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Two Hours by Ed Caesar

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“Caesar, who has reported widely from Africa, does great work capturing the lives, training routines, and proud ancestry of these amazing runners, not to mention the pitfalls and dangers they face before and after they achieve fame. This strong tale covers the joys of athletic triumph and the pain of missed opportunities, while investigating what it means to be born or bred a champion and what it will take to for someone to make running history. Caesar proves himself an engaging storyteller with a book whose time has come.” —Publishers Weekly

“You might think, at first, that you’re going for a very long morning run with a small African man through the streets of Berlin. Before you know it, you’re chasing the white whale of human endurance—the two-hour marathon—down every one of its psychological, physiological, geographical, historical, and cultural side streets, running with a tailwind that only great narrative craftsmen like Ed Caesar can exhale.” —Gary Smith

“A fascinating insight into the clockwork of what it means to be an elite athlete, always pushing at the edge of possibility. Like a good runner, Caesar carries the story along with grace and ease and generosity. He brings us to Kenya, New York, London, and Berlin, but ultimately allows us to look inside ourselves. It’s the human story that shines through.” —Colum McCann, author of Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin

“Ed Caesar’s treatment of the near-mythical two-hour marathon is both implacably scientific and wonderfully reverential. As a former marathoner I deeply appreciate both. The prose hums along effortlessly and the topic is one of the most profound there is: the absolute limits of human performance. Reading a book that combines those two things is one of the great pleasures in life.” —Sebastian Junger

“There seem to be so few grand pursuits left in sports. Ed Caesar chases one of the last—the two-hour marathon. As he writes, it is sport’s Everest, an utterly impossible thing that, like the four-minute mile, the moon landing, and the flying car, people obsessively chase. Ed Caesar is a wonderful writer and he takes us on the brilliant chase and gets us thinking about what impossible even means.” —Joe Posnanski, author of Paterno and The Secret of Golf

“A fabulously entertaining and thought-provoking ode to perseverance, Ed Caesar’s Two Hours will make you fall in love with elite marathoning even if you can barely jog a mile. It is a tale filled with richly drawn characters whose grit and talent are wonders to behold, as well as keen observations about the twists and turns of the human mind. Read it and you’ll yearn to attend as many marathons as possible, so you can marvel at the athletic geniuses who’ve sacrificed so much to run so beautifully.” —Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us

“For a human being—for one of us—to run 26.2 miles in 120 minutes will require a belief in everything but our limits. Only a reporter of Ed Caesar’s diligence, and a writer of his ease, could make such an improbable achievement feel more than likely. He makes Two Hours feel like destiny.” —Chris Jones, author of Out of Orbit

“Combining real drama and pinpoint reportage, Ed Caesar has delivered an absolutely fascinating book about the mother of all endurance events, the marathon, and the outer limits of the human body. Two Hours had me at the ten seconds, and Caesar sets such a compelling, genial pace, synthesizing history, science, and psychology, that his globe-spanning quest to understand everything about the marathon becomes ours. This is a gifted, award-winning writer in full stride, and a must-read pleasure, for you’ll never see the great race, or the human body, in the same way ever again.” —Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room

 Review

“Mutai is a Kenyan, a Kalenjin, and a Kipsigis. He was born in the village of Equator, which sits at nearly 9,000 feet in the lush highlands at the western escarpment of the Rift Valley, and, as its name suggests, at the belt-line of the world. He is a husband, a father, a son, a grandson, a nephew, a cousin, a coach, a businessman, and a potentate. He is a rich man who grew up without shoes.”

A retelling of the marathon, from its roots of origin, to how it exists today. You will read of the history of how it has found its way to cities like Boston, New York, and London. He has put before the reader facts, true lives he accounts on, and one great runner he expounds on right from his youth to his most recent achievements. The author successful puts in the readers mind a story behind the face, the winner, the elite athlete, Geoffrey Mutai, his life, his struggle, and the whole human drama and journey the marathon incorporates.

The telling, the facts, read well, and the author handles them with style and presents to the read a work that is insightful, easy reading, and a joy to read at the same time.
This tale would appeal to the athlete, the casual jogger, and to the reader that is just curious of what the marathon is about.

