NOTE: Andrew Boyd Hutchinson’s “The Complete History of Cross-Country Running” would have been an obvious choice for this section and early drafts included it. Recently it was revealed that Hutchinson’s work involved a significant amount of journalistic dishonesty and the book was stricken from the list.
Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport
by Matthew Algeo
Chicago Press Review, 2017
Imagine thousands of rowdy fans, drinking and smoking, packed into Madison Square Garden for days on end. What is this event they are watching and betting on, that’s making headlines in all the newspapers? Men in tights are walking around a track. For six days.
Long distance walking races really were a huge thing in the last half of the 19th century. At that time professional sports—boxing, horse racing, baseball, and the above known as pedestrianism—were places where men could go drink, gamble, fight, be generally uncivil, and drink some more. So of course the pedestrianism craze started with a bet, when Edward Payson Weston wagered against Lincoln’s 1860 presidential bid and had to walk from Boston to D.C. to pay it off when he lost. The ensuing decades saw it all expand to all kinds of amazing human feats, plus the usual suffering, skullduggery, exploitation, cheating, and other things of which P.T. Barnum would have been proud. Pedestrianism was even the origin of sports trading cards.
Walking was not the entirety of pedestrianism, though. There was running, both long- and middle-distance, sprinting and jumping and throwing. You know, basically track and field. Even though it is almost completely forgotten now, it really was a huge thing for a while, and there are other books about it. There is John Cumming’s Runners & Walkers: A Nineteenth Century Sports Chronicle (Regnery Gateway, 1981) and P.S. Marshall’s massive King of the Peds (Authorhouse, 2008), which weighs in at 764 pages. All of these are good books, but I chose Algeo’s because it’s both the most entertaining and the easiest to find.
Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America’s Greatest Marathon
by John Brant
The book came about in an unusual way. Brant wrote an article for Runner’s World looking back at the 1982 Boston Marathon, the one-on-one battle to the finish on a hot day between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. He found so much more to the story that it begged to be expanded into book-length form. It tells the story of each of the two men, their lives and careers leading up to the race, their preparation for it, and the race itself. But it does not stop there. The aftermath of the race changed the lives of each man, and initially not for the better. Beardsley’s story alone is shocking. This is a near-miss for my Top Ten list.
The Track in the Forest: The Creation of a Legendary 1968 US Olympic Team
by Bob Burns
Chicago Review Press, 2018
Of course, there are books about individual Olympic Games: David Maraniss’ Rome 1960, Janie Hampton’s The Austerity Olympics, dozens of books about the 1936 Berlin games. But a book about an Olympic Trials? Well, you see, there was nothing quite like this one.
To prepare for the high-altitude Mexico City games, a track was built near Lake Tahoe at Echo Summit in the middle of a national forest, leaving trees intact on the infield. You could see one side of the track or the other but not both. There was the team selected, possibly the greatest the USA has ever assembled, including legends like Al Oerter, Jim Ryun, Tommie Smith, Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, and too many more to list. And of course, it was 1968, a difficult and fascinating time.
Author Burns is a veteran Sacramento Bee sportswriter, and he meticulously researched the book and provides both details and narrative. He covers the joy and pain of the US Trials, the harshest track meet on the planet and finishes with the Mexico City games.
The Perfect Distance: Ovett, Coe and the Record-Breaking Rivalry
by Pat Butcher
Butcher is one of Britain’s top track & field writers and he knows the story well. This is not just a binary biography or an accounting of the rivalry between the two best middle-distance runners of the late 70s/early 80s, it’s as much about the changes that track and field underwent during their careers. When these two men were ascendant in the 1970s it was still very much an amateur affair, but became professional when they were at their peak. Runner’s World:
To protect their records, Coe and Ovett rarely raced head to head–though to be fair, this only increased the anticipation for their 1980 and 1984 Olympic showdowns. Both men frequently used rabbits in their hunt to further lower the world records–a practice that continues to thrive today, at the expense of exciting head-to-head competition. With the professionalization of the sport came new demands. Athletes suddenly needed to invite the likes of agents, promoters and doctors into their lives. Butcher introduces us to these figures as well, completing the picture of the new world of track and field.
Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze
by Dave Davis
Thomas Dunne Books, 2012
The 1908 Olympic Marathon was a much-anticipated battle between the USA’s Johnny Hayes, Italy’s Dorando Pietri, and Canada’s Tom Longboat. If you’re well-versed in Olympic history, you might know that Pietri came into the stadium first but was suffering from life-threatening heat illness, and officials helped him across the line. This resulted in a disqualification and the gold medal went to Hayes. There’s a lot more to the story, both in what happened before and after the Olympic race, some of which is still being felt today. Davis does a great job of weaving all the threads together. For further reading, try John Bryant’s The Marathon Makers (John Blake, 2008)
The Complete Book of Running
by Jim Fixx
Random House, 1977
Didn’t I say all these books had to be primarily narrative, which means no training books? Its training advice is outdated anyway. And why is it in the history section?
It’s because this book is part of running history. It sold more than a million copies, which was unbelievable for a fitness book in its time. Author Fixx was everywhere promoting both the book and the lifestyle of running — that was, of course, until he died of a heart attack while running (and giving bad standup comedians easy material). Without knowing this book, you don’t get the cover of Peter Sagal’s The Incomplete Book of Running or any of the many other books that lampooned it. It is a window into a different time.
The 100 Greatest Track & Field Battles of the 20th Century
by Jeff Hollobaugh
MichTrack Books, 2012
Hollobaugh is a former editor of Track and Field News and in 1999 he compiled his list of these greatest battles in a series of ten posts at ESPN.com. He turned those into this book, one that shines lights on battles both well-known and obscure. This is a must-read if you’re into track history.
Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd
by Kyle Keiderling
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
There was a lot of hype in the US sports press going into the 1984 Olympic Games, and the expectations on Mary Decker were massive. She had turned back the hated Soviets at the 1983 World Championships, the first American woman distance runner to ever do so, and with the Communist boycott in place it was assumed she would win with ease. A new and controversial threat emerged in Britain in Zola Budd, a young runner who was accused of using her British passport to sidestep South Africa’s international sports ban. Their collision in the 3000 meters and Decker’s fall was one of the most memorable moments at the ’84 Games, no matter what you thought of either athlete.
Budd happily cooperated with Keiderling in the creation of this book, but Decker refused to even acknowledge the author’s existence. Saying she is portrayed as an unlikeable character may be an understatement and you could accuse the author of bias–or maybe it’s completely accurate.
Another similar book was released at nearly the same time. Jason Henderson, editor-in-chief at Britain’s Athletics Weekly, came out with Collision Course just one year later. Both books are good, but I chose Keiderling’s due to its deeper research and American perspective. Like Brant’s Duel in the Sun, the book is more than just the race in question but a profile of each athlete both before and after the historic event.
The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final
by Richard Moore
Wisden Sports Writing, 2013
Carl Lewis versus Ben Johnson was the track and field rivalry of the mid-80s, fueled not just by the battle for athletic supremacy but by personal animus. Lewis was track & field greatest athlete of his era and the owner of a massive ego hampered by an inability to manage relationships with the sports press. Johnson was the steroid-fueled fake who was able to cut Lewis down to size until the truth came to light. The conflict reached its resolution at the 1988 Olympic Games, where nearly everyone in the final had some sort of sordid story.
Johnson’s and Lewis’s hatred for each other is stamped on nearly every page of this book, but the real strength of Moore’s account is his depiction of the secondary characters, a cast of megalomaniacal managers and coaches who seem inspired by Victor Frankenstein to push the limits of science and the human body. There are plenty of shady doctors and duplicitous friends and disloyal teammates. There are impotent drug testers, self-serving bureaucrats, egotistical sport executives and a parade of agents, journalists, lawyers and strange spiritual gurus.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The Silence of Great Distance: Women Running Long
by Frank Murphy
WindSprint Press, 2000)
I felt like I could only include one of Murphy’s three books in my Top Ten list and I debated whether to use this one. In any case, this is a must-read. Murphy tells the story of the history and development of women’s running through three central figures: Doris Brown, Tatyana Kazankina, and Mary Decker, yet all the while the figure of Stephanie Herbst is driving the story towards the tragic figure of Kathy Ormsby. This history is about progress, but progress always leaves something behind.
