Summer has started and it’s time for long lazy days with a good book. Here at CITIUS MAG, that means books about running and track and field. I have prepared a summer reading list of 100 books for runners and track and field fans.
You’ve probably read many of these books, some of them several times. Some you’ve just heard of, and some not at all. Follow the links if you wish to purchase any of them via Amazon.com so you can financially support our work here at CITIUS.
These are not necessarily the 101 best books on the topics, although I’d say all of my personal top 50 to 80 are represented. Diversity is the aim here, which means a wide variety of topics and kinds of books are on the list, as well as a variety of event areas. If many books exist on a particular topic then just the best are selected, and multiple selections by a single author are only made if they are exceptionally good or important. We’re going for fun books that are primarily narrative, so reference books and books about training do not appear here; no matter how important or influential Mel Watman’s Encyclopedia of Athletics, Jack Daniels’ Training Formula, or Steve Magness’ The Science of Running may be, they’re not on the list.
If you think I’ve made an oversight, feel free to shoot us an email over at [email protected]
MY TOP TEN
1. Once A Runner
by John L. Parker, Jr
This is the consensus choice for best running book of all time. You will be hard-pressed to find it missing from any top ten list. It follows the exploits of college miler Quentin Cassidy, who has an unsuccessful fight against college administrators and is kicked off his team and barred from competing in their meets. Undeterred, he trains in seclusion for a race against an international superstar.
To me, the book is like Star Wars: fanciful, overdramatic, with ridiculous dialogue. And none of that matters because it strikes a chord deep inside us—in this case, for anyone who has ever been fully determined to be as fast as their talent will allow them. CITIUS Mag’s Patrick Gibson has more.
The book was originally self-published and Parker sold it out of the trunk of his car at track meets. It was such an underground hit that a publisher picked it up. By the 90s it was out of print and, like Rocky Horror Picture Show not being available on video, that only heightened its underground cult status. RHPC eventually was released on video, and OAR was reprinted in 2009, but by then both had their status cemented. It has spawned a sequel (Again to Carthage, 2008) and a prequel (Racing the Rain, 2015).
2. Best Efforts: World Class Runners and Races
by Kenny Moore
In a tent in the fan zone at the 2008 Olympic Trials, I saw copies of this book for sale. Like OAR, it had only recently been republished after long being out of print and being one of the most sought-after cult books in track and field. A skinny, grizzled old man with a voice like a chainsaw was seated nearby, ready to sign your purchase. I suddenly realized it was Kenny Moore and I had to keep myself from kowtowing like Wayne and Garth.
Moore is the poet laureate of track and field and this is a collection of his best magazine writing, mostly for Sports Illustrated. It starts with an insider’s account of the 1972 Olympics and its marathon, where Moore finished fourth and goes on to interviews and profiles of the stars of the 70s and early 80s: Seb Coe, Bill Rodgers, Grete Waitz, Steve Prefontaine, Roger Bannister, John Akii-Bua, Filbert Bayi.
Moore is a great writer and it shows not just in each article, but in the way the book is structured. It’s a metaphor for the life of a runner. It starts centered on the self, full of piss and vinegar. It gradually mellows and becomes more interested in others. It ends with an account of his participation in the Great Hawaiian Footrace, and while still competitive he finds the camaraderie at least as much fun as the racing.
3. The Fast Men
by Tom McNab
Did you like Chariots of Fire? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? The Sting? Of course, you did! Those are three of the greatest movies of all time. Now put them all together and you’ve got The Fast Men, a rollicking tale of con-artist sprinters in the Wild West.
Well, that’s part of it. There are portions that happen in Scotland and England, there is theater as well as sport, and then two main characters are captured while in search of gold and have to literally run for their lives. This is crazy good fun, and Runner’s World‘s Roger Robinson calls it his favorite running novel.
McNab is a Scot who knows track and field inside and out. He has been a top-level coach and was also the technical advisor for Chariots, meaning he had to make the athletics look real—and he had to bust the actors’ butts into shape. Lots of people know how to train athletes, even (as in this case) those with little to no talent, but McNab also had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport’s history.
4. Boston Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event
by Tom Derderian
Human Kinetics, 1993
In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James warns against the “railroad track” version of sports history: first this happened, then that happened, and so on. He wanted to let us know what baseball felt like at different points in history, the experiences of watching a game, playing a game, and so forth. As great as they are as research materials, David Martin and Roger Gynn’s The Marathon Footrace and The Olympic Marathon aren’t as much fun to read because they run those rails.
This year-by-year account of every Boston Marathon ever run could have fallen into this trap as well. It doesn’t because Derderian doesn’t take a “five Ws” approach to each chapter. Instead, he tells us the story of each year’s race, and that often extends far beyond the race itself. He tells us about the competitors, what they did before and after Boston and how they trained for the race. He gives us context through what was happening in the running and Olympic communities, along with the larger history and politics and culture of New England, the USA, and the world.
This book is really big, weighing in at over 600 pages. The first edition covered 96 men’s races and 25 women’s races, and updated editions have been published over the years. Some races are given just two or three pages, but others stretch into double digits. It is a remarkable accomplishment of research and storytelling.
5. The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It
by Neal Bascomb
Mariner Books, 2004
The single most compelling narrative in all of track history is the chase for the first sub-4:00 mile. In the early 50s it narrowed down to the USA’s Wes Santee, England’s Roger Bannister, and Australia’s John Landy. You probably know how it all turns out, but as with the movie Titanic the point is telling the story of how it happened.
