6 November 2015

Two Hours by Ed Caesar: ‘The best book on running you’ll read’


Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon. Ed Caesar, Viking, RRP £16.99

Personally, I could not be less interested in marathons. While 26 miles is undoubtedly a long way on foot, and it is an enormous achievement to run that distance, the business of marathons looks strangely unexciting. The sport is long on endurance and individual endeavour, but it lacks the glamour and excitement of sprinting or the 800 metres. Although marathons bring pleasure and pain to the people involved, and often attract large crowds, the actual competition itself rarely if ever transcends its fan base and grips the wider public.

So it was with a heavy heart that I started reading Ed Caesar’s book, published earlier this year. But the British writer has done something quite extraordinary with Two Hours. He has made marathons interesting, even to someone like me.

Two hours, as you will have guessed, is the magic time that every elite runner is pushing to break. Can it ever be done? Is the human body simply incapable of carrying someone that quickly over such a distance?

The story of those attempting to make history – pushing each other harder every year, shaving off seconds and pitching for sporting immortality – is enthralling and is told here with great verve and style. ‎The heavy weight resting on the shoulders of these athletes (especially those from Africa) is the knowledge that if they win races, and attract sponsors and prize money, they can support their extended family and the lives of many people in their village or town. They are cash cows. That pressure is too much for some of the young men, and the consequences are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes uplifting.

Yet this is ultimately a book about globalisation and the post-1970s concept of the global village. It shows how the spirit of an amateur sport was fused with capitalism and mined by global sports brands who were looking to make running or jogging long distances a thing for general consumers – producing a sport that is really a post-modern confection with little to do with ancient Greece.

Ed Caesar is a young writer who writes non-fiction that reads like it is from the pages of the New Yorker – only they got a British journalist to write it and make it punchier.

Two Hours has the lot, which is no mean achievement. Writing books about sport is notoriously difficult. There are a lot of bad books out there and very few gems. Quite often the very best sportsmen and women are simply not particularly interesting on a psychological level. They were born with a gift that they honed through habit and by being coached relentlessly. They often don’t seem to think much about motivation, possibly because it is a waste of time that uses up energy better directed at winning.

The exceptions, such as Ali, stand out because at their peak, or even in decline, they were as interesting as good songwriters or world leaders. And Two Hours is another rarity. It is a terrific book about running.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.