Going Long: An Interview with Ed Caesar
Ed Caesar is an award-winning writer who came up with the idea for his first book, Two Hours: The Quest To Run The Impossible Marathon, when he was on a reporting trip to Kenya in 2011. In the time since, Caesar has developed a keen interest in the sport of professional marathon running and recently accepted an assignment from Wired magazine to report on Nike’s Breaking2 project.
I caught up with Caesar a few weeks ago to talk about the sub-2 hour marathon attempt, how he’ll be covering it, along with the current state of marathon running as a professional sport. We also discussed Caesar’s own evolving relationship with running and training, how it’s affected his writing, the parallels that exist between the two disciplines, and much more.
Let’s start by talking about the sub-2 hour marathon. There was a big to-do made about it with Nike’s announcement of their project. You’re going to be, as I understand it, one of a small handful of reporters who have access to the project and the athletes. And, you’re actually going to be training for your own sub-2—or sub-90 half marathon, I should say—using a lot of the same methods that Kipchoge and Desisa and Tadese are using as well.
I should be clear about that. My main role is as a reporter. I was asked by Wired whether I would like to, as a thing to do for Wired.com, whether I would like to do the training bit to try and break my own barrier. I thought it would be very cool because I was getting into running anyway. [It] just seemed like a really good opportunity to listen to a lot of smart people tell you how to get better.
And also, I thought as a reporter, it would be interesting to be talking to the same guys that are dealing with the pros. What I’m doing, my training is a way for me to talk to the same scientists and shoe designers and what have you that are dealing with Kipchoge and Desisa and Tadese, and that’s how it divides, but my main role is to be a reporter.
Sure. When were you first made aware of Nike’s Breaking2 project?
October. I just got a call from Wired, from an editor there, just saying, “We read and loved your book and think there’s a story that you’d like to do.” I was all ready just to say no because you turn down a lot of work just because there’s only so much time in the year, and these stories take a long time. Then he told me what it was, and I just thought it sounded really interesting, so I said yes.
It was announced that adidas is going to partake in their own version of a sub-2 type of project. We know of [Yiannis Pitsiladis], who’s working with Bekele and his attempt on sub-2. For you, as the guy who wrote the book Two Hours, do you think all of this current focus on running a sub two-hour marathon is a good thing for the sport of competitive distance running?
OK, well let me break it down a little bit in that the adidas thing is not to me the same as what Nike are talking about. Nike wants to have this special event, this special race to get people to two hours. Adidas, even when I was reporting on the book, said to me, “We’re thinking about this sub-2 idea as what’s guiding us in our shoe design and what have you.” It’s different having a set of vague lode star for your shoe design. They had a sub-2 conversation in-house. I haven’t seen anything from adidas that says to me that they’re going to try and do what Nike’s doing. I also, as much as I love them, I would take what Yiannis says with a pinch of salt. Yiannis Pitsiladis is not in a position to create his own race and to get great athletes to run in his race. To me, Nike’s doing this thing in the spring. Adidas would like obviously to have some part of that conversation at some point down the road, and they’ve got incredible athletes. And I don’t know what to think about [Pitsiladis’] sub-2 thing. To me, it seems kind of chaotic, but I don’t know.
So is it a good thing? I feel like pro marathon running is an incredible sport, a beautiful sport, but it has hidden itself in plain sight for a long time. I don’t know whether ultimately the Nike thing will be good for pro running, for competitive sports. What I do like is people trying something different. I feel like we could run the six world marathon majors and all the races that we know about already for the rest of time and introduce not one more fan to the sport.
I think all the people that like it are the people that like it, and the people that don’t like it, which is most people, and the people that don’t know anything about pro running, will remain the same. I think that the Nike thing has the potential, I think, to bring some people to the sport who might not be interested in it. And I think the reaction is broken down, roughly speaking, along the lines of people who already like the sport, like the people who are on the Let’s Run forum or people who maybe subscribe to your newsletter or people who are fans. People who love the sport, feel protective about it think, “This feels artificial. This feels like a derogation of everything that I love about the sport.”
