Commentary

Staged marathon should not mask the spirit of the quest

The Kansas farm boy studies by kerosene lamp and has a father who deals out punishment with "forearm, fist, rawhide buggy whip"; the Australian collects butterflies and embraces suffering, sometimes training only after midnight; the English medical student runs some days during lunch breaks and uses science to break down his running.

In the 1950s, these three astonishing men - Wes Santee, John Landy and Roger Bannister - confront what is a mythical time, a psychological barrier and a physical trial: They are trying to run the first sub-four-minute mile (1.609km).

It is a romantic, despairing, uplifting human chase - brilliantly captured in Neal Bascomb's book The Perfect Mile - for going under four minutes is a dream, an adventure, an obsession. It looks too quick, it seems too inhuman. Everest had been climbed in 1953, but four minutes had not been breached.

Eventually Bannister broke through but then athletes always do, for they do not appreciate the idea of limits and spend their lives launching sweaty rebellions against the words "can't" and "impossible". So, even though people have reservations over the process, we are still drawn to this weekend when young men will try to run 1:59:59 in the marathon. Two hours is their four minutes.

That time will be roughly one hour faster than what a farmer named Spiridon Louis timed (2:58:50) when he won the first marathon of the modern Olympics in 1896. Louis, a simple man, who refused offers of watches, wine and even a Singer sewing machine, may have raised a Greek eyebrow at the fancy VaporFly Elite shoes and hired F1 track for this weekend's Nike-sponsored run, but he might have understood its underlying spirit. The thrill lies in the quest.

This run is a staged attempt, with pacers, to be held on the day - either today, tomorrow or Monday - with the most helpful conditions. It somewhat lacks the authenticity of the record broken in competition, where the racing environment is raw not controlled as athlete pushes athlete and talent flares. The natural anyway is always more fun than the engineered. In 1968, for instance, Bob Beamon drank tequila and had sex the night before the long jump final and broke the record by 55cm.

This hunt for 1:59:59 is still intriguing because this is still about dreaming, and nerve, and science, and unpredictability, and the breaking of barriers. They are admittedly chasing no medal, nor will claim it as a world record, and yet something irresistible is at play: the discovery of human potential.

And so this sub-two-hour attempt can seem a trifle artificial, a sort of manufactured tilt at greatness at a time when too much of sport has lost its spontaneity anyway and too much is orchestrated.

And yet this hunt for 1:59:59 is still intriguing because this is still about dreaming, and nerve, and science, and unpredictability, and the breaking of barriers. They are admittedly chasing no medal, nor will claim it as a world record, and yet something irresistible is at play: the discovery of human potential.

Who are we? How far can we go? This is what sport and the exceptional do, they hurdle the fences of the meek and challenge the imagination. People ask why sport matters and perhaps this is one reason: It is the place where an often destructive species produces some of its most compellingly creative leaps.

It might be Jim Hines running the 100m under 10 seconds, Vladimir Salnikov first swimming under 15 minutes in the 1,500m or Sergey Bubka flying over 6m in the pole vault and then raising his arms as if pointing to the heavens where he fell from.

Always sport is redefining what we can do, breaking barriers of physicality, psychology, colour, gender. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle swam the English channel in a time almost two hours faster than all the five men who swam it before.

On the day of the swim, winds rose, waves heaved, a squall arrived, but Ederle came wearing enthusiasm. "For heaven's sake, let's get started," she said. After seven minutes a heavy swell nearly made her quit, but she would swim for over 14 hours more. "I thought I had to make a showing," she said, "so I just kept on, and on, and on."

This is precisely what the marathoners must do this weekend, push on, and on, and on, through pain and into possibility. They must run at under 4:35 a mile, for 26 miles and 385 yards, and even if they do it no one will build statues of them as they did for Bannister but it should not entirely dilute their quest. They are, these three Africans, trying to take a planet forward and faster.

They are driven by the small chance and will probably fail but in all failure is learning. One day, of course, 1:59:59 will happen and then we will push even further for accomplishment has no last stop. After all, in his entertaining book The Perfection Point, John Brenkus suggests humans could eventually go as fast as 1:57:58.

This weekend is not a race but almost an experiment, involving statistics, scientists and shoes, where almost everything has been tested and calibrated and calculated. It sounds clinical and feels fabricated and yet it can never entirely be. After all, what drives humans past the known limit is still the immeasurable strength of the human heart.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'Staged marathon should not mask the spirit of the quest'. Print Edition | Subscribe