Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Two Hours (2015)

By Ed Caesar

Every once in a great while, a magic number comes along in track and field that seems to capture the public's imagination.

Back in the 1950s, the number was four, as in four minutes. Could someone run a mile in under four minutes? Some thought it impossible, but Roger Bannister showed everyone that it could be done. Then, with the psychological barrier gone, others followed in his footsteps, so to speak. High school athletes were breaking the number by the 1960s.

That brings us to what might be the next magic number, two, as in two hours. Could someone run a marathon - 26 miles, 385 yards - in less than two hours? We're getting closer.

That's the subject for Ed Caesar's very good book, appropriately named "Two Hours." More than that, the story covers the state of men's marathon running in the world at this point in time.

Caesar does it for the most part through the eyes and legs of Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan runner. He is best known for running the Boston Marathon of 2011 is 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds. It wasn't recognized as a world record because of the downhill nature of the Boston course, but it was still a very quick trip by foot over more than 26 miles. Caesar obviously spent a great deal of time talking with Mutai about what life for a world-class marathoner is like. Mutai did a good job of describing it, even if English is his third language.

Caesar deals with other issues as well. One of the great mysteries of distance running is that most of the world's best runners for long distances come from the same region in Kenya. Even though this sort of fact seems ripe for scientific study, no one has come up with a particularly good reason why it happens. Is there something in the gene pool? Diet? Altitude? Relative poverty? A combination of all of them? We're working on it.

Then there's the matter of drug use, which has been discussed for the most part in whispers. Certainly when there's a mix of athletes coming from poverty, life-changing sums of money to be won, and available performance-enhancing (if illegal) drugs, then there will be a temptation by some to cheat. Some users have been caught, but suspicions remain.

Still, it's the 1:59:59 marathon that draws us in. The current is less than three minutes away from that number, but the arithmetic is more daunting than you might think. After all, a current world-record holder would have to run more than six seconds per mile faster to break two hours. That's quite daunting, even for the world's best.

Caesar, a freelance writer with a number of impressive credits, obviously put in his homework here. He went to Africa to watch training sessions, and attended the biggest races in the world. Caesar also has a nice way with words. A runner doesn't just increase his lead, he stretches the margin "like a torn shirt."

This isn't the type of book that will reel in the casual reader who goes for a jog every once in a while. There are a few sections that are necessary but a little less than compelling. Even so, "Two Hours" offers a fine overview of the sport at its highest level. It's an impressive literary effort.

Four stars

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