By Jonathan Gault
December 1, 2015
Don’t let the title of Ed Caesar‘s debut book fool you. Yes, the question of whether a human being can break 2:00:00 in the marathon is broached in Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon. But rather than serving as the book’s central question, the subject of the two-hour marathon is instead employed as a springboard for a deep dive into the current state of elite marathoning.
It’s a smart approach, and the right one. Much has been written in recent years about the question for a sub-2:00 marathon, but it would be impossible to devote an entire book (at least one worth reading) to the subject. Instead, Caesar allocates one chapter to the serious discussion of the feasibility of a two-hour marathon, intelligently presenting both the optimistic and pessimistic arguments but remaining largely neutral himself.
“The sub-two-hour marathon may be possible or impossible,” Caesar writes. “Nobody knows for sure — and anybody who says he is certain is either a brave man or a fool.”
The rest of the book covers everything you would want to know about the marathon, from its roots in ancient Greek lore to its modern beginnings in the Olympics to the establishment of big-money major-city marathons in the late 20th century. He also tackles scientific topics, digging into why East Africans have come to dominate the 26.2-mile event and writing about the recent doping problems in Kenya.
But that alone may not be enough to appeal to the die-hard running fan. Fear not, for Two Hours also offers a compelling narrative centered around Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, one of the decade’s top marathoners. Boasting access that most writers could only dream of, Caesar takes the reader inside Mutai’s training base of Kapng’tuny and offers the best account of Mutai’s life story that you will read anywhere. He reveals Mutai’s troubled youth, including beatings from his father and teenage drinking, which Mutai only escaped once he moved in with his grandparents in the village of Equator at age 18.
Caesar documents Mutai’s rise to the top of the marathon world, including his sensational record-breaking victories in Boston and New York in 2011, and uses three years of behind-the-scenes access — trailing Mutai from his training camp in Kenya to the start lines of major races from 2012 to 2014 — to provide insight into the inner workings of Mutai’s mind.
As Caesar writes in the notes section of the book, one of the problems with the elite part of the sport is that we know little about even the top runners at major marathons.
“Even in big races, featuring world champions or record holders, the promoters of big marathons struggle to market their elite African runners as personalities,” Caesar says. “And if you’re just another fast African, you become somewhat expendable. No agent would treat a runner badly if he knew there was not another to take his place.”
Caesar expanded on this theme when talking to LetsRun.com at the 2015 TCS New York City Marathon, when he said he was drawn to doing a book on professional marathoning as he found it fascinating that it was largely a sport “hidden in plain sight.”
Caesar does his part to remedy this and succeeds in personalizing Mutai’s story, explaining how he is driven by more than wins and time; rather, Mutai yearns to capture “the Spirit,” the perfect combination of “speed and ease, force and grace.” Caesar also offers a unique window into Mutai’s life in Kenya, one largely closed to the media. Early in the book, Caesar tells the story of how Mutai, riding his bike to his grandparents’ house, narrowly avoided a pack of violent members of Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe intent on hunting Mutai’s ethnic group, the Kalenjin, thanks to some quick thinking. Later, he digs into the psyche of the Kenyan runner, writing about why Mutai continues to lead a spartan existence in Kapng’tuny, living in relative poverty even after becoming a major marathon champion.
Caesar’s prose is sharp and engaging, his details rich and vivid. He possesses an impressive ability to describe Mutai’s races, in particular his effort at the 2012 Berlin Marathon, as so much more than a man repeatedly putting one foot in front of another. But none of that counts for much without substance, and despite no specific background in the sport (in Caesar’s other stops as a writer, which include The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and British GQ, he’s written about Russian oligarchs, African civil wars and British murder trials), Caesar writes with an expert’s conviction thanks to hundreds of interviews and hours upon hours of research. The result is the definitive book on the modern elite marathon.
Last month, I highly recommended The Animal Keepers by Donn Behnke. My editors have now requested that I give the books I review a star rating and asked me to compare the two works. Without hesitation, this one like The Animal Keepers, deserves the highest rating – a full five stars. The books are different – the writing here is better than The Animal Keepers which makes sense as Caesar is a professional writer whereas Behnke is a high school cross country coach – but both are great additions to the library of anyone interesting in running.
You can buy Two Hours online (and support LetsRun.com in the process) here or below. Other reviewers have called it the “Hoop Dreams for runners” (The Spectator) and “a celebration of the human spirit” (The Observer). Previous book reviews by LetsRun.com can be found here.