The Irish-American Athletic Club of New York: The Rise and Fall of the Winged Fists, 1898-1917
by Patrick R. Redmond
Track and field in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was dominated by the club system. Athletes were supported by organizations that were typically wealthy men’s social clubs: the New York Athletic Club, the Boston Athletic Association (who put on a marathon you might have heard of), the Manhattan A.C., the San Francisco Olympic Club, and more. They generally did not sponsor athletes who did not graduate from the elite Eastern colleges and certainly not those whose race, religion, or ethnicity did not meet their country-club mores.
And by 1908 those clubs were getting soundly beaten by a club that rejected all of that: the Irish-American Athletic Club. Founded by and for immigrants, it had the best facilities (Gaelic Park) and not only brought in the best Irish-American athletes, but the best Italian-Americans, Jews, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups. Its symbol was a Gaelic winged fist with the motto “Láim Láidir Abú” (A strong hand will be victorious).
Like many things, the IAAC disappeared after World War I and Prohibition gave it challenges it could not overcome. It is amazing how unknown the organization is given how dominant it was; club members won 11 gold medals at the 1908 Olympics. Redmond is an academic by trade but does a great job of storytelling.
When Running Made History
by Roger Robinson
Syracuse University Press, 2018
Robinson is one of the great running writers of all time, and that’s because he’s unusually well immersed in both worlds. He was an international-class runner for England and New Zealand, he is married to women’s running pioneer Katherine Switzer, and he spent a career as a professor of literature. He’s been a TV and stadium announcer, has written five books (including Running in Literature, a work I heavily cribbed from), and was a longtime columnist for Runner’s World and Running Times magazines. He thinks this is his best work.
“A race can mean more than a race”, he writes. From his own Facebook page:
The 21 narratives of key moments and developments have two extra dimensions: 1. it’s all based on my personal involvement (as spectator, runner, stadium announcer, TV commentator, journalist) making it genuine insider eye-witness history. And 2., each story shows how running has contributed positively to history, in society, the women’s movement, national identity, environmentalism, immigration, attitudes to the aging process, and more.
Three key chapters, on the running boom, women’s running, and masters running, each with an appendix Timeline, provides the fullest historical accounts yet published. It’s a ground-breaker as a chronicler of those developments.
There are many books about the Boston Marathon: history books, coffee table books, novels and mysteries and crime fiction all taking place at the Boston Marathon. No surprise there, it’s the oldest annual marathon in the world. It’s the established patrician, the blue-blood. It’s old-money New England.
The New York City Marathon is a relative newcomer. It’s brash and big. In a word, it’s New York. And there are very few books out there related to it; Liz Robbins’ A Race Like No Other, Alan Zweibel’s The Other Shulman, and this one.
The stories of the NYC Marathon and Fred Lebow are basically inseparable. His big idea was to take the race out of Central Park and to run it through all five of the city’s boroughs, something that is still an almost unimaginable feat of logistics and planning, not to mention seeing the process through city hall. This is absolutely one of the most important tales any runner or track fan should know.
With that said, this isn’t the greatest piece of writing ever printed. But it is the only place you’ll find the whole story, from Lebow’s childhood in Romania and surviving the Holocaust to his new life in New York, falling in love with running, taking over one of the biggest shows on earth, to his last time through the race while suffering from brain cancer.
