TWO HOURS: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon
By Ed Caesar
Published 2015. 242 pages
Rating: 5 STARS
"Pitching a perfect game. Bowling 300. Winning the Triple Crown. There are markers in sports that embody excellence, the greatest possible achievement in a particular discipline. You can't be more perfect on the mound than 27 up and 27 down; you can't roll 301; there was no fourth leg for American Pharaoh to capture. But when it comes to running, it's hard to define the ultimate standard because someone, somewhere, someday will manage to break the tape faster, right? The four-minute mile and the 10-second 100-meter dash were once deemed unbreachable barriers. But once an athlete surpassed them, many more did. The hurdles may have been less physical than mental."
This is the opening from Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozado, and it's one of the best I read describing Ed Caesar's inaugural book, Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon.
Two Hours was written in 2015 when the marathon world best stood at 2:03:02 ran by Geoffrey Mutai at the 2011 Boston Marathon. Since then, Eliud Kipchoge has shattered the two-hour marathon by running 1:59:40 in October 2019 at a highly marketed event. Although the "quest" is over, Two Hours remains profoundly relevant. Jonathan Gault from Let's Run.com calls it the "definitive book on modern marathoning," and I could not agree more.
There are four themes interwoven into the book. Obligingly, it first covers the pursuit of a two-hour marathon. It then follow the marathon's history from its mythical beginnings in ancient Greece to its modern capitalistic enterprise. Chapters are dedicated to the root causes of East African runner domination of the contemporary sport. Finally, the book provides a behind-the-scenes documentary of Geoffrey Mutai, world record holder, 2x NYC Marathon winner, Boston Marathon champion, 2:03 "guy," and one of the all-time best in the sport.
Before diving into the book, a few notes about its author, Ed Caesar. He is not a runner, nonetheless a marathoner. Two Hours is Ed's first book following a distinguished career in newspaper and magazine journalism. From the author,
"Two Hours is the product of three years of reporting and hundreds of interviews. In particular, the sections where Geoffrey Mutai features most prominently are guided by the many interviews I conducted with him, and by the time I spent with him at his training camp, at home, and at races in Europe and America."
Ed draws on secondary sources, including John Bryant's Marathon Makers. His primary sources include the legendary Toni Reavis, who witnessed first-hand marathoning history, and Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Kamworor, two of the sports finest.
The book opens but does not dwell on the chase for a two-hour marathon. It tracks the marathon world record's downward progression from three hours to two hours and three minutes over one-hundred years. It dives into the physiology (vO2 max, muscle density, etc.) a runner would theoretically need to break the two-hour barrier. Finally, it looks towards the future and postulates what it would take to break the barrier. In hindsight, the book's predictions gathered from the leading experts at the time are remarkably prescient. The book concludes that we would need an "event," not a traditional race that was solely designed for the effort to break two hours. We would need the perfect course, weather, and schedule flexibility. Pacing and pacemakers would be critical to maintaining even splits and reducing wind resistance. Getting world-class pace markers to forfeit other races to sacrifice themselves for this effort has a monetary opportunity cost, so the two-hour event would need to be backed by big corporate sponsors. A well-trained runner is critical but not enough. We would need advances in sports nutrition and carbohydrate drinks. Lastly, we would need advances in shoe technology, which again, in hindsight, was remarkably correct. It makes you wonder how much was in motion five years before the record-breaking sub-two-hour run happened.
My favorite pages are the marathon's history, which is not surprising if you follow my writing. The book chronicles the marathon's development from its mythical origins at the Battle of Marathon to the modern World Marathon Majors. The reader is reminded of the marathon's golden age in the early 1900s with the first Olympic games, the debacle of 1908, and the marathon races held over hundreds of laps in Madison Square Garden. The American Running Boom of the 1970s revitalized the sport to mainstream audiences and introduced Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar's names along with the New York City and Chicago Marathons. The book transitions to the modern era and covers the "business" of marathoning, including the accompanying athlete development leagues, business agents, appearance fees, bureaucracy, and inner workings of major events.
In this modern era, East African runners dominate the sport. The emergence of these runners has precipitated a rapid drop in the world record. The cost has been the equally rapid decline of public interest in the marathon. Marathon's marketability is perennially low since the leading athletes are rarely known to the public, even among dedicated runners. The top champions are often reclusive athletes living in remote villages emerging twice a year for a dominating running performance. As such, it is hard for mainstream runners to develop a relationship with these athletes as they might with a hometown baseball team, NASCAR driver, or basketball star. The author realizes this conundrum and seeks to ameliorate with his journalistic coverage of Geoffrey Mutai.
Ed Caesar is doing more to market the marathoning sport than many of the business's top promoters through his behind-the-curtain reporting of Geoffrey Mutai --- a first of its kind. In 2015, Geoffrey was one of the best marathoners in the world. His 2:03 performance at the 2011 Boston Marathon was the world's best. He was a two-time New York City Marathon winner. Yet, he was unknown by much of the running world. It seems that Ed's original concept for Two Hours centered on covering Geoffrey Mutai's training leading up to a big marathon similar to the "pre-race" fight camp coverage before a marque boxing event. We need more of this in marathoning! The author brings Geoffrey to life. He is no longer just a runner from the Rift Valley in Africa. He is a human being with a challenging life, athletic blessings, dark temptations, insecurities, privileges, and responsibilities. If every top champion was covered like this, we'd have more marathoners on Wheaties boxes and roaring crowds at the starting line of Marathon Majors.
Why are Kenyans so good? It's no secret that the top champions are from Kenya, but its rarer to find someone who is willingly to do the hard and somewhat controversial work of uncovering why. In Two Hours, Ed Caesar unpacks the issue and lays out several theories. He addresses Kenya's geography, specifically the unique climate and altitude that makes the Rift Valley ideal for producing a disproportionate number of elite runners. He carefully tacks into genetics and presents compelling arguments on why Kenyans may be genetically superior for running. But he doesn't settle for a biological answer. Ed clarifies that genes must be activated. Kenyan's training is rigorous and demanding, as detailed in the behind-the-scenes glimpses of the well-organized East African training camps that produce hundreds (not one or two) elite runners.
I give this book my highest 5-star rating. As a journalist, Ed Caesar saw a hidden story and brought it to life with research, behind-the-scenes reporting, and contagious writing. Through this review, I hope to drive more demand for Two Hours to encourage future writers.