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16 July 2015

Will there ever be a marathon time under two hours?

Ed Caesar's new book asks if the record is breakable - and who could break it.

By Rose George

Two Hours: the Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon
Ed Caesar
Viking, 256pp, £16.99

The problem with most books about running is that they run out of steam. What is there to say about the act of putting one foot in front of the other at a pace faster than walking? That doesn’t deter many people. I have read books about running like a girl (Alexandra Heminsley), running with Kenyans (Adharanand Finn), running with your feet in the clouds (Richard Askwith). I’ve read about the philosophy of running (Mark Rowlands) and how to run like a Tarahumara Indian (Christopher McDougall), or with chi in your feet (Danny Dreyer). I’ve yet to read about how to run like a butterfly and sting like a bee but I would if someone wrote a book on it.

Most, however, struggle to make the experience of reading their books unlike running a marathon, which – as the tens of thousands of Britons who run them know – is a 20-mile warm-up followed by the hardest six miles of your life. Now here is the journalist Ed Caesar with Two Hours, his first book. Two is the magic number in modern marathon science, because the current world record, set by Dennis Kimetto in Berlin last year, is two hours, two minutes and 57 seconds.

Kimetto is Kenyan. Aren’t all the top runners? At any marathon start line, there will be a “parade of gaunt, lithe black men with low numbers on their vests, arrayed in the lurid uniforms of shoe companies”. At the finish line, “The chances are the victor will react the same, whoever he is. Confronted by a white man with a microphone and a television camera, he will give thanks to God in a voice so gentle it would not snuff a candle placed by his mouth, thank the organisers of the race, and then return home to spend his winnings.” These are exceptional men with “names that are as good as indistinguishable, their stories mysterious”. That is, except to the “tiny cadre of obsessives” who follow marathons – tiny, even in this golden age of popular running, when there are more than 500 marathons every year worldwide.

The modern marathon may seem streamlined and professional and it is. Yet it has a history of delightful eccentricity. It was predated by endurance races in which rich men’s servants ran for money. The standard distance was 25 miles but the biggest events “lasted as long as six days, over hundreds of miles, and took place in packed, smoke-filled halls, for huge cash prizes – and were guarded by dozens of policemen to stop bettors from interfering with the athletes”.

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The official marathon was launched in 1896 at the Athens Olympics, the 25-mile distance based on the probably fictitious story of Pheidippides’s sprint from Marathon to Athens. Only at the 1908 London Olympics did the marathon acquire its peculiar distance of 26 miles and 385 yards, as the organisers wanted the Crown’s approval by having it begin at Windsor Castle and finish under the royal box in White City Stadium, with a final lap of the track for the royals.

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The Kenyans haven’t always ruled the marathon. The Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie is considered the best in modern history. The Czech Emil Zátopek, despite running like “a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt”, won the 5,000-metre, 10,000-metre and marathon distances in three days in the 1952 Olympics. I’m also fond of Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian army captain who was the favourite to win the 1968 Mexico City Olympic marathon. After running ten miles with an injury, he chose to quit but first addressed a fellow Ethiopian competitor, Mamo Wolde. This, according to the American runner Kenny Moore, is what was said:

“Lieutenant Wolde.”

“Captain Bikila.”

“I’m not finishing this race.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“But lieutenant, you will win this race.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“Don’t let me down.”

And the lieutenant didn’t.

Caesar’s hero is Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai, another astonishing Kenyan from the Kalenjin tribe in the Rift Valley, which has produced the majority of elite Kenyan runners. In 2011, Kenyans won all five World Marathon Majors – Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York – each setting a course record. Mutai won in Boston in two hours, three minutes and two seconds, a world record time that was (probably unfairly) not counted as such because of Boston’s course and a tailwind.

The young Geoffrey grew up without shoes and with “manifold pressures”. He was poor; his father was violent and Mutai found solace with his grandparents and by running. Many of the greatest marathoners “carry with them the heavy reckoning of wretched childhoods”.

The book opens with Mutai on the start line of the 2012 Berlin Marathon. If he wins, he could take €40,000 for first place, €80,000 in time bonuses (€30,000 for a course record, €50,000 for a world record), plus a possible $500,000 for winning the World Marathon Majors prize. Mutai is a runner but he is also a local economy, supporting his family, his supporters and younger runners. Above all, he is an athlete who can run for over two hours at a speed that most of us can’t sustain for half a mile.

For most of us, the pace of these runners is sprinting. What Caesar wants to know is whether they can go even faster, shaving off 177 seconds from their marathon time. Only 177 seconds, the length of “a pop song; a long commercial break; the time it takes to soft-boil a small egg”. The question of whether this can be done, he writes, is also a dream and a science and something that can be answered only by running through history and philosophy, too. This is a book about numbers but it’s also about effort and endurance and limits. It is human to progress, so despite the premise of Caesar’s book, the 177 seconds are not the most interesting thing about his story. Someone will achieve it – and soon. Hopefully, without drugs.

Early on, we are introduced to the city of Eldoret, a centre of Kenyan distance running, where you can buy “knock-off Chinese car parts and synthetic erythropoietin – the hormone that boosts red blood cell production and has been at the centre of recent doping scandals”. The disgraced Kenyan Mathew Kisorio, who tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid in 2012, ended an Elysian time when people joked that the only things Kenyans tested positive for was ugali, the maize porridge. Two unnamed Kenyan athletes say, in their country, “There were so many bad doctors you can’t count them.” They scoff at Caesar when he expresses surprise that they think anyone who can run a marathon in under two hours and ten minutes is doping. “You think you can run two-oh-three, only with blood?”

How pertinent this is, after a recent Panorama documentary accused Alberto Salazar – who coaches top athletes including Mo Farah – of doping. (Salazar denies any wrongdoing.) Caesar quotes his 1999 speech in which he said, “It is currently difficult to be among the top five in the world in any of the distance events without using EPO or human growth hormone.” He also quotes a 2013 Wall Street Journal report that found that many of Salazar’s athletes were being treated by the same doctor for hypothyroidism. Neither Caesar nor Panorama know what advantage thyroid drugs would give; that so many athletes seem to have the same condition, however, is certainly disturbing.

It’s depressing to think that humans who stun and thrill us with their physiological abilities are doing so with chemical help. I write “humans” but I mean “men”. Women are rarely mentioned in this book – not even Paula Radcliffe or Mary Keitany – despite a polite acknowledgement that if someone breaks two hours, “he or she” will come from the Rift Valley.

Mutai is a likeable hero (and there is no suggestion that Mutai has ever taken drugs) and I’m glad that Caesar finishes on him and his attempt to beat his Boston record. Mutai talks of the “spirit”: a feeling he gets when everything works, when he runs with force and grace. There is much spirit in Two Hours and much human warmth. You may need a break at the 20th mile but take it and keep going. It will be worth it.