The First Four Minutes
by Roger Bannister
Distributed in the USA as The Four Minute Mile, this is Bannister’s own account of his running career and the chase for the sub-4:00, written just one year after it happened, and it’s the best running autobiography ever written. ‘Nuff said.
The Animal Keepers: The Story of an Unlikely Hero and an Unforgettable Season
by Donn Behnke
KCI Sports Publishing, 2014
I wasn’t exactly sure where to put this book but it ended up in “Memoirs” because it’s written by a participant in the true story. More than a participant, actually, he was the coach. Behnke is a very good high school coach whose teams have won ten Wisconsin state championships and who has been named a national coach of the year. This book focuses on just one year, the 1985 cross country season.
Behnke was about to start the first day of practice that year when a special education student was brought to him. This was 1985, a much less enlightened time than now, and Behnke flat-out didn’t want the kid on his team. But he didn’t get that choice.
The student’s wild appearance earned him the nickname “Animal”, and he turns out to be a decent runner. The experience of being on a high school team has a major impact on “Animal”, but more so on his teammates. At first, resenting him, they grow to love him. This book really gets at the most important parts of high school sports.
The Unforgiving Minute
by Ron Clarke with Alan Trengove
Pelham Books, 1966
Ron Clarke was an unusual runner. He set world records for everything from 3000 meters to 20,000 meters but never won Olympic or Commonwealth gold. Others have done this but not like Clarke; he basically had two careers with a brief step away from the sport in between, and he followed two completely different training systems in each. This is not an easy book to get in printed form, but a good one.
The Self-Made Olympian
by Ron Daws
World Publications, 1977
Books exclusively about training don’t belong on this list because they’re not written to be entertaining. This isn’t exclusively about training, though, since it mixes narrative with training theory. Daws tells his story of starting as an unremarkable collegiate runner and, by applying superior training methods over several years along with smart racing tactics, eventually gaining a place on the 1968 Olympic marathon team. Arthur Lydiard’s Running the Lydiard Way (Anderson World, 1978) is similar–it also mixes narrative and training, and Daws used Lydiard’s approach–but Daws’ storytelling makes The Self-Made Olympian a superior read.
by Clarence DeMar
New England Press, 1937
A recent republishing is titled Marathon: Autobiography of Clarence Demar- America’s Grandfather of Running but the original title was wonderfully simple. DeMar was a self-coached runner who won the Boston Marathon seven times between 1911 and 1930. Four years ago Runners’ World summarized this long-forgotten classic.
Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness
by Suzy Favor Hamilton
Dey Street Books, 2015
A few years ago a friend sent me a photo from a pre-race meet-and-greet with Suzy Favor Hamilton. He told her he was a big fan and would like to get a picture with her. Instead of the usual side-by-side smile for the camera, she wrapped her arms around him and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. His uneasy grin said, “This is cool but so much more uncomfortable than I ever thought it would be”. Maybe a year or two later the news broke that the umpteen-time national champion was leading a double life as a high-priced escort.
This book has track and field and running in it, but it is not the central focus of the book. It’s about someone who was a track star and what happened to her. If you’re a cynic you’ll say it’s mostly about sex and cashing in on lurid fame. I debated whether or not to include it on the list, but ultimately decided this is an important track story, even if I feel certain that much of the real story has not yet been told. Favor Hamilton has also used this as a platform to speak out about mental health issues. A worthwhile follow on social media as well.
The Wizard of Foz: Dick Fosbury’s One-Man High Jump Revolution
by Bob Welch with Dick Fosbury
Skyhorse Publishing, 2018
There have been many revolutions in track and field–starting blocks, fiberglass poles, the shot put spin–but none have been so closely associated with a single person as the high jump technique known as the flop. This book was published a half-century after Fosbury set the world on its head with his win at the Mexico City Olympics.
Fosbury didn’t invent his high jump style because he was a 60s revolutionary. Quite the opposite, he was a civil engineering student. He invented it in high school because he wanted more than anything to be on the track team and he was bad at the then-dominant Western Roll. He switched to the scissors kick and started experimenting.
This earns its place on the list because is a well-written and interesting biography but also because there aren’t a lot of books about high jumping.
Run, Bullet, Run: The Rise, Fall, and Recovery of Bob Hayes
by Bob Hayes with Robert Pack
Harper & Row, 1990
Hayes may have been the fastest man who ever lived until Usain Bolt came along. From Sports Illustrated, May 18, 1964:
When Robert Lee Hayes runs you get the impression that cotter pins have come out and dowels loosened and that at the end of the race there will be sections of Bob Hayes—elbows, kneecaps, forearms—strewn along the track like the Florida Keys. … Hayes does not run a race so much as he appears to beat it to death…
From the Olympics, he went on to a record-setting career as a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. But after retirement, he became peripherally involved in a drug deal, went to prison for ten months, and suffered from alcoholism until setting himself straight. The honesty and realism in which Hayes describes his own highs and lows makes this more than just another sports biography.
