Two hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar, book review

A fine study of human endurance and the competitive spirit of marathon runners
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Perhaps like me, you have donned a pair of running shoes and run 26.2 miles. But as Ed Caesar's engaging book makes clear, to plod up "the great suburban Everest" is several worlds away from the superhuman efforts of the men (and women) at the front of the big international marathons.

Buffeting them along the streets of Tokyo, New York, London, Berlin and Chicago are the cross winds of fame, glory, riches untold, drugs scandals, physical limitations and fleeting time. And as the men's world record, currently 2.02.57, held by Dennis Kimetto, edges towards the two-hour mark, so the extremes of the distance are warping the competitors and the sport further still.

Famously, those breasting the tape of the majors are largely Kenyans, hailing, remarkably, from one tribe, the Kalenjin, who inhabit the highlands on the western edge of Rift Valley, blessed by genetics, high altitude and a thriving running culture. Such locality is a gift to a writer, and Caesar does not squander it. It's on the dusty, rough trails and spartan training camps of what the athletes call 'Skyland' that his eye for the human drama tells. Place well in a decent regional marathon out here, get picked up by a European scout, and a runner could find himself a mid-ranking marathon victory from a global circuit in which the best command appearance fees of hundreds of thousands, and comparable footwear sponsorship deals. All this is on offer to young, rural Kenyans who would otherwise regard $900 a year as decent money.

Caesar wears his considerable research into most aspects of the marathon – its history, science, and the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs – with a loping, easy style. To portray the lot of the modern elite marathoner, he places himself in the running shoes of the 33-year-old Kenyan, Geoffrey Mutai. A decade ago, Mutai was toiling in hard manual labour for Kenya Power, dreaming of being a "two-oh-four guy". By 2011, he had recorded successive course-record-breaking victories in the Boston and New York marathons, becoming world famous and wealthy. Vividly, Caesar dramatises the myriad pressures that beset the driven, quiet Mutai – race tactics, career strategies, injury worries, yearnings to locate "The Spirit" that might sweep him to victory. And all framed by the knowledge that a top runner has perhaps 10 races to make an impact before he is spent.

Meanwhile, the lure of the two- hour mark and all that will bring the runner who dips under it is, Caesar contends, transforming the sport. Live "split" times for the frontrunners in big races, evolving shoe technology and a developing time trial mentality mean that the elite marathons are increasingly races against the clock.

A moonshot event, dedicated to the 1.59.59 marathon, is discussed in elite circles, writes Caesar, and recalls the "marathon mania" stunts that followed Dorando Pietri's famous, leg-wobbling defeat in the 1908 Olympic Marathon. But the governing body's conservatism and the runner's own need to capitalise on their brief careers means such a spectacle is unlikely soon.

Still, the running boffins, a dash of romance and the relentless advances of the runners themselves suggest that there's a 10-year-old running long miles around his family's farm, up above the Rift Valley, who may well become the Roger Bannister of the marathon.

Comments