But if you ask people that don’t know much about it, they see something clean and accessible, and they can’t …There are lots of things about the sport of pro running that seem very distant and inaccessible to most people.
Along those lines, and correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand it, this Nike attempt will not be in a sanctioned race. So, if they do run I guess anything under the current mark of 2:02:57, it will not count as a world record, whether they run 2:01 or 1:59. So given that, for me, as one of the people that you just described, that’s where I lose my excitement. As someone who’s a fan of the sport of marathoning, of athletics, of competition. The fact that if they do do this [run under 2 hours], which I think is a very good possibility that they could, that it wouldn’t even be on the record books. For me, that just sort of de-legitimatizes the whole thing.
Do you like watching Boston?
I do like watching Boston.
That’s not a legitimate record course, either.
No, but it’s the oldest annual marathon in the world. There’s some tradition to it, it’s run over the same route. There’s a history to it and there’s a basis of comparison where I can say, “Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02 at Boston, which Bill Rogers ran a 2:09:27 on the same course and Rob de Castella has run 2:07:50, or whatever it may have been. All these great marathoners have run in that race, and they’ve run this course. Anything that’s been done at Boston, unless they radically change the course and the Boston Marathon starts following a different route than it’s followed for the last hundred plus years, for me, that’s not so much necessarily about the record, but they can compare it to history. Whereas, I think this attempt…
No, I get it. I get it. My view on that is that the sport of marathon running, you’re talking about this very storied and historic race. The marathon is a really artificial distance.
It owes its survival to a series of stunts not unlike the one that Nike is going to pull in the spring. It owes its survival to crazy races at Madison Square Garden, Marathon Mania. It was dying as an event. It was absolutely dying as an event, and then something crazy happened. This Olympic race caught people’s imagination. Then a couple of guys and then a few more guys went on this world promo tour of running marathons inside. That stunt was the thing that actually saved the marathon, as an event, as 26.2 miles. Otherwise, we’d be running 25 or 27 or 24 or something like that. I think the interest of people watching Dorando Pietri versus Johnny Hayes in the Garden was because they understood the context. These two guys are going to duke it out again, having run in London on this course. The interest for me in watching Kipchoge, Tadese and is just seeing what happens if you try this crazy thing.
Not everything can always remain the same, and there’s nothing saying this is going to happen every year. It’s going to be a one-off thing. Kipchoge will probably go to Berlin in September, and everyone can enjoy the fact that he’s doing something on a IAAF-sanctioned course again. I don’t think there’s any harm in having one-off event. Haile Gebrselassie did the 1-hour record, which there’s a long history of people that have done that. I think Zatopek did it. Certainly I think Jos Hermans, his boss had done it once.
There are little moments in the sport where you can just take time out from the stuff that everyone does every year to say, “Isn’t this cool?” or “Isn’t this interesting?” or “Can we just maybe open people’s minds about what this sport is about?”
Do you think that would be the biggest success of this project, whether they run 1:59 whatever, is just what you just said: opening people’s eyes to the fact that the sport of professional marathoning even exists?
To me, because I spent three years just trying to report the stories of all these incredible people who nobody knew about, who were in the races, these amazing races. You think about Wanjiru vs. Kebede in Chicago or if you think about even Haile Gebrselassie’s world-record attempts, all these things that not many people knew about because they didn’t follow the sport, they didn’t understand why it mattered and they didn’t understand what these people had sacrificed to get to where they had. And to me, that would be a huge plus. I think a lot of the people who are against this event would see it as such. If more people were interested in their sport, that would be a great thing. The other thing that I would slightly take issue with is the idea that it’s not going to be competitive. Nobody at Nike, as far as I know, has said it’s not going to be a race. I think it’s going to be a race.
I’ve been vocal about my lack of excitement for the project, and part of my frustration, along with many others, I think, is that there are actually very few details known about the mechanics of it. As a reporter, it’s going to be your job to bring that out and tell that story. To this point, are you aware of, or can you speak of, whether this be an event where all three men are racing against each other at the same time? Are there going to be other people involved aside from Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese, or are those three guys just going to be running together in a vacuum against the clock?
