The talented are terrifying. They remind us of our utter ordinariness. They casually tell tales of feats that are routine to them yet bewildering to us. And so it is with this Englishman sitting before me. He is stationary - which is strange, for he lived on the run.
Steve Cram, in the 1980s, won world championship gold, Olympic silver and two Commonwealth golds in the 1,500m. He is a middle-distance maven, but is in town to commentate on the Standard Chartered Marathon. So I ask in passing if he has ever embraced this unfamiliar, longer distance. This is what he says.
Roughly five years after retirement he runs two marathons. He's 39 then. During the second one, he's working for the BBC and they ask if he will carry a mobile phone. One of those old ones. Just to, you know, offer the odd bit of commentary during the race. To speak and saunter.
This is his timing that day: 2 hours, 35 minutes. To give it perspective, the Singapore national record is 2:24:22.
His timing is built from thousands of miles accumulated in his legs over 20 years. His timing, he says matter-of-factly, "works out to about six minutes a mile. During my years that was an easy run."
Of course, it is 26 six-minute miles in a row. Of course, this qualifies as terrifying talent.
Today in the marathon, in the 10km, almost everyone is a sneakered voyager in search of a personal best. This was equally true of Cram, except for a minor detail: his PBs were... well... world records. In 1985, he broke the 1,500m, mile and 2,000m world records - all in 19 days.
The world record - history on fleet foot - is beyond the reach of most of us, but I want to glimpse the entrails of this feat, its sense of flight, its inner thought process. And Cram is my guide.
On YouTube there is footage of the Oslo race in 1985 when he broke the mile record, beating Sebastian Coe. On that night, like most competitive nights, he's coping with two things at once: "Winning and also how fast you can run."
He thinks of rival, not clock. He knows, the "fastest guy doesn't always win gold". His fear is not about failing to post a fast time, his fear is "losing". He understands that "you've got to be good enough to be quick and also have the weaponry to win the race".
Tennis players, who must respond to an arriving ball within milliseconds, answer to instinct. But the runner thinks. Not of mechanics, says Cram, as a high jumper might. But a "consistent analysis" unfolds, a constant questioning occurs. "How fast am I running? Am I in the right place in the pack? Where are my rivals?"
The 100m is an abbreviated, unvarnished explosion. The middle-distance race, like the marathon, unfolds in layers. It is running as cerebral exercise. It is also a version of bravery. "At some point in a race," he says "you have to commit yourself". You have to embrace "risk".
When the pacemaker drops out, the runner can sit in the comfort of the pack. But, he says, "you don't break world records like that". You break them by pushing.
That night in Oslo, the third lap is slow, no world record seems possible. Then Cram risks. He goes to win. He kicks once. Kicks a second time. Kicks a third time. He is a machine with infinite gears.
Every runner, however modest, has briefly felt his own version of perfect flight. When running seems effortless, when every mechanical part feels oiled, when you seem to overreach the mortal idea of fatigue.
Cram is there that night, in that place where sport deceives and running actually feels easy. He's running so strongly he feels there is no limit to it. "I couldn't run faster yet my cardio-vascular system was not stressed."
Every now and then, a record breaks. The clock bends to talent. A label is then affixed to the runner: Faster than anyone before. It seems romantic to the outsider, but the great runner, built of sweat, is more pragmatic.
"It's a weird thing to get your head around," Cram says. His pleasure doesn't lie in such pompous tags, it lies in the company he keeps. He looked at the names in history's list, names like Paavo Nurmi, John Landy, Roger Bannister, names of those who broke the record before him. "You're just pleased that you are on that list," he says.
Nothing ends with the world record, nothing ends today with your personal best. The runner gives chase till he can't chase any more. He never knows if he will go faster, but he has to believe he can go faster.
That night in Oslo, when he finished and glanced at the clock, Cram didn't think of the world record he had set. Instead his mind first travelled somewhere else.
"I thought I could run faster than that."
Then he pauses.
"But I never did."
This article was first published on Dec 07, 2014.
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