Running the Rift
by Naomi Benaron
Algonquin Books, 2010
Benaron’s debut novel follows the life of Jean Patrick, a young Rwandan half-miler with Olympic aspirations. He is a Tutsi, it is the early 1990s, and if you have seen Hotel Rwanda then you know the danger he faces, and that he will too have to literally run for his life. This novel won the 2010 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a near-miss for my top ten list.
Sprint from the Bell
by Pat Booth
Steve Barlow is an ex-seminarian in New Zealand pursuing the first sub-3:50 mile. This book is nearly unknown and extremely hard to find (WorldCat says only 14 libraries in the USA have a copy), but noted runner/author/critic Roger Robinson calls this one of his favorite running novels: “the hero struggles to balance his dedication with financial problems in those strictly amateur days, pressures on his marriage, and the mixed blessing of fame.”
The Purple Runner
by Paul Christman
Highgate Lane Press, 1983
This is one of the classic running novels and a contender for the top ten. It centers on a group of London runners, including a Kiwi woman seeking to break a cycle of mediocre marathons and a reclusive world-class “Phantom of the Opera”-type with a disfigured face who seeks to run the first sub-2:00 marathon. Unlike some novels, this one is true to the sport – Christman published the Running Stats newsletter for nearly 25 years. It’s a timepiece of the early 80s that you used to only be able to find in ads in the back of running magazines.
by James J. Fischer
Word Association Publishers, 2000
From Runner’s World:
Runner’s Blood opens, as a good mystery should, with a puzzle—an Olympic 10,000-meter runner is beaten by a middle-aged jogger who somehow manages a world-class time, without even breathing hard. This is quickly followed by the obligatory corpse—this time that of the jogger, who happens to have been a professor at the prestigious local medical school. What ensues is not as much a “whodunnit” as a “how’dtheydoit,” for unlike conventional mysteries, we learn the culprits in the next chapter: the Chinese athletic association, assisted by disgraced East German swimming coaches, who steal the dead doctor’s secret to cheat at the Olympic Games. Throughout the rest of the book we follow the Olympian’s quest to discover the secret and devise a method to stop them from stealing his medals.
Dr. James Fischer, M.D. and Professor at Yale, is eminently qualified to write this medical mystery. Reading the book is an education on the molecular biology and genetics that could produce such a scenario. Though the science can occasionally become overwhelming, it is always explained in layman’s terms. More troubling for runners are errors like referencing USATF as the TAC, or having a 10,000 meter track time disqualified for being wind-aided. Despite these limitations, the book draws you in, hoping to find out if the bad guys will be caught and the hero will win the medal and the girl—like all good mysteries.
by Brian Glanville
Ike Low is a quarter-miler toiling in obscurity until the famous but eccentric coach Sam Dee convinces him he’s a miler. Driven to success by self and coach, Low becomes an Olympian but at great personal cost. This is hailed as one of the great sports books ever, and Glanville got the details about running right: training, racing, power-hungry officials, the fraternity of “frenemy” runners, the anguish of injury, and more. Its mid-60s creation means some might find portions sexist and/or racist, but that’s its only real drawback.
by Bruce Glikin
Amber Fields Publishing, 2005
Glikin has written three running novels, the other two being Singer Sanchez, Running Gun and Hope’s Last Run. His style is “fantastic fiction”, where the plot is not realistic nor intended to be. The protagonist in this novel is Danny Murray, a 14-year-old bouncing from an abusive family to a foster home to another foster home before he takes his 9-year-old sister and runs away. The fantastic part is that Murray has both world-class running talent and a genius IQ and is on the cusp of becoming world-class at age 17. Then a murder knocks him from his path and he becomes a fugitive from the law. Like I said, certainly not realistic but action-packed and with a certain appeal to teenage boys.
by David Grant
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979
A CIA double agent is feeling the heat and needs to be pulled to safety before the KGB can identify him, a terrorist cell of anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists is threatening to disrupt the 1980 Olympics, and the Soviets are determined to win the men’s 5000 meters at any cost.
This book earns its place on the list for the quality of its running scenes and not for the rest of the writing. One review called it “a big lumpy pudding of a novel that only comes alive when dealing with the racing itself” and that “track-and-field enthusiasts may well want to put up with the hackneyed suspense padding here in order to enjoy Grant’s obvious real interest: the running.” Will we? Hell yeah!
by Duncan Larkin
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010
Mario Fraioli, who now writes the Morning Shakeout newsletter, for Competitor.com:
Most works of running fiction don’t tell a morbid tale, but then again Oxygen Debt is unlike any other work of running fiction that’s ever been written.
Dark, unpredictable and disturbingly well-written, Oxygen Debt takes a relationship revolving around running and turns it inside out in the most unexpected of ways. In his first work of published fiction, author Duncan Larkin tells the unlikely love story of an unmotivated small town slob (Clay Griffin) and a highly driven, attractive Type-A Olympic Trials Marathon hopeful (Karen) that culminates in an out-of-left field ending which forces you to flip back through the book’s final few pages to confirm that you indeed read what you thought you just read.
