Review: Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, by Ed Caesar
This is a fine run through marathon feats, writes Rob Doyle
Geoffrey Mutai, a several-time champion and record-breaker, is the book’s cohering factor: his story of will, triumph and elusive glory keeps the pace from starting gun to finishing line. Photograph: Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Two Hours – the Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon
The marathon is the plain, gangly sister in the athletics family. Lacking the glamour of the sprint or the immediacy of the high jump, the sport is further undermined, in terms of prestige, by its inclusivity: just about anyone can run a marathon in New York, London or Berlin. Yet there exists an elite of marathon runners, and although their names may not be of the household kind – Haile Gebrselassie is a possible exception – their training is as gruelling, their commitment as absolute and, for the best and luckiest, their pay cheques as enticing as one would expect from a global competitive sport.
Lying just beyond the vanishing point for the best marathon runners is a mythologised barrier that each dreams of breaking: the sub-two-hour marathon. Some commentators say this is a physical impossibility. (The current world record is Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57.) But, as Ed Caesar reminds us in his passionately written and often fascinating first book, the four-minute mile was once thought impossible too, just as Everest was unclimbable until Edmund Hillary went and climbed it.
In Caesar’s telling, the quest to run a marathon in under two hours takes on near mystical overtones. On one hand, he concedes, if it is ever reached “the achievement will signify nothing”: after all, even the standard length of the marathon course – 26 miles and 385 yards – is an arbitrary figure, cemented by the desire of the British royal family to get a good view of the finishing line during the 1908 Olympic marathon. The deeper significance of the two-hour quest, though, is in how it pitches the claims of science against the fierce human desire for self-transcendence, the striving to push back the boundaries of performance and achievement. To marathon enthusiasts the sub-two-hour run is the Moby Dick of athletics, glimpsed intermittently on the horizon, perhaps a myth yet one that sharpens the will of believers to drive themselves still further. “The two-hour debate is irresistible, inevitable”, and, until the record is broken, no one can say for certain whether it really is possible.
Book with legsThe author gets off to a promising start in his consideration of the marathon, sprinting through the stories of elite runners, almost exclusively Kenyans and Ethiopians, who have inched closer to the longed-for time in recent years. A few chapters in, we wonder whether he will have the stamina to stay the course or if he will cramp up, falter and limp to the side of the track as the intriguing subject turns out not to have the legs for a book-length investigation. No fear: the middle stretch takes us on a diverting history of the marathon, from its semi-mythical origins in ancient Greece – “Joy to you, we’ve won,” cried the exhausted courier, Pheidippides, before keeling over and croaking – through its reinstation in the modern Olympic Games, in 1896, via the European fashion for “pedestrianism”, or long-distance walking and running races, earlier in the century.
We are taken to the Kenyan villages of contemporary runners to see how they live and what kind of stock they come from. Geoffrey Mutai, a several-time champion and record-breaker, is the book’s cohering factor: his story of will, triumph and elusive glory keeps the pace from starting gun to finishing line.
Along the way we enjoy colourful and occasionally tragic episodes from the sport’s history. There is the Ethiopian soldier from Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard who, sustaining an injury midrace, beckons a countryman competitor and orders him to win in his stead. There is the prankster Fred Lorz, who won the 1904 New York Olympic marathon while barely breaking a sweat, only to cheerily confess he’d hopped in a car around the halfway mark. Lorz was disqualified (he bounced back to win the following year’s Boston marathon), and the victory was awarded to Thomas Hicks from Massachusetts.
Then there is the cautionary story of Sammy Wanjiru, the Kenyan who streaked on to the distance-running circuit only to die young – and mysteriously – after a brief period of huge earnings and sponsorship deals, hard drinking, women, AK-47s, machetes and the pressures of being rich and famous in a poor African village. “What balls this guy’s got!” remarked an excited NBC commentator watching Wanjiru’s victory in the 2010 Chicago marathon. A year later, after his wife found him in bed with one of his female admirers, Wanjiru died beneath his bedroom balcony, probably from a fall, although some maintained he was murdered.
Physical traitsCaesar seeks to answer the question of why it is that east Africans, specifically those from parts of Kenya and Ethiopia, dominate the sport. (The facts are striking: “All 15 major marathons raced between the spring of 2011 and the autumn of 2013 were won either by Kenyans or by Ethiopians.”) Various theories are examined, mostly evolutionary in slant. The peculiar qualities of the feet of certain tribes are given a few pages. Innate physical traits aside, part of these men’s prowess may stem from the toughness of their lives: the “brutal circumcision ceremonies” and the rituals in which they are “forced to fend for themselves for days and weeks at a time outside the relative comfort of the family home”. The author travels to Kenya to observe the runners and get a feel for their Spartan lifestyle. “The idea was to live humbly and work hard, with few distractions, in a community dedicated to punishing rituals.” A dismaying chapter on doping threatens to undermine the impressiveness, suggesting illicit performance enhancement may be widespread, but the suspicions are absorbed in the final narrative sprint.
Like any good nonfiction book, Two Hours can be enjoyed by those without a particular interest in its subject. In a couple of the later chapters the author flags a little, getting mired in a few too many lists. But he gets his momentum back through dramatic descriptions of key races, many involving Mutai.
The author’s passion for marathon-running animates this book, as does his admiration for the east African men who excel at their sport. At bottom this is a book about humankind’s restless ambition, our desire to push ourselves beyond the limit, the ferocity of our will to mastery. It can confidently take its place in the ranks of intelligent, thoughtful books on the subject of sports.
Rob Doyle’s second book, This Is the Ritual, is due to be published in January 2016