There are some things that are evolving at Nike which I said I wouldn’t talk about because they’re still working it out, so this is hinged with that caveat, but from what I understand, I think it’s going to be a race. I think it’s just the three guys in a race, a marathon race, but they’re going to have every possible advantage to try and run as fast as they possibly can. And it may be to their advantage to work together for a while, but I would certainly think as in a moon landing or whatever, people remember the guy that comes first.
They still hadn’t decided what the policy was with pacemakers and what have you, but I can’t imagine them doing it without pacemakers, and they were talking about pacemakers, so there are going to be pacemakers. I don’t know whether each individual athlete will have his own pacers or whether there’s going to be pacers in front of the lead guy or how they’re going to do it. I think part of that depends on where they do it, and they’re just whittling down their short list at the moment. But I think it’s a race.
You’ve got three guys who aren’t part of the same training group all hoping to become the first person ever to break 2 hours for 26.2 miles. For this attempt, will all three men be training together, or will they be training separately in their own camps?
I think they’ll be training in their own camps. I don’t think they’re going to change very much about how they train, to be perfectly honest with you. I don’t imagine that the phone call was going to go into Patrick Sang from Beaverton, Oregon saying, “Yeah, we’ve got some new workouts for Eliud Kipchoge to try.” I think that would meet with a fairly frosty response. I think he’s going to tune up the way that he always tunes up.
I think what they’re going to try and do is help him in all sorts of other ways. Maybe if there are little tweaks that they can suggest, knowing what they do about is kind of athlete profile and how he prepares. If there’s something that he can do slightly better, then they might suggest it, but I think they’re coming to it with a certain amount of humility about how good these guys are already.
So it’s not a situation where they say, “Hey, we’ve got this coach who we believe has come up with the optimal way to train for the fastest marathon, and we are going to impose those training methods on you.”
I think that would be laughed out of Kaptagat.
That’s reassuring to hear, but there’s still a lot of mystery behind this and many unanswered questions, and I think that’s been frustrating for a lot of people who are trying to get excited about it.
One of problems has been the way that it’s been rolled out. I’m not in PR, but you can see that I wrote my story based on a very short trip to Beaverton. I don’t know very much at this stage or things that I’m allowed to say are quite small. That was a big tease for a lot of people, and I think some of the frustration is there isn’t that much information. Firstly, I hope to be able to write more stories and also I’m writing a huge magazine story after the event as well, which will hopefully clear up what happened at which stage and who was doing what and all that kind of thing. I imagine it’s frustrating.
How will you report on this story from where we’re at now to when this race occurs sometime in the spring? Will you be traveling to east Africa to spend time with these gentlemen? Will you be going back to Nike at all to see what they might be cooking up in their lab?
Yes and yes.
How will the reporting work?
I’m just going to do a lot of travel. I’m going to go to in Kenya next month, and hopefully Addis [Ababa] and hopefully…I don’t know what the situation is about getting into Eritrea these days, but that might be more tricky. Certainly, I’m planning on spending time with Kipchoge. And then Oregon, again. I’m going to go and see wherever they choose for the circuit. I’m going to follow the athletes as much as I can. I am going to ask as many questions as I can. I’m going to do as much travel and as much inquisition as I possibly ferret out how the thing is going to be put together.
Aside from what was sent out in the press release, have you had time to speak with the three athletes about this project? And if so, what’s their level of excitement for it at this stage?
Sure. This is one of the areas in which I really took issue with a lot of the reaction, negative reaction. I’m neither for or against. I just want to see what happens. I really found it patronizing that someone could think that Eliud Kipchoge being railroaded into doing this. Eliud Kipchoge is an incredibly impressive and very intelligent person who has made a huge amount of decisions in his life already that would vex most people. He’s come through a lot, has achieved a huge amount in this sport, and has never as far as I can see made decisions only for money.
He stayed in track a lot longer than I guess a lot of his contemporaries would have done. They would have come to the marathon sooner where all the money was. He’s had a clear plan in his head for what his career looks like, and I know for a fact that he took a long time to agonize over whether he should do this. London was a serious possibility for him.
