Book Review: Ed Caesar’s ‘Two Hours’

In 2011, I stood in the Boston Marathon media room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel with dozens of other journalists, watching two lithe Kenyans run at breakneck speed down Boylston Street on the big screen in front of us. One of those runners, Geoffrey Mutai, went on to win the race in a shade over 2 hours and 3 minutes, turning more than a few heads in the room while instantaneously redefining what might be possible over 26.2 miles of racing.

While Mutai’s time of 2:03:02 could not be considered a world record due to the point-to-point downhill nature of Boston’s iconic course, it reignited talk of the 2-hour marathon—the 4-minute mile of road racing—and whether or not we would see such a mark in our lifetimes.

By now, four-plus years after Mutai’s eye-popping performance in Boston, only one runner—Mutai’s Kenyan training partner Dennis Kimetto—has run faster, recording the current world record of 2:02:57 in 2014 at the Berlin Marathon. There’s still a long way to go.

So you can imagine my excitement when I recently received my copy of Ed Caesar’s new book, Two Hours, which coincidentally opens at the 2012 Berlin Marathon, where Mutai was embarking on an annihilation of Patrick Makau’s then world-record of 2:03:38. While Mutai won the race that day—virtually alongside Kimetto, no less—he came up far short of a world record, running 2:04:15, the fastest time of the year, but a performance that Caesar describes as “a sense of opportunity lost—a tide untaken” for Mutai.

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Two Hours is an interweaving of many elements related to the sport of marathoning that all tie into the seemingly impossible quest to take down the sport’s most vaunted barrier—along with a discussion of exactly what conditions would need to exist for such a performance to take place. It’s mostly a compelling narrative of Mutai’s ascendance from poor farmhand into the world’s most dominating marathoner, but it’s also part marathon history lesson, part discussion of physiology, geography and culture, and part commentary on the current challenges the sport faces, including the economics of modern day marathoning and the problem of doping in Kenya.

One of the most interesting—and refreshing—aspects of this book is that Caesar is not an athletics writer by trade, and I think that helps provide an unbiased perspective into the current state of the sport and how it’s viewed by someone outside of its inner circle. Caesar spent a considerable amount of time in Kenya with Mutai and his training partners trying to understand why a majority of the world’s best marathoners come from the tiny Kalenjin tribe, along with taking a deep dive into uncovering their their history, physiology, motivations and training methods. He also traveled to races around the world and witnessed first-hand these savage attempts on the lowering of time. In short, Caesar did his homework, and the result is one of best books about running ever written (and I’ve read many of them). This holistic view of the sport of marathoning, combined with the story of how one man—Mutai—fits into its overall history while chasing its unassailable holy grail, is one of the finest examples of non-fiction storytelling that I’ve read in quite some time. Put it on your holiday gift list.

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