This book is hard to find but worth the effort. The main characters bear a striking resemblance to real-life 1950s stars: Chris Chataway, Vladimir Kuts, Derek Ibbotson. The protagonist is not, though. Tom “Tigger” Dobson is an ordinary working-class stiff from a dreary northern English industrial town who meets a coach that promises he has world-beating talent. The ups and downs of training, racing, and daily life lead to a climax in which Dobson faces down those stars in a major international 5000-meter race and promises to himself that he will stay the distance. It feels like “Rocky” but predates Stallone’s film by nearly 20 years.
by Tom McNab
William Morrow & Co, 1982
This juuuuust missed the Top Ten and I’d definitely call it #11. It is a fictionalized version of the 1928 Trans-America Foot Race (aka “Bunion Derby”), a coast-to-coast stage race, but wilder, woolier, and more entertaining than how that race really happened. The titular Flanagan is the sports promoter putting on the entire race and traveling carnival. The cast of characters is broad and deep and real. The running parts ring true, especially how the athletes locked in battle work together to survive. “The easygoing pleasure, however, is steady throughout–with lovable people, outlandish logistics, period scenery, solid physiology, and a touch of Kaufman-and-Hart farce whenever Flanagan’s in action.”
Maggie Vaults Over the Moon
by Grant Overstake
There are many novels about running, and even some about sprinting. Relatively few are told from a female viewpoint, and this is the only one I’m aware of about field rather than track.
Maggie just lost her older brother Alex in a car accident. Farm life in her small Kansas town is never easy, but it’s now even harder without Alex, both physically and emotionally. As she begins her senior year at school she talks to her brother for comfort–and is shocked to hear him talking back. He urges her to take up pole vaulting and coaches her from the other side. Author Overstake is a Kansas native and a former sportswriter, and the competition scenes are authentic.
Brewster: A Novel
by Mark Slouka
It’s a good book if just about every major US newspaper gives it a review. The BookBrowse summary:
The year is 1968. The world is changing, and sixteen-year-old Jon Mosher is determined to change with it. Racked by guilt over his older brother’s childhood death and stuck in the dead-end town of Brewster, New York, he turns his rage into victories running track. Meanwhile, Ray Cappicciano, a rebel as gifted with his fists as Jon is with his feet, is trying to take care of his baby brother while staying out of the way of his abusive, ex-cop father. When Jon and Ray form a tight friendship, they find in each other everything they lack at home, but it’s not until Ray falls in love with beautiful, headstrong Karen Dorsey that the three friends begin to dream of breaking away from Brewster for good. Freedom, however, has its price. As forces beyond their control begin to bear down on them, Jon sets off on the race of his life – a race to redeem his past and save them all.
The Long Road to Boston
by Bruce Tuckman
The grand daddy of all marathons is the backdrop for this exciting story, with the chapters taking you right through the Great Race itself…The scene shifts back and forth from the heat of the race to Bradley’s secret past and the reasons for his impossible quest.
Tuckman’s narrative keeps you right on the edge of your seat during the entire story. We’ve heard from some readers who said this book kept them reading all night, others who reported themselves in tears at the end.
Reading this book is a great way to prepare mentally and spiritually to run Boston.
The Front Runner
by Patricia Nell Warren
William Morrow & Co., 1974
If you want to know the history of the LGBTQ experience in America, you have to know about Stonewall, you have to see Paris is Burning, and you have to read The Front Runner. You probably know about the first, you might have heard of the second, but the third is largely unknown these days. And it shouldn’t be.
Harlan, a closeted gay man and former Marine, coaches track at a small New England college. Billy, a great runner in the making, transfers in after being drummed out of Oregon for being openly gay. A relationship blossoms, and the story leads to Billy’s triumphant and tragic trip to the Olympics. In some ways the story is dated (the coach-athlete relationship was accepted in 1974 but the homosexuality was not, while it’s the other way around now) but in others it is timeless. The Los Angles Blade:
The impact of Warren’s book…lies in the resonance it found with so many of its LGBT readers. Its characters were not just gay, they were gay athletes, like millions of other men and women out there. Forced to hide who they were in order to participate in the deeply homophobic culture of sports, they found Harland and Billy not only imminently relatable, but inspirational.
It was a surprise crossover hit. It became the first gay-themed book to ever be a New York Times Top Ten bestseller, it sold over 10 million copies, and it has never been out of print. It spawned the Frontrunners Club, an organization for LGBTQ runners that now spans the globe, and that in turn created the Gay Olympics (renamed the Gay Games after a USOC lawsuit). While sport in general is still largely homophobic, running is less so and has been for quite some time (see SI’s 2011 story on Austin Hendrix) and much of that is due to Warren’s book.
A film version has long been awaited – movie rights were purchased almost immediately – and Warren wrote two sequels, Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy. Warren is reportedly working on a fourth and final book in the series.
The Heartbeats of Wing Jones
by Katherine Webber
Delacorte Press, 2017
Wing Jones is just trying to survive her sophomore year at her Atlanta high school, where she both sticks out like a sore thumb and is completely invisible. Not so for her older brother Marcus, the golden boy athlete loved and respected by everyone, Wing included. But then Marcus is nearly killed in a drunk driving accident — one that was his own fault — and Wing’s world comes crashing down around her while her brother lies in a coma.
She had never been athletic, or at least that’s what she thought until visions come to her and urge her to go out at night and run. As for so many of us, it gave her both escape from and meaning to her life. She also finds she has an undiscovered talent for the 200 and 400 meters, enough to make a future she never dreamed of. Those same visions that urged her to run now tell Wing that her heartbeats are one and the same with her brother’s, and she is running to keep him alive.
Young adult fiction has exploded in the last few decades, mostly in the realms of fantasy (Harry Potter, etc) and dystopia (The Hunger Games, etc), because the teenage perspective says that the stakes are high for every conflict. Webber instead employs fantastic realism to tell her life-or-death story of family, poverty, hope, and romance. This is a first-class novel that even non-runners and non-track fans would enjoy, so good that I seriously thought about putting it in the top ten.
The next part of the best-running books list will cover historical books…