The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
by David Epstein
In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?
Epstein takes on the age-old debate about nature versus nurture and does it in a way that shows he both knows his science and knows how to write. He even shows how difficult it is to decide what’s nature and what’s nurture. This book is not entirely about track and field, but enough of it is that it definitely belongs on this list.
Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance
by Alex Hutchinson
If The Sports Gene is about nature versus nurture, Endure is about mind versus muscle. As above, it’s so hard to tease out the difference. Kirkus Reviews:
The author has a true gift for writing compelling sports stories and combining them with deft analyses of cutting-edge research that never get lost in jargon or become oversimplified. To the contrary, Hutchinson reinforces the uncertainty of current controversies in modern exercise science without forcing his readers to pick a side. Specifically, he investigates what is at the heart of the limits of man’s endurance: is it the body’s mechanistic breaking point or the brain’s upper threshold of belief?
Four Million Footsteps
by Bruce Tulloh
Pelham Books, 1970
Tulloh was one of England’s great runners of the 1960s, achieving a 4:00 mile and winning the 1962 European Championships 5000 meters. He was also an iconoclast who ran barefoot. At the end of his track career in 1967, he discovered that the record for running across the USA was then 73 days and eight hours, and he decided that breaking the record would be his next challenge. This book is his first-person account of his preparation for and attempt at that record. There is the running, but there is also the array of people he met and things he saw along the way.
Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe
by Becky Wade
Harper Collins, 2016
Wade was an All-American runner at Rice University and ran at the Olympic Trials, but her story is not the story she tells here. She applied for and won a scholarship to travel for a year and write about what she experienced. This book is the end product of the trip through nine countries (England, Ireland, Switzerland, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, and Finland) and their running cultures. There’s more than just the book; she also wrote a blog, Becky Runs Away, while on her year-long adventure. Close-to-the-ground travel immersion by a skinny person not named Anthony Bourdain? Sign me up! Plus, we had to show some love for a former CITIUS MAG contributor.
Wobble to Death
by Peter Lovesey
Penguin Books, 1980
Running murder mysteries? Of course that’s a thing. The above is the king of such books, set at a 19th-century London six-day professional racewalking event then colloquially referred to as a “wobble”. The death of a contender introduces Sergeant Cribb, who was also the protagonist of seven other Victorian-era sport-related murder mysteries.
Author Lovesey is both a historian of track and field and an award-winning crime writer. His Sergeant Cribb series was adapted into a British TV series, and he has written five other track books: three reference books and Goldengirl (Grenada Publishing Ltd., 1977), a slightly cheesy story of a neo-Nazi doctor who makes a super-woman out of his adopted daughter.
The Longer Bodies
by Gladys Mitchell
Victor Gollancz, 1930
Great-aunt Puddlequet is a “vinegar-tongued old hag” but she has a country house and money. After witnessing England’s field-event deficiencies in an international-dual loss to Sweden, she determines that her fortune will go to whichever of her heirs can first earn selection to an English national team. They train at her estate but they are terrible athletes. Somebody figures out that shots and hammers and javelins make excellent murder weapons – but who?
Along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Gladys Mitchell was one of the “big three” English women mystery writers of the early 20th century. She was also a bit of a track nut who was a member of the British Olympic Association. This is the third book in her “Mrs. Bradley” series featuring the psycholanalyst/detective, and it’s firmly tongue-in-cheek – think less Murder on the Orient Express and more Murder By Death. Originally printed in 1930, it is now available in the US thanks to a 2009 reprint by the Rue Morgue Press. It is absurd and fun.
by Linda Barnes
St. Martins Press, 1984
Murder at the Boston Marathon! No, not with bombs, but via a spiked drink handed to a runner at the crest of Heartbreak Hill. It’s a good murder mystery but the running portions contain enough factual errors that it gets knocked down a peg. Still, this is definitely entertaining reading.
The next collection of the best running books will focus on the best of the rest
The Drake Relays: America’s Athletic Classic
by David Petersen
University of Iowa Press, 2014
A coffee table book is one “whose purpose is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one entertains guests and from which it can serve to inspire conversation. . .subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial”. I own multiple books that fit this description, including Marathons of the World (Barron’s Educational Series, 2013; a photo book whose title is self-explanatory), The Zen of Running (Random House, 1974; photos and text of early-70s west coast hippies jogging in groovy natural locales), and Track Town, USA: Hayward Field: America’s Crown Jewel of Track and Field (Clarkson, 2010; the history and splendor of the now-defunct original venue). I chose the Drake Relays book not only because it’s among the best of the genre, but because it’s the only book on my list centered around one of the major college relay carnivals. Peterson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and this draws on his forty years of covering Drake.
Slaying the Dragon: How to Turn Your Small Steps to Great Feats
by Michael Johnson
The self-help genre is one of the oldest and broadest in all of publishing. It covers every goal imaginable from weight loss to making money to winning friends and influencing people to yes, becoming a better athlete. There is even a podcast dedicated to self-help books (with some, but not all, tongue in cheek). Johnson, the greatest sprinter of the 1990s, created a generic self-help book for whatever goal the reader might have. His nine-step program is narrated it with his own life story and the people who helped him achieve each of those steps. The result is readable, motivational, and very different from any other book on this list.