your radar?
Just by reading the literature and being in the world. I read a lot of the science. Mike Joyner, who wrote the paper when he was a medical student, always seemed really interesting to me. He is another extraordinary person. He’s now an anaesthetist but a total polymath. He would quite happily converse about macroeconomics or running economy or the politics of sub-Saharan Africa.
You think there’s something to his theory?
It just seemed very interesting, that you can put these different parameters into an equation and come out with a very definite number. I think that it is probably about right, seeing what I am seeing.
Obviously Two Hours is about the men’s record. Did you ever find that limiting, especially given Paula Radcliffe’s record in the women’s event?
Yes, I did. I interviewed Paula for the book, and there was an early version of it where there was a long exposition about how Radcliffe did what she did, and how incredible her achievements were, and the ways in which her 2.15.25 in London was its own version of the sub-two. In the end, my editor and I decided that the Radcliffe section was a little unwieldy in what was quite a tight story. But I have been chastised for my male-centric view by reviewers of Two Hours, and there is some validity in that accusation. The fact remains, it’s going to be a man who breaks the two hour barrier.
Editor’s note: Ed has written a separate article on Paula Radcliffe’s achievement.
Speaking of which, you have been covering Nike’s Breaking2 project for Wired magazine. Do you know when they will make the attempt on the two-hour record yet?
They don’t have an exact date, but it’s going to be in early May in Monza [site of the F1 track]. It’s an amazing place to do it. I went out for a dress rehearsal and they are doing it round the junior track, which is 2.4 kilometres long. The pros have to go round 18 times. They are doing it in such a way that they can control all those variables, so they can get their hydration and their carb drinks at regular intervals and monitor them.
Do you think they will do it?
There are three of them trying and I think Eliud Kipchoge is the only one who can. It’s an outside shot but from what I’ve seen, I’d put the chances at around 25 per cent.
You tackled the problem of doping very directly in Two Hours. There are some, myself included, who feel uncomfortable that specifically targeting such an ambitious time might encourage athletes to push boundaries that shouldn’t be pushed. How are you addressing this issue with Nike?
I continue to ask them this question. If I were them, the first thing I would have done would have been to say “we have asked the IAAF to institute triply punitive anti-doping controls on the athletes doing this”. I don’t think they have done that but certainly the athletes are being tested in their own whereabouts programmes.
It’s obviously not Nike’s job to test them. You need an independent body. I also have no doubts about how clean these athletes are. I’ve got absolutely no doubts about Eliud Kipchoge. I know the setup he is in and his coach, Patrick Sang. I would eat every hat I had if he ever had an athlete test positive. Having said all that, that’s my view with the experience I have. The sport needs not only to be clean but to be seen to be clean. Your reaction is going to be common.
Yes, I know I am not alone.
The irritating thing for me is having been in that world for a bit you realise what people are missing. Because of that justifiable cynicism about whether we can really believe what we’re seeing, what they are missing is genuinely clean athletes doing extraordinary things.
Obviously hugely frustrating for the clean athletes…
Yes. It’s totally correct to be sceptical because so many bad things have happened and the sport really needs to get on top of it right now.
As part of your assignment for Wired magazine you are trying to beat your own goal, a sub-90 minute half marathon, the day before the professionals run. How’s that going?
I absolutely love the running. I like the training. I like the variety, I like the way it makes you think. I like the way you have to plan, especially if you’re doing reporting. I love seeing the improvement. It’s a really, really fun thing to do. I was just up in the Lake District, doing the Coniston 14, which is a fabulous race. That was the first race I did last year when I took up running properly and I was 14 minutes quicker this year!
I see you have also tried Nike’s fancy new shoes…
Yes – the Nike Zoom Vaporfly. I tried them on for all of nine minutes and 17 seconds. I wasn’t allowed to keep them. I did one lap of Monza and they took them back off me, but I can use them in the race that I am going to do. They are pretty incredible.
The major thing that I have got is that, after all my runs, all the data gets sent to this group of world class physiologists. When they are not looking at Eliud Kipchoge’s training data, they send me thoughts about my programme. It’s wonderful for an amateur like me having access to that kind of expertise.
Any reading recommendations from your research for Two Hours?
There is a brilliant book about a man named Edward Payson Weston and the early days of “pedestrianism” (running as sport) called A Man in a Hurry, and a really odd but inspiring book called Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich. There is also a brilliant Sports Illustrated article on Mamo Wolde (the 1968 Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia who was later imprisoned).
Anything else in the pipeline?
Yes – I’ve got a deal for a second book, which is going to be about a man called Morris Wilson, who attempted to climb Everest on his own in 1934, and about the extraordinary series of events that led him to do it. In April next year I am going to walk and climb in his footsteps to the top of the north col of Everest. So that’s the next exciting thing.
Good luck with that and the running – and thanks very much for your time!
Two Hours is available here, and at other good bookstores.
Jolyon Attwooll has been a Serpentine runner for nine years. His PB dreams are now probably beyond the help of Vaporfly shoes or world class physiologists but he still loves his running. You can often find him at the monthly handicap or pushing one of his two small children round the local Hilly Fields parkrun.
Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and see her artwork in person - she has an Open Art Studio event in Oxfordshire in May, 13th-21st. See her website (link below) for more details.