The idea that he’s just been told to do this is crazy. He’s super excited because he thinks he can do something that no one else has done before.
Right. But it wasn’t his idea to say, “Hey Nike, I would love to try and break two hours for the marathon. Will you create the conditions to help make that happen?
No, it didn’t come from him. But then I guess he heard about the idea and thought about it, and he didn’t accept immediately. He ultimately made the decision to do it. The decisions why he did that, I’m going to try and find out. I think what he said, what he has said is that he wants to see what’s possible for him. You can imagine how that can be exciting for a really great athlete who’s won a lot.
Geoffrey Mutai used to sit dreaming about beating his Boston time. He’s like, “I just know that I can go quicker,” and the fact was he couldn’t go quicker, but that’s what he thought. He wasn’t necessarily dreaming about whatever the glory of winning a race was, although that would have been fantastic. The thing that obsessed him was his time.
Anyway, I take issue with the idea that these guys who, you know, Tadese is from one of the most repressive states in the world. Earlier this year, the entire soccer team of Eritrea just absconded while they were on a trip to Botswana to get away from the country’s system. Can you imagine the pressure of being the number one runner from that country and what that means for your life?
The amount of decisions that he’s already made in his life that were absolutely the properly adult decisions, I’m sure he hasn’t done this lightly. I’m sure there are many other things that he could have done. I just think you sometimes have to, even though certainly in that Nike press release, their voices weren’t that prominent, that’s partly to do with the fact that their English is not always terrific. What I hope to do in my story is to bring their stories out much more in the same way that I did in Two Hours.
And do you think that’s something that competitive marathon running is suffering from right now is that there are a lot of faceless athletes who are doing these incredible things, but their stories just aren’t being told?
Yes. I do, and one of the motivations of writing Two Hours was that I’d done a lot of reporting. I’m not a sports reporter really. I’d covered a lot of nasty stuff in that part of the world, East and Central Africa. Conflicts and post-conflict and all this kind of stuff.
To me, what was so attractive about writing the book was that African men were heroes of this narrative. They weren’t victims. They were in charge of their own destiny, and they had these amazing stories. They were doing it on the world stage in front of people who didn’t really understand them. That was really interesting to me.
Geoffrey Mutai sitting in a $600 a night hotel room in New York looking out over Central Park getting ready to race the next day, that’s already an interesting story. The guy broke rocks when he was 18 to feed his family. All of that has always been the most interesting part of the process for me.
Let’s talk a little bit about your own competitive involvement in this project. I fully understand and respect your role as a reporter. For you, having access to the same people that these three athletes have access to, what are you excited to learn about yourself?
I’m in the spirit of George Plimpton here. I’m having a go. I did it because I used to run sometimes, but it was sort of sporadic. I’d played sport for a long time from when I was five years old to when I was 33, I played rugby. After I finished playing rugby, I just wasn’t doing that much exercise. I was going to the gym maybe a couple times a week, running a couple times a week, but a jog for three miles or something.
Then a friend of mine who lived near me in Manchester said, “Just come out with me. I run at lunchtime. I run every lunchtime.” I knew that he was pretty fast, so I was a bit apprehensive about it, but what I really loved was that you could see so quickly how you could improve. I run in the middle of the day, and it immediately cured one of my big problems, which was that I had this big afternoon slump. I just didn’t get that anymore, but it was more than that. There are little moments when you’ve been training for a while where you suddenly feel like you’re flying, you’re going really fast, for you, but you could do it forever. You feel like you could do it forever. It’s not true because a mile up the road, you’re going to feel terrible again, but that little moment of real…
Joy. Runner’s high, or what Geoffrey Mutai called “the spirit.” That’s what you’re after, and ideally you’d feel like that for a whole race, but who knows. I’ve just become a real geek about it. I already knew all the stories and all the personalities from doing the book. I thought about running a lot, but actually doing it is a different thing. I feel like I’ve really discovered something I’m going to have for a long time.
And to this point, you recently ran a 1:36 half-marathon, which is a big improvement for you. What do you attribute those gains to?
I’ve just been consistently chipping away. I do a lot more speed work. I knew that that was the key to getting quicker anyway, so I do a lot more speed work. I was a bit more sensible about how I ate, so I think I’ve lost some weight.
