Running to Narnia: The Quest for the Two-Hour Marathon

It won't happen in New York City this weekend, but in a new book Ed Caesar argues that a sub-two-hour marathon will eventually be reality.
October 28, 2015, 6:15pm
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Norman Higgins didn't mean to win the New York City Marathon in 1971. He'd driven into the city that morning from Connecticut expecting to race a three-miler, but he'd misread the date, and instead he had arrived just in time for the city's second annual marathon. He jumped in—why not?

"During the last lap, I had several young boys on bicycles riding around me saying, 'Hey old man, you're lapping everybody!'" recalls Higgins, who was then 34. "They added police protection after that."

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Higgins was already an elite distance runner; a month later, his time of two hours and fifteen minutes at Culver City placed him among the top 10 marathoners worldwide. He wasn't running for money or fame in New York, though. The city's marathon lacked both back then, when it was just a couple loops through Central Park and the grand prize was a new warm-up suit and an 18-inch trophy-replica of the Statue of Liberty—a far cry from today's prestigious footrace through all five city boroughs for a purse, this year, of $705,000.

So what drove Higgins? During an interview on the deck outside his home in rural Connecticut, the 78-year-old says he simply loved to run. That was his big secret. And he believes it's fundamental to achieving the next major milestone in long-distance running: breaking the marathon's two-hour barrier.

"The love to run: that is the key to the first sub-two-hour marathon," says Higgins, who became a high-profile coach after his racing career, including to several world-caliber athletes. "That guy has to love to run. And then you have to put all the other elements in there: the science, the equipment, the money."

Dennis Kimetto broke the marathon world record in Berlin last year. Photo by Rainer Jensen / EPA

Is it possible to run 26.2 miles in less than two hours? To clock a mile in four minutes and thirty-four seconds, then repeat that pace 25 more times in a row? If so, who will be the first? On what course? And will he be wearing Nike or Adidas? The questions are asked every time a new record is set or a major race is held. They gained new urgency last year, when Kenyan Dennis Kimetto broke the previous record by 26 seconds, posting a 2:02:57 marathon at Berlin—putting us only 177 seconds away from the mark.

Just in time for the 45th annual NYC Marathon, on November 1, the debate is taken up again in the new book Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon (Simon & Schuster), which came out on Tuesday. The author, Ed Caesar, is not the first to explore what it will take to break the two-hour barrier, nor is he the first to go East Africa in search of what fuels today's great marathoners, but the strength of Two Hours is in combining copious research and emotional human storytelling into a fast-paced narrative.

As Caesar frames it, "the dream of the two-hour marathon began its life as a hangover." After a boozy night in 1977, the college runner Mike Joyner lost a race the next morning to someone who happened to be an exercise physiologist. Their ensuing discussion got Joyner interested in what it would take to break two hours. Joyner went on to become a physiologist himself, and in 1991 published a paper in the J_ournal of Applied Physiology_ arguing the best possible marathon time is one hour, 57 minutes, and 58 seconds given someone with ultimate lung capacity, running economy, and lactate threshold. "It became the seminal document in the two-hour-marathon debate," according to Caesar, "and catalyzed a fierce argument in the scientific and running community that continues to this day."

Caesar calls sub-two "the Narnia of distance running." Yet in interviews with Joyner and other leading physiologists, sports researchers, and insiders from Adidas and Nike (which have each launched "sub-two" shoe projects), Caesar gives strong evidence , ranging from bigger prize offerings to refined training and racing methods (for example, researchers have found that a two-hour marathoner could save 100 seconds by drafting behind pacers for the entire course), for why it's not fantasy. These advancements have allowed the record to fall by nearly an hour since the first Olympics in 1896, putting elite marathoners on pace to run sub-two in either 2022 or 2035, depending whether you start your trend line in the 1960s or the 1980s.

The New York City course does not seem like two-hour-marathon material. Photo by Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The New York City Marathon is a microcosm of the trends that Caesar argues will eventually lead to the sub-two. He highlights how in 1976 New York became the first major marathon to entice runners with appearance fees as a way of boosting competition; it was also the first to offer a bonus purse of $1 million to the first person to break two hours. Since 1971, when Higgins won in two hours and 22 minutes, the course record has dropped by more than a quarter-hour, to 2:05:06, set by the Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai in 2011. That same year, Mutai smashed the Boston Marathon record by nearly three minutes in 2:03:03. (At the time, it was the fastest 26.2 miles ever run, but it didn't count as a world record because the Boston course fails to meet the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations.)

To learn Mutai's secret, Caesar follows him back home to Kenya's high-altitude Rift Valley, a region that pumps out great runners the way Silicon Valley churns out tech startups. "Mutai loved the feel of it, even when he ran alone," writes Caesar (italics his). "There was, he says, something 'in his blood' to run." Mutai calls it "the Spirit." He loves to run.

In focusing on Mutai, Caesar argues that the Kalenjin ethnicity of the Rift Valley offers the best combination of nature—larger lungs to cope with high altitude, for example—and nurture—"superstrength feet," thanks to shoeless childhoods—to turn out the world's first sub-two-hour marathoner. This confidence seems misplaced to Higgins, who notes that the epicenter of distance running has shifted over the decades between the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, and Ethiopia, and only relatively recently to Kenya. For him, what region a runner comes from is less important than what circumstances a runner rises above in his own life. As the great Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie says rhetorically to Caesar, "You think you can be a successful runner from a good family?" Gebrselassie believes "that a deficit of opportunities, and an early taste of pain, had not stifled his talent but fertilized it." Mutai rose from poverty, hunger, parental abuse, and hard labor. Higgins jokingly credits some of his own pain tolerance to having teeth drilled without novocaine as a youth

Mutai, who is still recovering from a disappointing time of 2:09:29 at the Berlin Marathon in September, will not be racing this Saturday. Even if he was, the two-hour barrier is unlikely to be broken by him or in New York City. Now 34, Mutai is past what new research is showing to be the prime marathoning years (which were long assumed to be one's late 20s or early 30s); a 2011 study from Aix-Marseille University in France put the ideal age at "around 25 years or less." As for New York, it's hilly, twisty, breezy, and overall slower than a flatter and straighter course like Berlin, where the last six men's marathon world records have been set, including Kimetto's.

Despite their roles in bringing the sub-two closer to reality, both the New York City Marathon and Mutai are unlikely to be part of the milestone moment if and when it arrives. Two Hours makes a convincing argument for the latter—for the elite runners that will eventually come together on a flat and straight course, on a cold day around 39-degrees F, in windless conditions, and work together to make distance running's Narnia a reality.

"Instead of being a race to win," Higgins told me, "it's a race to break two hours."