Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon

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9780241186770: Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon

“Essential reading for every runner.” —Men’s Fitness

“Compelling...As becomes clear not long after its starting gun, this book transcends the search for a two-hour marathon.” —The Washington Post

Two hours to cover twenty-six miles and 385 yards. It is running’s Everest, a feat once seen as impossible for the human body. But now we can glimpse the mountaintop. The sub-two hour marathon will require an exceptional combination of speed, mental strength, and endurance. The pioneer will have to endure more, live braver, plan better, and be luckier than anyone who has run before. So who will it be?

In this spellbinding book, journalist Ed Caesar takes us into the world of elite marathoners: some of the greatest runners on earth. Through the stories of these rich characters, like Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai, around whom the narrative is built, Caesar traces the history of the marathon as well as the science, physiology, and psychology involved in running so fast for so long. And he shows us why this most democratic of races retains its brutal, enthralling appeal—and why we are drawn to test ourselves to the limit.

Two Hours is a book about a beautiful sport few people understand. It takes us from big-money races in the United States and Europe to remote villages in Kenya. It’s about talent, heroism, and refusing to accept defeat. It is a book about running that is about much more than running. It is a human drama like no other.

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About the Author:

Ed Caesar has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Outside, and Smithsonian, among many other publications, and has reported from a wide variety of locations, including Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kosovo. He has won nine journalism awards and was named the Foreign Press Association’s Journalist of the Year in 2014. Two Hours is his first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Two Hours Chapter One

Tear Down This Wall


September 2012

SHORTLY BEFORE nine on a bright fall morning in Berlin, Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai prepared to run a marathon faster than any human being—even he—had run before. A wild, audacious proposition, to propel one’s body to such a ragged extreme, and he felt the walls of his quest closing in on him. Years of pain for this one opportunity. Competing voices crowding his head. The loudest saying, If only we could start running!

Mutai is five feet seven inches tall, and 125 pounds. He has a wide, expressive face, with a high forehead, elfin ears, and long, gleaming teeth. Most often, you find him amiable, amused, desirous of news and gossip, a flashy smile close by. But now, at this solemn moment, he looked as vulnerable as a foundling.

There were around 41,000 runners behind him. Penned together, they bobbed and lilted like a gentle sea against a harbor wall. Alongside Mutai at the head of the crowd, meanwhile, were two dozen professional athletes whose lives—like his—would be marked irrevocably by the minutes to come. As Mutai ran his final warm-up shuttles, the goosebumps on his chest were visible behind his blood-orange running vest: nerves, or the cold, or both.

Mutai attempted to relieve the tension by telling himself that he didn’t need to win the race, or make history, to be happy. Anywhere on the podium would be okay, this reasonable voice said. The marathon is tough. Anything can happen.

He knew he was fooling himself. It was true, yes, anything could happen in a marathon, and there were many events seemingly outside an athlete’s control—including the body’s reaction to the stress of racing. No athlete, not even a champion, could know when a cramp or an injury might destroy his chances. So Mutai told himself this thin truth—that his effort was enough. Although he knew that nothing but triumph could satisfy him, and even triumph might not suffice, the mental evasion somehow helped him relax. He needed to relax. Tense legs, he knew, couldn’t move.

Mutai said his habitual prayers. For clemency. For strength and for courage. For his stringy legs, veterans and repositories of tens of thousands of miles of training, to carry him another 26 miles and 385 yards. But not for a miracle. He would never ask God for a miracle.

Smiles all around him now: the effervescence of expectation. Mutai could not help but smile too. Despite longing for the starter’s pistol, there would always be a part of him that enjoyed these rich, electrified seconds—the warrior part. He was about to race. Yes, the eyes of the city, and the sport, were upon him. But where else would he want to be? He would shortly express the purest version of his being on the grandest stage imaginable, without saying a word. If the race proceeded as he had dreamed it, he would become not only the world record holder, but a vindicated man. All in a little more than two hours.

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 beltline 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.