The Lords of the Rings: Power, money, and drugs in the modern Olympics
by Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings
By now we all certainly know how shady the IOC and its member sports federations are, but that may not have been so obvious when this book was published. Simpson and Jennings are investigative reporters who note that the IOC, FIFA, IAAF, UCI, and other international sport organizations are powerful yet ultimately answerable to no one. This book brought much corruption to light, some of which appears small-time in comparison to what has happened in the 26 years since its publication, but others are still shocking. Possibly the most brazen is of Primo Nebiolo, among the slimiest of characters in world sport history, who got himself elected IAAF president without opposition by convincing his opponent to drop out and proceeded to cheat Italy onto the medal stand at the 1987 World Championships.
Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom
by Cameron Stracher
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
The three men in the title are on the short list for the greatest American long-distance runners of all time. Shorter was the upper-middle-class Yale-educated lawyer who won Olympic marathon gold and silver. Rodgers was the eight-time Boston and New York champion who is best described as a kind of a shrewd hippie. Salazar is the high-functioning lunatic willing to literally kill himself to win a race.
The running boom of the 1970s and early 80s is possibly the most important cultural phenomenon for runners and track fans to know about their history. This book is less about the running boom than it is about the three outsized personalities in the title, and the common thread throughout is the Falmouth Road Race, the brainchild of Boston bartender Tommy Leonard.
For further reading see their autobiographies: Olympic Gold: A Runner’s Life and Times and My Marathon: Reflections on a Gold Medal Life (Shorter), Marathoning and Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World (Rodgers), and 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life (Salazar).
Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There
by J.B. Strasser & Laurie Becklund
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991
Shoe companies are deeply embedded into the story of running and track and field over the last half-century, and none more so than Nike. This book sells itself as “unauthorized” but its authors definitely know the territory from the inside: Strasser is a former Nike employee whose husband was one of its founding executives who left for a rival. The one shortcoming of the book is due to its outsider status: Phil Knight did not cooperate with the writers of the book and he remains enigmatic throughout.
Peter Snell and the Kiwis Who Flew
by Vern Walker
David Ling Publishing Ltd, 2014
Snell is the best known of New Zealand’s top distance runners of the 1960s and 70s, but he is far from the only one. Walker expertly details not only the competitive results of these Kiwis but their training and insights into the men and women, some famous and some not. Walker’s research is so complete that he spent entire chapters on Marise Chamberlain and Neville Scott, women pioneers who are almost completely unknown today. Further reading on the various characters are excellent books in themselves that were a bit too similar to make the cut for my list: A Clean Pair of Heels (Murray Halberg), No Bugles, No Drums
(Peter Snell), Uncommon Heart (Anne Audain), On the Wings of Mercury (Lorraine Moller), and Kiwis Can Fly (Rod Dixon and John Walker).
C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America
by Geoff Williams
On March 4, 1928, 199 men lined up in Los Angeles for a stage race to New York City and the $25,000 prize that went to the winner. It was a huge national story that was relatively quickly forgotten, and participants ranged from the world’ best professional ultramarathoners to underdogs to woefully unprepared fools. It was the brainchild of sports agent and promoter C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, and sportswriters quickly dubbed it the “Bunion Derby”. The story is so fascinating and larger-than-life that this is not the only book about it. Charles Kastner’s Bunion Derby: The 1928 Footrace Across America is not quite as entertaining as William’s book but well-researched and informative. There’s also a PBS documentary narrated by Billy Mills, “The Great American Foot Race”, and a fictionalized novel version, Flanagan’s Run (see novel section). All in all, you can’t read too much about this crazy event that seemed half Lazarus Lake, half P.T. Barnum.
All-Around Men: Heroes of a Forgotten Sport
by Frank Zarnowski
Scarecrow Press, 2005
Zarnowski, also known as “Dr. Z” and “Dr. Decathlon”, is the world’s expert on the decathlon and its history. He has written multiple books on the subject, including The Decathlon: A Colorful History of Track and Field’s Most Challenging Event. This one deals with the predecessor to the decathlon, the All-Around. It was a single-day ten-event competition whose heyday stretched from the Civil War to World War I. Like any expert historian, Zarnowski entertains with fascinating tales of something many of us never even knew existed.
The next collection of the best running books will focus on journalism…