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.