As the reviews for his brilliant first book stagger across the finish line, Ed Caesar is going to have to get used to some exhausting journalistic analogies between writing and running. Caesar's Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon explodes out of the blocks, continues at a terrific clip, never flags and breasts the tape victorious, its arms in the air. Like the best foot races, it is tight, pacy and riveting. Like the best stories, it is about an apparently impossible journey, the "quest" of the title: to run a marathon in under two hours.
"The two-hour-marathon exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of their normal, professional existence," Caesar writes of the East African runners most likely to manage it. "There is a dreamlike, intangible quality to the vision, laced with the prospect of real pain. To reach the summit, the pioneer knows that he must endure more, live braver, plan better, and be luckier than his forebears – and that all these qualities will likely be insufficient. They know that the honour may fall to another generation."
The current world record is 2:02:57, held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. But it's another Kenyan, Geoffrey Mutai, who is at the heart of Caesar's story. Why Kenya? Caesar uses both cutting-edge science as well as old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to try and find out: that's his own quest. He's a wonderful writer and he has found a terrific subject – the history of the marathon alone could make a decent book – but it's his clear empathy with and affection for Mutai that elevates Two Hours. Mutai is not only emblematic of Kenyan runners, he becomes a fully realised character, and the reader finds himself willing him on, even as Caesar makes plain how narrow his chances.
A brilliant debut. Give the man a medal and a bunch of flowers.
Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon (Viking) by Ed Caesar is out on 16 July