By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Running a marathon under 2 hours is the most sensational human endurance barrier left. Is it possible?
Ed Caesar’s new Two Hours (Simon & Schuster) explores the plausibility of breaking the two-hour marathon barrier with narrative and research that will convert a fitness runner to a marathon fan. Romantic and reverent, Caesar develops the characters and brings us inside the story with documentary storytelling and well-researched technical insight.
Two Hours Grips you like a leg cramp at mile 23, holding on and not letting go. From an opening sprint that takes you inside the closed world of elite marathon running and on into the long, slow distance of endurance sports research Ed Caesar sheds new light on a old sport than has been eclipsed in recent years by the drama of Ironman triathlons and the sensation of made-for-TV novelty events. Two Hours reignites the romance and mysticism of the marathon.
Author Ed Caesar returns the reverence to marathon running and puts a face on the athletes who contest the sport at the highest level. He provides fascinating insights into their staggering training mileage and gossamer physical and mental fragility. His accounting is journalistic but his treatment of the subject matter is laced with meaty passion. The combination of the two makes for a tingling read. I had starting line goose bumps nearly the entire time.
Here’s an excerpt:
“As the gun sounded the lead pack was briefly surprised by an unknown competitor. A white athlete, who was not part of the elite field, sprinted the first few hundred meters ahead of the race favorites, if only to say he had- for a time- led the London Marathon. He must have been a decent runner, otherwise he would not have started so close behind the elite, but his challenge only lasted a minute or so. As the lead men swerved to either side of a set of traffic lights, like a stream around a boulder, the phantom sprinter stopped, stooped and caught his breath.
It was an odd moment. From the truck that drove in front of the race, where the managers and coaches of the elite runners watched the race, the reaction to this man’s quest for fleeting glory was a chuckle, or a dismissive hand gesture. These men were in town for business, not japes. But the stunt was also a reminder of the otherworldly accomplishment of the elite runners. After years of witnessing the Kenyans and Ethiopians race mile after mile at a sub 5-minute pace, it was easy to become blasé about their industry and talent. The amateur’s sprint briefly connected everyday runners to the elite and set their wondrous achievements in context. Somehow, the sport at large had forgotten how to communicate that sense of awe. But for those few seconds, it returned.”
The entire narrative of elite marathon racing rings with awe in Two Hours.
Caesar’s accounting isn’t all romance though. He digs into the dirty world of doping in marathon and the secretive deals made between super-runners to maximize winnings through inauspicious and subtle manipulation of the results.
Running literature is filled with classics from writers like Bill Rodgers and George Sheehan. But there hasn’t been a fresh voice in running books since the now-defunct Born to Run that fueled the spurious barefoot craze and saved running from the recession. Ed Caesar’s Two Hours returns credibility and reverence to distance running literature and opens the conversation about the next sensational chapter in human endurance.
If you pick up Two Hours make sure you have an aid station within reach since, once the gun goes off in chapter 1 you won’t want to drop out of the action until the finish line.