Tag Archives: marathon

Two Hours

The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, by Ed Caesar

Only within the past few decades has the marathon caught popular attention. In the early years of the sport, spectators and participants alike thought it folly to attempt such a long-distance run. As athleticism progressed and amateurism turned into professionalism, more and more people began to consider the marathon not only an achievable distance, but one to be undertaken with gusto and spirit. Similar to the 4-minute mile, there has long been speculation about the limits of human endurance and what is possible or impossible to achieve. Science predicts that a runner in perfect circumstances will be able to run a marathon in 1:58 and change, though the world record sits at 2:02 and change. This book chronicles the story of Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan runner with the dream of breaking the barrier, and all the speculation and research surrounding the mythical limit of human abilities. Detailing the ins and outs of marathon training, race strategies and conditions for world record attempts, and the nuances of different types of success in the marathon world, this book blends fact with intrigue, connecting hard science and theoretical discussions to Mutai’s personal story and experience as a professional marathoner.

“Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon” by Ed Caesar is a comprehensive look at everything to do with marathons. Caesar primarily focuses on Mutai’s story as a constant thread throughout the discussions of research, race conditions, and International Association of Athletics Federations regulations about what marathon courses are and are not eligible for world records, among other details of the sport. His research is thorough both on the science side and of the personal stories. The book chronicles Mutai’s background and upbringing in rural poverty, comparing his experience and noting similarities with brief profiles of other notable East African runners. The book alternates chapters, spending one chapter focusing on the personal story, and the next talking about exercise physiology, developments in racing, or some other aspect of marathoning. His tone fluctuates throughout the book, and sometimes he adopts a more casual tone when recounting personal stories from the athletes, or a more knowledgeable tone to talk about VO2 max, and sprinkles his own interjections and the occasional sarcastic comment throughout. Regardless of the tone or content, the book is relatable and understandable to anyone with passing familiarity with marathons.

For the most part I absolutely loved this book because I learned so much more about marathons. I had no idea that only loop marathon courses were eligible for world records (the finish line has to be within less than half the total course distance from the starting line). I also appreciated the theoretical conversations about what running conditions could possibly lead to breaking the 2 hour barrier (more of a time-trial rather than a professional race setting, similar to when the 4-minute mile barrier fell). But as a woman runner, I would have appreciated slightly more mention of the fact that women run marathons too. Overall, though, this book is an excellent read and I certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in running.


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Duel In The Sun

Duel In the Sun: The Story of Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America’s Greatest Marathon – John Brant

In the twilight years of amateur running in the Boston Marathon before prize packages were introduced to incentivize big names and bigger turnouts, elite runners duked it out on 26.2 miles of pavement from Hopkinton to Boston for nothing other than bragging rights. Perhaps the greatest battle of all was the famed “duel in the sun” in 1982 between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. Beardsley had been favored to win the marathon until Salazar, the runner that confidently proclaimed improbable goals before his races only to demolish them, entered two months prior to the marathon. In a fierce contest of mental stamina and physical endurance, Beardsley and Salazar ran shoulder to shoulder for the last 9 miles of the race with no other competitors in sight. Although both men spent years dreaming about Boston and 2:09 minutes engaged in intense battle, the aftermath of the marathon was perhaps the most pivotal part of each man’s life. Salazar slowly descended from a promising career to one plagued by nagging and indeterminate maladies. Beardsley’s professional running career was cut short by ACL surgery shortly after the marathon, but his life was much more significantly impacted by addiction. In retrospect, each of the runners traces the change in their life trajectory back to the duel in the sun.

“Duel in the Sun” by John Brant chronicles much more than the famed race of ’82. Featuring two competitors, Brant spends time exploring the backgrounds of each runner, how they found their way to elite running, and the unexpected paths their lives branch out on after the culmination of the race. A thorough historian, Brant traces Cuban-American Salazar’s family history back to the days when his father was a resistor-in-arms with Castro before fleeing to the United States when he no longer felt safe under Castro’s communist Cuba. Similarly, Brant explores Beardsley’s country childhood and farming work ethic, as well as how the alcoholism of both his parents contributed to his genetic predisposition and later addiction to painkillers. As a sports writer, Brant focuses in on relevant details of training, racing, and everything else related to running without going into the weeds with nuance. At the same time, he offers a holistic picture of each runner and their experience by┬áincluding how their childhoods shaped not only everything leading up to the duel in the sun, but also everything that came after. The result is a gripping retelling of an amazing race that considers all the factors at stake.

I love this book! The chapters alternate between runners, focusing on experiences before the marathon that influenced their running as well as significant moments after the marathon as the runners struggled to make meaning of the difficulties in their lives. Throughout the dueling narratives runs the theme of the ’82 Boston Marathon, which unites the multiple storylines. I was also pleased with the respectful tone Brant takes toward each of the runners’ struggles, rather than exploiting individual difficulty for consumption and comparison. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in running.

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