As the minutes became seconds, and he toed the Berlin startline in his featherweight Adidas racing flats, he was aware that dozens of less successful athletes depended on him for clothes, accommodation, and transport. He knew his family relied on him for their houses, their food, their televisions, their children’s school fees, and their cars. He also knew that in this race, he had the chance not only to win 40,000 euros for first place and a possible 80,000 euros in time bonuses (30,000 euros for a time under 2:04:30; 50,000 more for a new world record), but also, if he won in Berlin, the chance to seal a $500,000 jackpot for winning the cumulative World Marathon Majors prize for 2011–2012. And that was just from the organizers of the marathon. His sponsor, Adidas, would also kick in bonuses if he won or became the new world record holder. After agent’s fees, he could be more than half a million dollars richer by lunchtime. Back home, his friends and family would be huddled around televisions, watching.

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.

Now, on this bright cold day in Berlin, he wished to upend the marathon world once more. As he stood at the head of the vast herd, high banks of loudspeakers began to play the kind of jangling, electronic string music you hear on game shows before the host tells a contestant whether he’s landed the big prize. Over these shifting arpeggios came the sound of a stout man with a microphone, counting down the final seconds before the gun. Ten! he shouted, in English. Nine! Eight! Seven . . . Mutai stood still, his chest pushed forward in anticipation of movement. At that instant, the world receded. Mutai became the instrument of a single imperative—to run a marathon in less than two hours and three minutes.

Nine a.m. The gun.

The crowd cheered as thousands of electric-blue balloons were released into the air. The lead athletes shot off and quickly assembled themselves into a group. Within a few hundred meters, these contenders tucked in behind the four elite pacemakers, wearing black-and-white striped vests to distinguish themselves, who in turn followed a BMW on which a digital display was mounted, showing both the elapsed time and the split time for the last kilometer.

In that first group along with Mutai were a handful of extraordinary athletes. Dennis Kimetto had been “discovered” by Mutai in 2008 and now trained in the same group. Nicknamed “Mwafrica,” or “the African,” by his fellow athletes on account of his coal-black skin, he had progressed rapidly—breaking the 25km world record earlier in 2012—and was now running his first marathon outside Kenya. Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor, meanwhile, was widely considered to possess a profound natural talent. And, although the nineteen-year-old former junior world cross-country champion was also running his full-marathon debut, he had some experience of Berlin. The previous year, he had paced Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian who is considered by many to be the greatest distance runner of all time, in the race. Haile was so impressed with Kamworor’s performance that day that he made an instant prediction: the young Kenyan would one day break the world record himself. And then there was Jonathan Maiyo, who had run a 2:04:56 marathon and a 59:02 half marathon earlier in the year, both world-class times.

Within a couple of kilometers, after the adrenaline burst of the opening section faded, Mutai once again felt freighted with pressure. As the star man in the race, he believed—correctly—that the eyes of his fellow athletes were upon him. If he pushed, he thought, they would push. If he slowed, they would slow. He tried to relax. He prayed again. God, you know I am fighting. Lead me to the end of the race. He attempted to put his competitors out of his mind and concentrate on the workings of his own body.

Of the contenders in Berlin, Geoffrey Kamworor (who, like Geoffrey Mutai, pronounces his Christian name “Jo-ffrey”) has the most idiosyncratic style. He is powerfully built by marathon runner standards, and has a wide, gap-toothed grin. In training, he looks like a bull before a matador. He runs with one shoulder tucked in and his legs flying straight out behind him. At the dusty athletics track at Chepkoilel, near Eldoret, he leans into tight bends shoulder-first, explosions of orange dust bursting behind him like airstrikes in the desert. Kimetto and Maiyo run more upright. But, while Kimetto’s straight back can make him look rigid and uncomfortable, Maiyo’s gives him a regal bearing.

Geoffrey Mutai is a paragon of economy. A high-definition, slow-motion camera was once trained on him from a side angle at mile 21 of the 2011 New York City Marathon. At that moment in the race, Mutai was running a 4:31 mile, which is under a two-hour marathon pace. The resulting footage, which is nine seconds long, and available for all to see on the Internet, is hypnotic, and beautiful. Mutai’s speed is maintained by a series of sharp midfoot strikes. He doesn’t brake at all, or strain for forward movement. There is no tension in his arms. It’s as if he is on wheels, not legs.

