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When Dennis Kimetto broke the marathon world record in Berlin in 2014, he set off from the Brandenburg gate through Tiergarten park in the centre of the city, before sweeping east through Mitte to take in the architectural majesty of Museum Island, crossing the river to skirt the Berlin wall at its East Side gallery into Friedrichshain, pitching further south, to chase the gaudy sunrise of gentrification through Neukölln and Kreuzberg’s ex-soviet dives, before cutting back west via the leafy suburbs of Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf and Charlottenberg, with its stately, statue-clad palace, and then north, under the shadow of Potsdamer Platz where millennial skyscrapers reared back up around him, to turn at last back into Tiergarten, to take the finish at the gate. His time of two hours three minutes was achieved in Autumn sunlight, which highlighted the spectacle of this irrepressible city, and its watching residents, resplendent with their banners and smiles. Not that Dennis Kimetto would have seen much of this. He was what is referred to by sports science as in the zone: sinewy limbs rolling, breathing controlled, all resources committed towards his inexorable advance upon the finishing tape.
Of all athletic events, the marathon requires the most dedication from its participants. Lonesome years of training. Incremental gains. Turning down cake. The physical capacity to run 26.2 miles at such a pace, must be developed in tandem with a mentality that sets the goal of running faster above the body’s reluctance to do so. This goal, which can only be realised at the finishing tape, is non-negotiable. The miles an athlete covers are to be endured, and this numerical accumulation is the means to the end of their success.
Yet, the mind of a runner is not a stopwatch, and numbers are only that from which we extrapolate the story of a race. To make distance a target, to make its numbers conquerable, it must be clothed in images. Dennis Kimetto, the soon-to-be-record-breaking athlete, had no doubt visualised in advance the race’s initial stampede, the lineaments of the course, the likely moves of his competitors, the roadside lined with exuberant faces. Visualisation prefigures the atmosphere of competition, so that make or break moments can be dealt with rationally. Such is the sports-psychologist’s path to glorious victory – and glorious victory elucidates its own images: the smile blooming on the finishing straight, the arms raised euphorically, the tears on the podium, a large novelty cheque, perhaps. Or privately, a pat on the back from the coach, a teammate, a lover, and the warm glow of achievement in one’s aerobically efficient heart the next morning.
The marathon runner, to whom the world outside is a blur, instead traverses a translucent gallery in which hang the illustrations of their goal. To them, then, distance is more than numerical suffering; it is aspirational – a progression towards an achievement that they have envisaged, an achievement that lays claim to those numbers as its substance. Any sensations one of the world’s great cities had to offer Dennis Kimetto that particular September afternoon, swept over his vision like raindrops off a car windscreen. He wanted to win, to break the world record, to be the best. He could picture it. He succeeded.
It is testament to the power of his winning story, that on the twenty-eighth of September 2014, there were twenty-eight thousand, nine hundred and sixty-seven hitherto unmentioned participants in the Berlin Marathon. One was south Berlin resident, Jonas Meyer. Having found little time for training, Jonas Meyer forced down coffee on the morning of the race with a lump in his throat. Nevertheless, he grinned defiantly as he put on his expensive shorts, and pictured himself finishing with a time faster than in the previous year’s race. He nursed this rudimentary impression to the start line, and set off fast, scowling professionally as he swept by a man dressed as a spaghetti bolognese.
Checking his watch at around the ten mile mark, Jonas Meyer swore, and glimpsing it as he passed his own apartment in Charlottenberg, he understood that there was no chance of achieving his goal. He was, after all, not an athlete, but a junior employee at a firm of chartered surveyors. Gradually, he allowed the primitive sketch of sporting success that he had held in his mind’s eye since the morning, to fade. He lost focus. He followed the woman in front of him to high-five an enthusiastic supporter, and spoke to her for a while, in short, breathless words, before she drifted back ahead. Half a mile later, Jonas Meyer turned into Tiergarten park, slowed a little, and looked around. Beyond the cheering supporters, with their necks strained for a glimpse of a daughter or an uncle, people stretched out across the grass. He saw a child run from its mother, chasing something, a bumblebee perhaps, and half-trip on two lovers, supine on the grass, who laughed with each other, and a tramp, sitting under a tree with his collection of plastic bags, also laughed.
The next morning Jonas Meyer woke, ached, and remembered this moment in the park. He played it out in his head, his Cornflake-laden spoon immobile, and smiled. Taking his umbrella from the stand in the hallway, he set out through Charlottenberg along the route he had run the previous day. His smile wavered a little at the cramped U-bahn to Mitte, and a little more in the foyer at the queue for the lift. After seven flights of stairs, he strode into the open plan office at eight-fifteen and frowned. König was already at work.
König and he were both chasing promotion to team leader. It leant an unspoken charge to their conversations re spreadsheet logistics, and meant that he no longer borrowed König’s set square. All day Jonas Meyer worked furiously, taking only ten minutes for lunch. He was a man of ambition, and, in his mind at least, he had a history of coming up with the goods. As he typed, he glanced up at the diaphanous reflection of the open plan office in the floor-to-ceiling window. He knew that one day he would run this office. He saw himself impressing the board, surpassing the director’s supposed targets, arriving at the top. Lost in this projected future, he did not see a child on the street outside, chasing something, a bumblebee perhaps, until it half-tripped on a tramp, supine on the pavement, who apologised as a mother snatched up the child, while two lovers, on a nearby bench, remained fixated on their phones.
But our mutual helicopter cam will leave Jonas Meyer there, focused, behind his office window, and wheel up above Berlin, while its marathons play out below us. These marathons are not organised by the city council, or ratified by an athletics federation, and their distance is not standardised, although the numbers by which we measure material gain are their substance. Many, fresh faced at the start line, are convinced they will go far. They may envisage a journey, containing a period of suffering, which a victorious outcome makes worth overcoming. They may reach that finish line, which will have since moved further down the road, because the race has begun, and it is of undefined distance. And, all the while, images of promotion, of success, of eventual glory, will be set against fear of anonymity, of not one day being Dennis Kimetto. So, they will keep their head down; they will forever advance towards an embroidered horizon; and of all the remarkable things they pass in this distance, they will see nothing.
– 3rd of March 2018