Soon, some­one may be able to run a two-hour marathon.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

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.”

JEWEL SAMAD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

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

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