Soon, someone may be able to run a two-hour marathon.
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 Pharoah 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 fourminute 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.
British journalist Ed Caesar has written a book about one race time that seems unfathomable, impossible, yet with each new record comes tantalizingly closer: the twohour marathon. Fifty years ago, the record for the 26.2-mile race stood at 2 hours, 12 minutes and 2 seconds. Today, it is more than nine minutes faster, at 2:02:57. The distance to two hours is just 177 seconds, the length of a short pop song. But it’s also a gap that would require an unprecedented combination of physical gifts, mental fortitude, pain tolerance, training techniques, weather conditions, and perhaps new shoe technology and nutritional advances to surmount — if it ever happens at all.
Caesar thinks it could. “The feat appears to be within the range of human possibility, in terms of physiology,” he writes. “But understanding physiology is only one aspect of understanding running. Human beings are more than hearts and lungs and legs, and the quest for virgin territory more than a battle of swift feet.”
The author describes that quest through the story of Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai, winner of the 2011 Boston Marathon (in a course record 2:03:02) and two-time winner of the New York City Marathon (including a course record 2:05:06 in 2011). Mutai is a member of the Kalenjin tribe in the Rift Valley region of Kenya, which has produced an extraordinary crop of distance runners that dominate the sport. Caesar chronicles Mutai’s childhood, his training, his races, his burdens and his obsession with owning the marathon world record.
Mutai endured an abusive father and backbreaking work cutting trees and digging holes for the state power company before committing to running full time. He joined a training group — 40 or 50 other men, running three times a day — in the village of Kapng’tuny, an area the runners call “Skyland.” He was broke, and his parents urged him to give up running, but after two years of training he finished second in a prestigious local race, the Kass Marathon, in two hours and 12 minutes, fast enough to earn the interest of a Dutch manager who booked him for his first “outside” race, meaning beyond Kenya’s borders. He won the Monaco Marathon in March 2008, earning 4,000 euros for his effort. “His life as an international athlete had begun,” Caesar writes, a life that would bring him professional success, wealth and scrutiny.
Discussions of race times overpower everything among Mutai’s competitors and training partners. The runners know one another by their personal bests, Caesar writes. “That guy is a two-oh-eight. This one is a two-oh-five.” Mutai’s goal, however, is less about the two-hour race that so animates Caesar and more about just running faster, setting a new record, being not only the swiftest but widely recognized as such.
Mutai is driven by the desire to right what he regards an injustice. His extraordinary 2011 time in Boston was then the quickest marathon ever run — almost one minute faster than the world record at the time — but because the race was not on a looped course, it did not meet official world-record standards. (Ironically, Boston is a hilly race; unlike the Berlin Marathon, for instance, it is not one that anyone enters hoping to break records.) Also, some observers discounted Mutai’s Boston time because of a strong tailwind. “It was painful,” he told the author. “It hurt me. But then I sit down and I tell myself, ‘This is not the end.’ ”
So he made a pledge. “Before he retired, Mutai would beat 2:03:02 on a recognized course in unimpeachable circumstances. . . . He would silence the talkers. Twooh-two or die trying.”
Spoiler: Mutai, now 34, has not reached two-oh-two, nor has he died trying. But the attempt allows Caesar to describe shifting strategies in training and racing, explore the genetics of running talent, investigate doping controversies, and detour into the lives of other East African runners. Particularly poignant is the tragic story of Sammy Wanjiru, an evanescent talent who won Olympic gold in Beijing and twice won the Chicago Marathon before alcohol abuse and money troubles overtook him. In 2011, he would die in odd circumstances — falling off a balcony during an argument with his wife — at age 24. “Running country was full of squandered, drunken talent,” Caesar laments.
Wanjiru’s story, and Mutai’s to some extent, reveal the enormous familial and social pressures East African runners bear. The top runners not only support families and training partners, but often entire villages. “Marathon runners are not just athletes; they are economies,” Caesar writes. Mutai’s form may be easy and efficient — he runs “as if he is on wheels, not legs” — but his life is not. “Mutai desired more than medals or money. . . . He wanted to be validated, redeemed,” the author explains, not least in the eyes of his father, who had never congratulated him for his achievements. “One day,” Mutai confides to the author, “we will talk.”
As becomes clear not long after its starting gun, this book transcends the search for a two-hour marathon. At times one yearns for Caesar to keep his eyes on the clock, focus more on what it would take to accomplish the goal — aside, of course, from a superhuman pace of 4:34 per mile. His survey of the science of running is instructive, citing multiple studies and theories on the limits of marathon racers. For instance, Caesar cites an analysis concluding that the sub-two-hour marathon will happen sometime between 2029 and 2032, given the pace of world records and improvements in training and technology. He recounts efforts at Adidas to design the fastest running shoes. And he dwells on the work of Mike Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who estimates that the best possible marathon time — assuming ideal values for an athlete’s lactate threshold, running economy and oxygen consumption — would be an extraordinary 1:57:58.
Still, Caesar places more weight on the psychological elements of the effort, perhaps because so many top runners have overcome poverty and personal pain. “The man who runs the first sub-twohour marathon will have overcome not only a sporting challenge but an existential one,” he asserts.
That is what the race has become for so many. Some 541,000 people completed a marathon in the United States in 2013 alone, more than double the total in 1990. Participate in a marathon, or stand among the spectators, and you’ll see runners of all ages, shapes, speeds and colors on the pavement. (Even this unathletic book critic has finished the Marine Corps Marathon twice, although I’m still hoping for sub-four, never mind sub-two.) We run for fitness, but also to remember loved ones, exorcise personal demons, prove something to ourselves.
But as the race has become more democratic, the community of the world’s top marathoners has become more rarified, more separate. “Two Hours” shows us their world, a compelling look for all the weekend warriors toeing the line in Washington or New York in the coming weeks. And if the two-hour mark is ever reached, it won’t be in one sudden, big leap for all running-kind, Caesar writes, but in “baby steps — each one taken by a member of the tiny, elite fraternity of athletes with the talent and industry to inch the sport closer to the impossible marathon.”
Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai competes in the New York City Marathon in November 2014. Wilson Kipsang of Kenya won the men’s title.
By Ed Caesar. Simon & Schuster. 242 pp. $26 TWO HOURS The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon