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Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon

Ed Caesar


'WE ARE hard-wired to discover new ways to test ourselves. The urge resides somewhere in our traveller genes.' So argues Ed Caesar in his study of athletics' next frontier, the two-hour marathon. As in many sporting endeavours, marathon runners are reaching the limits of what is believed to be humanly possible. The increasing popularity and professionalisation of running 26 miles and 385 yards (42.2km) saw the world record drop in the four decades to 1990 by nearly 19 minutes. In the last 25 years, elite runners have lowered it by almost another four minutes. In 2014, for the first time, the marathon was run in under two hours, three minutes. A two-hour marathon could be tantalisingly close.

Mr Caesar's search for this ideal leads him to Geoffrey Mutai, a young Kenyan of the Kalenjin ethnic group, who appears as likely as anyone to break the two-hour mark. Mr Mutai has the right genes, an economical technique ('It's as if he is on wheels, not legs') and, most importantly, a willingness to push himself to his physical limits. Mr Mutai set an unofficial world record at the Boston marathon in 2011 by attacking sooner and maintaining his aggression for the entire race; he runs without fear of running out of fuel. Another runner describes the sensation as 'like putting your hand in a bowl of hot water. You have to keep your hand in, while the water just keeps getting hotter and hotter. Take your hand out, and you lose the race.'

Mr Mutai is a well-chosen protagonist for Mr Caesar. The role played by genetics in top-level sport is well known. 'Two Hours' covers this, and the marathon's journey into mainstream athletics. But it breaks new ground by examining the race strategies of the latest generation of runners. Mr Caeser's research leads him to propose the perfect conditions for a sub-two-hour run: windless chilly weather, a flat circular course, an evening start and a world-class field. The missing piece is a sponsor with a great deal of money. Over to you, Nike.

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