The Long Hard Road
by Ron Hill
Ron Hill Sports, 1981-82
The three-time British Olympic marathoner ran every day for more than 52 years, and his heyday was the late 60s and early 70s when running was a small fraternity of men. Besides being a champion runner, he was a textile chemist who advanced athletic clothing more than any other single person—and managed to fit in triple-digit training weeks and run 2:09:28 while working full-time in his HillSports clothing business. He was a tough, interesting man during interesting times, and his two-volume autobiography is one of the rarer running books.
Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory
by Deena Kastor with Michelle Hamilton
When I was a junior in high school, my coach had me read Richard Elliot’s The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Racing. It’s a classic primer on sports psychology as applied to distance running. To a teenager who felt ruled by his emotions and anxieties, and especially to a smart teenager who was used to using his brain to be in control of everything else, it was liberating like nothing else to learn not only that I could harness the power of my mind, but how.
Deena Kastor is one of America’s greatest ever on the track, and she was even better in cross country, and better than either of those at the marathon. She was consistently good through high school and college yet never an NCAA Champion. How did she manage to improve from mere collegiate All-American to one of the best runners in the world?
Explaining that is what sets this apart from other running memoirs, and it’s the mental approach she learned from coach Joe Vigil and his training group in Alamosa, Colorado. She went there nearly burned out and ready for one four-year Olympic cycle before quitting and moving on. She ended up with an Olympic bronze medal and kept at it for much longer than four years. What she learned was how to separate her racing results from her feelings of self-worth, and to practice positivity and gratitude. Of course, it’s all a lot more complex than that, but this is why you need to read the book.
Run to Overcome: The Inspiring Story of an American Champion’s Long-Distance Quest to Achieve a Big Dream
by Meb Keflezighi with Dick Patrick
Tyndale Momentum, 2010
Keflezighi may be the most likable and inspiring running star since Emil Zatopek, and his story of survival through civil war and struggle as an immigrant makes him as much of an All-American as his many NCAA triumphs did. The one shortcoming of this book is its timing. It was written and released to take advantage of Meb’s fame after winning the 2009 New York City Marathon, one that was assumed to be his swansong. Of course, that was wrong and he had several more heroic runs in him, none greater than his win at the 2014 Boston Marathon. The companion book is 26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running, and Life from My Marathon Career (with Scott Douglas, Penguin Random House, 2019) which tells less about Men’s remarkable life and early racing career and concentrates on his marathons. If you read them both you’ll get the whole story.
Inside Track: My Professional Life in Amateur Track and Field
by Carl Lewis with Jeffrey Marx
Lewis was the biggest star in track and field between Emil Zatopek and Usain Bolt, but he was seen as icy and aloof by the US sports press. It’s not as if he was the only great athlete to have treated the press with some level of disdain, but it’s likely that his being an Olympian rather than a football or baseball player meant the press didn’t have to kiss his ass. Lewis is such an important figure that his book is a must-read for track fans, despite the fact that it came out before the late-career triumphs that put him on the short list for the greatest of all time.
I think Lewis was misunderstood simply because he was ahead of his time. He thought track and field should be a professionalized sport rather than one based on obligation. He was derided because he accused Ben Johnson of being doped to the gills, then turned out to be correct. His battles with USA Track and Field (then known as TAC) seem eerily familiar to anyone who has to deal with that organization today. And the whispers about his sexual preference, something he has always kept close to the vest, were a big deal in the 80s but would be a non-issue today.
Lewis wrote another autobiography in 1996, One More Victory Lap: My Personal Diary of an Olympic Year, and an updated version of Inside Track was released in 2014.
Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games
by Lopez Lomong with Mark Tabb
Thomas Nelson, 2012
There are stories so amazing that as fiction they would be called unrealistic. Lomong’s is one of them.
By age 15 he had spent 60% of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya. At six years old he was kidnapped from his Sudanese village and was going to be forced into military service, but he and others escaped and ran for days. They ended up in the camp.
He had never seen a television nor ever heard of the Olympics until September of 2000, when he saw Michael Johnson win the 400 in Sydney. He decided he was going to be an Olympian someday, which at that point seemed as unlikely as becoming an astronaut.
But he soon became one of 3,500 “Lost Boys” refugees accepted into the United States, where he joined his high school track team and was really good right away. You may know the rest: college All-American, two-time Olympian, elected flag-bearer for the US team in 2008. There is more, a lot more.