You’re not a small guy.
No, I’m 6'5. In December, when I started running, I was probably 240, 245 [pounds] or something. That’s probably the weight I was when I played rugby, maybe I wasn’t in quite as good shape in December as when I was playing rugby. I’m like 215 now, something like that, so that’s where the speed is coming from.
Oh, wow. That’s a significant difference.
It’s just that combination. I eat better. I train more consistently. I’m smaller, therefore quicker, I think.
As part of your reporting on this project, will you receive personalized coaching, or do you have your own program that you’ll follow and you can ask Nike’s people for advice when you need it?
It’s a bit of a mixture because I’m just keeping up with my program at the moment, which seems to be doing a good job so far. I’m asking them for help with certain things, particularly around the nutrition, hydration stuff. Also, they see all my data, so I run every time with a heart rate monitor and a Garmin. That information gets sent back to Beaverton, then they’re crunching the numbers.
The idea is to get my threshold pace up to the level it needs to be, and so they have suggested a couple of new workouts. I have a coach as well in the UK, so I see her every couple of weeks. She just takes me through a session that has been suggested. I’m just about to hop on a conference call with a couple of people in Beaverton, my coach in London, and they’re going to go through my latest set of numbers. It’s embarrassing, Mario, if I could just tell you that. These guys are the brains of their generation, and they’re pouring over my frankly average running time, and saying, you know.
How will you be able to discern how much of your improvement can be tied to just increased consistency as someone who has only been running seriously for a year from the expertise—and I’m assuming equipment and strategies—that you’ll have access to as part of your involvement with the Nike project?
Well, I’ve got absolutely no idea how to answer that, but I’ve got to assume that most of my improvement is going to be the fact that I trained really hard and because I’m pretty new to consistent running, but that’s going to be the main thing. I’m going to hopefully be able to tell when some bit of training has helped more than other bits or whether the interference was actually unwelcome. I don’t know the answer to that question because I’m not at the end of the process yet but I think as long as you take the information that you’re given in some kind of slightly phlegmatic and non-doctrinal way, if you can just say this is what they want you to achieve and this is a suggestion about how you could do it, I’ll take the stuff I need and try and just concentrate on what’s important. The most important thing is just to run regularly on a good program that you believe in, to eat right, and to sleep right. I could do with Nike calling up my 18 month-year-old daughter just to tell her that I’m an elite athlete and I need my sleep. That’s what I need.
For clarification, will you have access to some of the technology and the equipment that they’re developing to help optimize things for the athletes, such as the custom race kits, footwear and whatnot?
Oh, yeah. I think I’m going to be wearing those. I’m going to have all of that, except they’re going to have to make them in a size enormous. One of the things that happened at Beaverton was I got my shoe size done on a 3D thing because they don’t have any shoes that are my size. I’m like a U.S. 13. I said, “Oh, God. This is such a pain.” They go, “No, don’t worry. We’ll just made a last of the shoe, and we’ll make these special racing flats for you. That’s fine.”
I’d like to switch gears a little bit. You’ve alluded to some of this, but I’d like to talk about your relationship with running, which is sort of a newfound passion for you, and writing, which is something that you do professionally, and have been doing for quite some time. In what ways has [running] affected the writing process for you as someone who does it on a full-time basis?
I think it’s saved my sanity, to be honest with you. I live in a house which is two full-time working parents. My wife’s a criminal lawyer. I have this job which takes me all around the world reporting on things that are not running, that are often quite heavy. Anywhere I’ve been in the world, Moscow or the U.S. or at home, I’ve been running. It’s just this bit of regularity that I really like.
It’s also so simple. It doesn’t take much to just pack your running shoes and a few bits of clothing in your roll-on luggage. I’ve loved all that. Also, particularly I reported a really long piece about money laundering and Deutsche Bank for The New Yorker. That just was driving my crazy, but the fact was that every day at 12 o’clock, I stopped thinking about it. I thought about something else. Then I can attack it again in the afternoon.
