Book Review: Two Hours by Ed Caesar

two hoursTwo hours. What’s that? A good movie minus the incredibly annoying ‘get your coke from the foyer’ adverts? Maybe the average length of a gig these days? The time it takes to peel the shell off a boiled egg?

In the case of this book it is the new Holy Grail of marathon running. The 26.2 mile equivalent of the 4 minute mile. In recent years the world best for the marathon has come down rapidly and sits at an eye-watering 2:02:57, set in Berlin 2014 by Dennis Kimetto. Indeed, Kipchoge’s 2:03:05 at London this year was probably in relative terms faster as Berlin tends to yield quicker runs. Six of the top 10 marathons of all time were run in Berlin with only 2 in London. This discounts courses not accredited for world records (like Mutai’s 2:03:03 in Boston), which itself is a relatively new thing in marathoning.

2:03 and change is now the norm in marathon running for the top East Africans. The first person to do this was the great Haile Gebrsellassie in 2008 (at Berlin, funnily enough) and then serious consideration was given to the possibility of 2 hours being possible.

It is a mind-boggling pace to run at for 26,2 miles and Caesar taps into the science and evolution of performance in what is seen by many as the ultimate endurance test. He pulls together interviews from top coaches, runners and scientists to give us an insight into what the prevailing view on the matter is.

There are scientists actively working with runners to do this. He looks at the conditions needed and explains how modern racing and incentives actually stymies the bid for many. In a weird paradox, the stronger the field, the slower the race is likely to be as tactics and position become more important than the clock. This is why the Olympic Marathon never yields times anywhere close to WR pace.

The book focuses on the obvious talent pool of Kenya; exploring the factors there which creates such an incredible collection of runners. The cynics amongst you will be crying EPO right now and Caesar does look into the drugs aspect also.

Central to the Kenya story is Geoffrey Mutai who has won 4 marathon majors and for a period was imperious in the event. Ironically, his two best performances came in races which didn’t count for (Boston) or had no chance of a WR (New York). Yet, Mutai ruminates on what he thinks it would take to be a 2 hour marathoner and he believes it is possible.

The book is part supposition; can it be done? And Caesar cleverly lets you decide for yourself. It is part biography on Mutai and is also part marathon history 101. This makes for an interesting and insightful read. I really enjoyed the flow of it and the fact that as I reader I was being asked to think about the possibility as opposed to be told yay or nay.

I am yay by the way. One day for sure! When? I don’t know.



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