Excerpts

“Why does it matter whether the sub-two-hour marathon is possible? And if it is possible, what will it mean when the first 1:59:59 marathon is run? At one level, the achievement will signify nothing. To complete 26 miles and 385 yards in less than two hours using only one’s God-given gifts would be, of course, an exceptional feat of speed, mental strength, and endurance. But the marathon length is a scruffy figure, only fixed by the Olympic Committee in 1921 to match the course of the 1908 London Olympic marathon, which was itself designed to accommodate the peculiar viewing demands of the British royal family. Why should we care if some extraordinary person can run this arbitrary distance in just over, or just under, two hours? For curious reasons, we do care and it does matter. Twenty-six miles and 385 yards is not just a distance. It has become a metaphor. Nobody finds the marathon easy—even professionals, especially professionals. The distance is democratic that way. Everyone who runs a marathon is running against his or her limits. Everyone is forced to manage a certain amount of pain and to recruit hidden reserves. Whatever one’s talent or preparation, nobody runs an easy marathon. Geoffrey Mutai’s prayer at the startline is not to win the race, but to finish it. On the other side of the coin, the marathon is also a race that is possible for almost anyone with enough patience and willpower to complete. The distance is democratic that way, too. For this reason, it has become an event against which hordes of everyday people—fat people, thin people; people crooked by time and people sprightly as foals; rich people and people in need—test themselves. I’m running against cancer. I’m running for my dad. I’m running for a personal best. As Chris Brasher, cofounder of the London Marathon, once said, the race has become “the great suburban Everest.” Now, in the popular imagination, the marathon is not primarily a test of athletic talent, but a test of character. The race has become a carnival of men and women, some in outrageous costumes, each attempting to overcome a personal hurdle for the public good, or a public hurdle for a personal good. A British man named Lloyd Scott is perhaps the most extreme of these charitable masochists. Among other stunts, he has completed both the New York and London marathons in an antiquated deep-sea diving suit weighing 130 pounds, and has raised nearly £5 million for charity in the past decade. When he received the MBE (Member of the British Empire) honor from the Queen for his fund-raising feats, he said that it should stand for “Mad, Bonkers, and Eccentric.” 

“In these final moments of stillness, however, Mutai banished impure thoughts and the crowding, conflicted voices. He attempted to focus. Psychologists talk about a Zen-like state of instinctual action in which the greatest sporting performances are attained. They call it Flow. The French cyclist Jean Bobet described a similar but distinct experience called La Volupté, which “is delicate, intimate and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up and then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness.” Mutai has his own term: the Spirit. The way he understood it, the brutality of his training regime—125 fierce miles a week—was endured to attain this sensation. Thousands of hours of suffering for these minutes of sweetness: speed and ease, force and grace. The more harder you train, he would say, the more you get the Spirit. . . . It gains on you. So far, in his career, the Spirit had allowed Mutai the courage to remake the sport of marathon running, and to destroy previous conceptions of what was possible; to lose his own fear, and implant it in the hearts of his competitors.”

“In Boston, Mutai picked as never before. On the cold morning of April 18, 2011, with a breeze at his back, he beat his countryman Moses Mosop in a thrilling race, and finished in a time of 2:03:02-a course record by nearly three minutes, and almost one minute faster than Haile Gebreselassie’s world record of 2:03:59. Mosop finished four seconds behind Mutai, in 2:03:06. These were absurd, freakish times. Despite its length, the professional marathon is a sport of tiny margins—a few seconds here, a few seconds there. Nobody in the modern era had broken a course record at a major marathon by nearly three minutes before Mutai. Looking on, the American marathon great, Bill Rodgers, who was himself a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, thought the clocks were broken. “It was something incredible,” said Rodgers. “I ran with a tailwind in Boston one day, and I ran 2:09:55. He ran more than six minutes faster!” The clocks were working. However, Mutai’s run would not stand as an official world record. It is one of many bizarre quirks of the sport of professional road running that, despite being the oldest continuously contested marathon in the world, Boston does not count for world record purposes.”

“It was not a brick wall. On May 6, 1954, despite dire prognostications from armchair pundits, some of whom believed a human would die if he attempted to run a mile in under four minutes, a junior doctor named Roger Bannister ran 3:59:4 for the mile at the Iffley Road running track in Oxford, England. The world of athletics moved on fast. Six weeks after Bannister made history, Landy himself obliterated the new world record, running 3:58 dead. In the years that followed, sub-four-minute miles became commonplace among elite athletes. (In 2011, the fifth American high school boy broke the barrier.) The four-minute mile was only unbreakable until one man broke it. “Après moi,” said Bannister, “le déluge.” 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 09 October 2015