Friday, August 19, 2016

Two Hours, by Ed Caesar

Will anyone ever be able to complete a marathon in less than two hours?  That is the question Ed Caesar contemplates in Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon.  Given the history of the four minute mile, it's hard not to compare it to the two hour marathon.  Until someone actually ran a four minute mile, many experts said it was impossible.  Once that threshold was broken, four minute miles became almost commonplace among top runners. 

But is two hours the right threshold for the marathon?  There are limits to what a human body can do, even an ideal, perfectly trained body.  One researcher, accounting for things like "lactate threshold, running economy, and VO2 max" determined that "Given ideal conditions, and the ideal runner, . . . the best time in which a marathon could be completed was 1 hour, 57 minutes, and 58 seconds."  Over the last few decades, as African runners, particularly Kenyans, have come to dominate the marathon, record times have tumbled.  In 1988, the world record was 2:06:50.  In 2014, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya broke 2:03 for the first time, running 2:02:57 in Berlin.

Caesar covers the history of the marathon, particularly the last few decades.  Much of his narrative follows the career of Geoffrey Mutai, who finished the Boston Marathon in 2:03:02 in 2011, at that time the fastest recorded marathon finish anywhere.  To Mutai's frustration, the Boston course doesn't qualify for world record consideration.  Mutai's career since then has been marked by frustration that the world record has eluded him.  Two Hours ends up being two books in one: a history of the marathon and the pursuit of ever-faster times, and a running biography of Geoffrey Mutai.  Caesar draws the two together nicely, using Mutai as a case study in the quest.  I suspect many of Mutai's peers' stories would have been similarly suitable and interesting.

Whether the two hour mark will ever me reached remains an open question.  Like the four minute mile, the conditions will have to be carefully planned and the course carefully selected.  One thing is for sure: whoever does break two hours will need to have been born and raised in the right conditions, will need generations of the right genetic formation, and will need to carefully train for years.  Caesar made a believer out of me that it's possible.  He writes, "Whatever science or common sense one uses to rebut the possibility of a two-hour marathon, we still cannot resist its lure.  Everest was unclimbable until somebody climbed it.  The four-minute mile was impossible until it wasn't.  However evanescent the prospect, the two-hour marathon will not leave us alone."

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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