There was quite a period this August when I was closing that piece, and I’d wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning, get my kids out the door by 8, and then I’d work all morning. Then this thing in the middle of the day was the thing I looked forward to the most, which was when I got to go out and either do my ten 400 meters at the track or go out for my 10K run or whatever. It really was that oasis in the middle of the day that I loved.
The other thing I really love about it is that you’re aiming for these targets. I know that in three weeks time, I know I’m going to run a little half marathon near my house. I really want to run a decent time. For me, I want to run a 1:33 or something. I want to see if I can do that in January. I love the fact that that’s on the horizon because it makes you have all these little goalposts in your year. That for me is a really nice thing about the sport as well.
For you, are there parallels between the process of reporting on and writing a big story—as far as setting targets and the process involved in getting there—and training for a race such as a half marathon?
Only in the fact that you’re just baking a big cake, and there’s lots of ingredients. You’ll make sure that all of your ingredients are right and all of the processes are right. For me, with a big story, you need to have checked all the boxes. Otherwise, people are going to say, “Well, why did you think about that, or why didn’t you write about that?” It’s the same with running. You need your speed right. You also need to have done the right amount of miles and need to have eaten right. You need to think about all these things that go into it.
You almost need to get outside of your own body and think, “OK, what am I doing right? What’s not going so well?” My wife’s going crazy with how much I talk about it.
Is she a runner herself?
She’s really good. I wish she did it more. She’s a really good runner. I’m trying to persuade her to do a half marathon with me, but she’s now afraid that now I’ve trained so much that she’s not going to be able to keep up. She ran a 1:48 or 49 half marathon when she was one or two months pregnant with our second child, so I think she’ll be fine.
Yeah. I would say so. In this last year that you’ve been training consistently and pushing yourself quite a bit more, what’s your favorite type of session to do?
I don’t know about favorite, but the one that I was doing today, which is this really heavy, long interval session. We used to do this six by 1 kilometer set, in which we tried to get a kilometer done in four minutes, and then have a minute off and then do it six times, which was really intense, which I quite liked because once you got to the end of it, you really felt like you’d done something.
Now, we’re just refining that a bit so that the speed is greater, but the rest is longer. We’re doing 800 meters in three minutes, and then taking two minutes off. We’re trying to get our speed up. We did that today. It was super intense. You really have to concentrate because you’ve got to stay fast all the way around your 800 meters.
Then at the end of it, you feel like…you really feel like you’re doing something that not a lot of people are doing. That’s a nice feeling when you’re doing a session that feels like real work because you think, “How many other people are out here on a Monday at lunchtime doing this?” That’s quite a nice feeling to have.
The coach that you’re working with in London, has she been directing your training for a while or is this a relatively new thing?
It’s super new, and I’ve only had two meetings with her. Again, one of the things that I noticed about the Nike people who are involved in this project is they tread quite carefully in terms of what they’re willing to mess with. Nike have this thing called Nike Run Club and she’s one of their coaches. To me, it’s a really fun thing to be doing because there are some brilliant people who are involved in this, people who have written incredible papers on running and whose work I really respect. They want to help me do something I couldn’t do before, so that’s a really lovely thing.
My last question, because I’m curious, how often will you be dispatching regularly for Wired over the next few months as this project takes shape?
I think it’s every month online, I’m going to do that. I think it’s mostly going to be about my progress, but I’m going to see if I can write a bit about the breaking-two stuff as it becomes clear what they’re doing. I’m going to try and do both things in the same post. I guess it’d be like a 1,500 word post. I guess I’ll also be Tweeting about it when I can and what have you. It wasn’t the easiest thing that I’ve ever done because I don’t in fact like dealing with PR or publicists or big corporations or whatever. I don’t particularly like withholding information for a later date, or at least I wouldn’t have written about it already without having everything that I could disclose at the time. I would have just waited for the magazine story. This is just the nature of the deal is that I have to do some stuff in these stages. Then I can do whatever I want after the race has been run.
What I’m hoping, Mario, is that the definitive piece on this attempt, moonshot probably, whatever you want to call it, whatever it is, I will hopefully answer every and any questions in that piece, but let’s see.
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