My Race Be Won
by Vincent Matthews with Neil Amour
From the book jacket:
Vince Matthews reveals with gritty candor the rampant hypocrisy of amateur athletics in a nation that often humiliates many of her finest athletes. Millions around the world watched their television screens when Matthews, after winning the Gold Medal in the 400-meter dash at the 1972 Olympics, failed to stand at attention during ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Now, Vince tells the whole story of what led to his defiance on the victory stand–from the struggle against poverty and the society that shaped his values to the quest for identity; from the tough streets of Brooklyn to a black college in the South during the tumult of the movement for civil rights; and on to disillusionment with the stormy 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Thrown Free: How the East German Sports Machine Molded, Trained, and Broke an Olympic Hero and how He Won His Fight for Freedom
by Wolfgang Schmidt with William Oscar Johnson and Anna Verschoth
Simon & Schuster, 1991
The writing here is nothing special, just a run-of-the-mill athletic biography. The subject matter, though, is chilling. Schmidt was a champion East German discus thrower who spoke and thought a bit too freely, and he was eventually sentenced to prison. Remarkably, he escaped across the heavily-guarded border to West Germany and once again became world champion. The totalitarianism is palpable and as I read I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see if I was being watched. It is so easy for us to forget that hundreds of millions of people lived under these conditions in the mid- and late-20th century.
The Miler: America’s Legendary Runner Talks About His Triumphs and Trials
by Steve Scott with Marc Bloom
Scott is a miler of great success and not-quite-success. He ran sub-4:00 136 times, more than anyone else in history, but never won a truly big race. What elevates this book above the ordinary athletic biography is Scott’s willingness to talk about how things really were. The description of training and racing is excellent, but he also tells about what life is like off the track for a professional runner (often isolated and insecure) and the kind of stresses that can have on relationships. It’s remarkably honest for a man who admits he joked around far too much.
Just Call Me Jock
by Jock Semple with John J. Kelley and Tom Murphy
Waterford Publishing, 1981
I found this in a secondhand bookstore for a few dollars and had no idea who Semple was, but I bought it because I recognized scenes of the Boston Marathon on the cover. It turns out that for several decades, Semple and Will Cloney did basically all the work to organize Boston. Semple’s life story is interesting enough—a Scot who started factory work at 14, moved to the USA at 18, and struggled to find employment until he became the masseur to the Boston Bruins and Celtics. But it’s the running part that really sparks, showing what road racing was like in the days when it was mostly a pursuit of Northeastern manual laborers, along with the trials and tribulations of putting on one of the world’s great footraces at a time when the AAU barely tolerated its existence.
Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports
by Katherine Switzer
Da Capo Press, 2007
Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, and the chaotic scene surrounding that situation instantaneously put her in the spotlight. She continued to be a pioneer of women’s sport, as an athlete, a journalist, and a race organizer. Her efforts culminated in the IOC’s acceptance of a women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics, just 17 years after she received a six-month suspension from the AAU for running a marathon.
This is an important book for runners and track fans to read, but that doesn’t mean it is without drawbacks. There are inaccuracies, and sometimes important ones. For example, Switzer wrote that Harold Abrahams (the 1924 Olympic star whose story was told in Chariots of Fire) found the first Olympic women’s 800 meters to be “a spectacle of exhaustion” and a “disgrace to womanhood”, when in fact he defended the competitors from criticism and championed women’s participation in track and field.
Life Outside the Oval Office: The Track Less Traveled
by Nick Symmonds
Cool Titles, 2014
A review by Canada’s Athletics Illustrated:
The reviews have largely been positive for its pure entertainment value; however, the cleverness stops at the title; don’t seek belletristic finesse here…
As autobiographies go, the Frenchness and possibly the hint of sophistication that are evoked from the word, “memoir” would allude to something that Nick Symmonds’ book is not: aesthetic literature. At no time does Symmonds appropriate a literary device; neither a metaphor nor an allegory is found within the 230 pages that make up this read. Saying this: entertainment value and literary savoir-faire are not mutually exclusive. As for telling one’s life story, the biography serves; it is a fun and entertaining read.
So it’s not good writing but definitely an interesting story because it’s Symmonds, a resolutely anti-establishment figure (and occasional wild man) who does not hold back or whitewash anything. He’s gone up against USATF, Diamond League meet managers and Nike. He could have named the book They Might Be Giants for the opponents he’s picked.
Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story
by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis
Akashic Books, 2018
Try to imagine track and field without African-American women. It’s about impossible, isn’t it? Now try to find mass-market adult-oriented biographies of African-American women in track and field. There are shockingly few of them, just five that I know of.
Tyus is not as well known as her contemporary, Wilma Rudolph, but in some ways that makes this a better biography. She was the first person, man or woman, to win back-to-back Olympic 100-meter gold medals, doing it in 1964 and ’68, and readers will be surprised how little attention was paid to women’s track back then and how unequally the athletes were treated. The title refers to the nickname of Tennessee State women’s track team, which supplied the majority of the USA’s Olympic stars during coach Ed Temple’s 44 years at the helm of the program, and the book helps tell that story as well.
The next section of the best list of books will cover novels…