Lots of other books have covered this ground (such as John Bryant’s 3:59.4: The Quest to Break the Four-Minute Mile), but this is the best due to the author’s skill. Unlike most of the authors of the other 100 books on this list, Bascomb does not have a background in running or track and field. He is an expert writer on 20th century history, penning books about the Potemkin mutiny and the hunt for Adolph Eichmann and such. He chose to write about the four-minute mile because it was compelling, and his research is exhaustive.
6. The Last Protest: Lee Evans in Mexico City
by Frank Murphy
Windsprint Press, 2006
Murphy has written three running biographies, all of which appear on this list and are quite good. Most observers say The Silence of Great Distance: Women Running Long is his best work, and I like it a lot, but this is my favorite athletic biographies I’ve ever read.
It is nominally a biography of Lee Evans, the 1968 Olympic 400 meter champion and world record breaker, but it is actually the story of the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights. While their famous Black Power salute made Tommie Smith and John Carlos the faces of the movement, the bulk of the pre-Olympic organization work was shouldered by Evans and Smith. That Evans was a key figure in the OHPR is not widely known, nor is the story of how it came to be and the inevitable clashes that occurred during its existence. The curse of “may you live in interesting times” definitely applies to 1968, among America’s most difficult but fascinating years.
For further reading on the subject, try Silent Gesture (Tommie Smith), The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World (Carlos and Dave Zirin), and A Race to Remember: The Peter Norman Story (Damian Johnstone).
7. Running With the Buffaloes
by Chris Lear
The Lyons Press, 2000
Classic sports books like Paper Lion and A Season on the Brink were insider’s accounts of a team and were made possible by a journalist embedding himself for an extended period of time. 24-year-old Chris Lear saw that no one had done it for distance running, convinced Colorado coach Mark Wetmore to let him join the team for the 1998 cross country season, and he got started. Lear was not an experienced writer, but he was an experienced athlete, so he used a format familiar to any serious runner: a daily journal.
Lear accomplished his fly-on-the-wall perspective of what it’s like to be on a college cross country team, and he made a great choice of which team to embed himself with. It had a bona fide superstar in Adam Goucher, a supporting cast of determined overachievers, a gruff, crotchety, and brilliant coach in Wetmore, and more twists and turns in the story than he ever anticipated. Lear set out to show that there could be a distance running could produce an interesting book and he certainly achieved that goal.
Lear tried a follow-up effort, Sub 4:00: Alan Webb and the Quest for the Fastest Mile by embedding himself with the Michigan team during the most anticipated freshman miler season since Jim Ryun, but the magic didn’t quite repeat itself. That’s no knock on Lear’s writing abilities, it’s just a statement of how well RWTB turned out.
8. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder
by Kenny Moore
Variety is a stated goal of this list, so at first I hesitated to put a second book by a single author in the top ten. Moore’s work is so good I couldn’t help it, though.
Moore co-wrote the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits as a clash between the iron wills of Pre and Bowerman, and this book was an outgrowth of that project. There was so much more to Bowerman that he keeps on popping up in all kinds of weird places, like Netflix’s hit docuseries Wild Wild Country.
Moore’s writing is entertaining and informative but not without its faults. Like most of us, Moore venerates the coach he ran for and sometimes the book slips into hagiography (for example, celebrating rather than condemning the hazing Bowerman subjected new athletes to). That can’t keep this book out of the top ten though, because it’s the story of a fascinating man whose influence is still significant today, almost 50 years after he ceased formal coaching. In Moore’s hands, that story is told well.
9. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe
W.H. Allen, 1959
After being caught robbing a bakery, Smith is sentenced to a Dickens-dismal prison school. He finds his only real comfort and freedom in running, a time when he can reflect and think about society’s rules and his place in them. He is chosen to run in a cross country race against a prestigious public school, and that is where he demonstrates his newfound understanding of free will.
This short story is probably the only work on this list that would be assigned in a literature class, certainly the only one for which you can find a dog-eared copy of Cliff Notes in a used bookstore. It’s a classic for a reason: all of us reach an age when we consciously choose how we wish to relate to the world, and many of us ruminate on it while we run.
10. Why We Run: A Natural History
by Bernd Heinrich
Harper Perennial, 2002
From Seth Cayley’s blog, BooksAboutRunning.com:
This is a gloriously unique book. Bernd Heinrich is world-class biologist and ultramarathoner, and a man who really wants you to share his love for dung beetles…
Heinrich is an entertainingly self-aware nutcase, and the book is structured around his quest in 1981 to win the American 100k championship on his first attempt at the distance. Training with virtually no knowledge of sports science, Heinrich retreated to a cabin in the New Hampshire woods and experimented on himself, using his understanding of animals to test out ideas about diet, pacing and training.
I bet you never realized how much you wanted to know about the mating rituals of tree frogs, or the fueling strategies of migrating birds, or the oxygen capacity of antelopes, or how insects cool themselves. Heinrich explains all of these in the same way that the best college professors take complex ideas and make them interesting and accessible—but he also explains how they relate to endurance sports, and how we mere humans can take lessons from the animal world to make us better runners. In addition, he documents his trial-and-error training for that ultramarathon and weaves it into his explanation of the animal kingdom. There have been some great sport science books released in recent years, but this one tops them all because Heinrich is so earnest in his love of both running and natural science.
The rest of the list, organized by genre…