Watching Mutai in the flesh, head-on and in real time, is no less pleasurable. He runs splay-footed, low-hipped, each stride working the most out of his sinuous calves, while his torso remains as still as a rifle target. Because of this impeccable form, it’s sometimes hard to tell when he decides to push the pace. Only the speed of his turnover and the attitude of his head—cast down and bent forward as if at the prow of a clipper—betray his intentions.

The official marathon world record on the morning of September 30, 2012, was 2:03:38, set the previous year in Berlin by Patrick Makau, of Kenya. But Mutai was not interested in 2:03:38. Although he made no announcement of his intentions to the media, he wished not only to break Makau’s world record, but to annihilate it—to erase those digits from his mind. Neither fame, nor money, was his principal motivation. He needed to run so fast for a simple, private reason: he believed something precious had been stolen from him.

Mutai’s grievance dated back eighteen months, to the 2011 Boston Marathon. Mutai had arrived at that race as a serious prospect, with fast second-place finishes at his previous two marathons in Rotterdam and Berlin. At that time, he was, in the sonorous, antiquated parlance of Kenyan marathoners, an athlete who was “picking.” To “pick” is to quicken. It can refer equally to a race or a career. We start slow, they might say, and then we pick.

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 Gebrselassie’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. Before 2003, when the International Association of Athletics Federations designed regulations so that the marathon could be measured for a world record like any other distance, there had only been marathon “world bests” at 26.2 miles. (The pre-2003 rule was, in many ways, a more satisfactory situation, because it recognized that every marathon course, and every marathon day, is different.) When the IAAF stipulated its criteria, it decreed that a world record must be run on a looped course, with the start and finish separated by no more than 50 percent of the distance, and that the net downhill must be no greater than 1 meter per kilometer. Boston, which runs in a straight shot from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to the city’s downtown, and which is downhill on aggregate, fails to fulfill these conditions.

These thoughts—of the record, and its ineligibility in Boston—had not entered Mutai’s mind until the finish line. Boston is not traditionally considered a fast race. It has plenty of hills, and employs no pacemakers. Only a fool would start the Boston Marathon in the hope or expectation of breaking a world record.

During the race itself, Mutai’s pacing calculations had been thrown off by his failure to properly analyze the lead vehicle’s display—which showed minutes per mile, rather than the kilometers he was accustomed to. Occasionally he would see a metric marker, but the numbers would not compute. (At 30km, he read the split and thought, Wow! What is this? He then wondered whether to trust the numbers he had seen.) Of course, he knew within himself that he was running quickly—his body was in a kind of delicious agony—but he had no idea how quickly. And so he simply dedicated himself to besting his closest rival and winning the race.

It was only when he crested the line in first place, and hugged his Dutch manager, Gerard Van de Veen, that he began to process what he had just accomplished. He looked at the clock: 2:03:02. A crazy time. And then Van de Veen broke the news that his run in Boston would be only a personal best—that the world record had evaded him because of a technicality. What was worse, everyone started talking about the twenty-mile-an-hour wind that had blown that day. The way people now had it, Mutai had effectively been escorted to the finish line by a hurricane. Not only was his time not an official world record, but it was also adorned with asterisks.

Mutai was wounded. He knew there had been a tailwind in Boston that day. But Boston is hilly. And even downhills, he knew, destroyed the legs. What’s more, he thought, where were those asterisks in all those races where a gale blew in his face? And, even more galling, why was he given no credit for the fact that he and Mosop had fought to maintain their speed without the aid of professional pacemakers?

In short, he believed in what he had achieved—wind or no wind, hills or no hills. In the form of his life, driven on by a fierce competitor, he had been possessed by the Spirit, and run an unprecedented time. Those kinds of days didn’t come around too often. Marathon running is a tough, capricious sport. Mutai knew he might never rediscover that alchemic combination of shape, conditions, and competition that had pushed him to such an extraordinary performance. And now people wanted to tell him it didn’t count?

“It was painful,” he said. “It hurt me. But then I sit down and I tell myself, ‘...

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