Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession
by Richard Askwith
Aurum Pr Ltd, 2004
Britain’s The Independent:
To take part in a fell race is to run up and down one or more of the British Isles’ many mountains. Fell-racers anticipate hypothermia, injury, falls (off cliffs, down scree slopes or into the occasional well), exhaustion, disorientation and death. Because if you don’t realise how unpleasant it’s going to be, says Richard Askwith, you’re at risk of not enjoying yourself properly.
In 1932, to celebrate his 42nd birthday, [Bob Graham] decided to run 42 Lakeland peaks in under 24 hours. He trained barefoot so as not to wear out his plimsolls, and completed what was then considered an impossible feat. The “BG” is now a classic fell-running test and one which Askwith, a “yomping yuppie” from the South, miserably failed at his first attempt. This initiated a decade-long quest to conquer the BG, a quest which gives the book its structure: a 13-stone ex-smoker with dodgy ankles explores the history of the sport and meets its legendary runners to glean their secrets.
Running With The Kenyans: Discovering The Secrets Of The Fastest People On Earth
by Adharanand Finn
Ballantine Books, 2012
Finn was a good runner as a youth in England but, like many of us, he had less time for it as he grew older and had a family. He finally decides to go all-in on the running and journalistic adventure of a lifetime: pack up his wife and children and spend six months in the Kenyan highlands, training with and writing about the best runners on earth.
As with several other books on this list, Finn produced a glimpse inside the culture that produces an extraordinary amount of top athletes. There are many different parts of the story, but the thing that struck me is the almost impossibly optimistic outlook of basically every Kenyan that Finn came into contact with.
This is a white man’s view into Kenyan running; for an insider’s look try Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography and Global Change, an academic but highly readable volume by John Bale and Joe Sang (Routledge, 1996).
The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running
by Adharanand Finn
Faber and Faber, 2015
The biggest annual television sports event in Japan is spread out over two days and is watched by nearly one-third of the country. Is it baseball? Sumo? Judo? No. It is the Hakone Ekiden, a college men’s road racing relay. Long-distance running is a really, really big deal in Japan.
So as a follow-up to his Kenyan immersion, Finn spends six months in Japan learning about their running culture. And it’s a lot harder to learn, because whereas Kenyans are generally open about themselves, the Japanese are quite a bit more reserved.
Other things are different, too. People just show up and start running in Kenya because, hey, they’re broke AF and why not? Japan is organized, funded, regimented, disciplined, pressured. The fun of running is crushed out of many by their early 20s.
But not all. Many non-elites run, and they take it seriously. Finn even gets involved with the marathon monks of Mount Hiei, who supposedly attempt to run 1000 marathons in 1000 days.
Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen
by Christopher McDougall
McDougall started his adventure by asking his doctor “How come my foot hurts?”
It was a five-word puzzle that led me to a photo of a very fast man in a very short skirt and from there it only got stranger. Soon I was dealing with a murder, drug guerrillas, and a one-armed man with a cream-cheese cup strapped to his head.
McDougall certainly knows how to tell a story.
Eventually, he ends up in Mexico’s remote Copper Canyons and its inhabitants, the reclusive Tarahumara, plus a man known as Caballo Blanco. Along the way, he tells a convincing story that all of our modern problems are caused by, well, modernity. And none are more problematic and unnecessary than modern running shoes.
This book is a highly entertaining read and was a massive hit that crossed over out of the running world and into the mainstream. It is entertaining not in spite of McDougall overselling many parts of the story, but because of it. The book created a massive upheaval in the running shoe industry–the Vibram company went boom and bust all in less than five years–and that alone makes it a must-read for any runner interested in the story of their sport. If McDougall is a little bit of a huckster, he’s like Ron Popeil: selling you something you actually might find a little useful and being damn entertaining while doing it.
The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory
by Richard Moore
Moore spent most of his career writing about cycling, and then that sport’s atmosphere became toxic due to the depth of its drug problem and its leadership’s unwillingness to take it head on. “Going from the Tour de France to the London Olympic Games was like stepping from a sewer into a golden meadow,” he wrote. And Usain Bolt was the clear star of those Olympics, as well as the Games before and after.
While Bolt was by far the best of the Jamaican sprint stars there were an unusually high number of others, considering the nation’s small size. How did this happen? Was it entirely drug-fueled? What was going on? Moore went to the island to find out.
He interviewed Jamaica’s top coaches, anti-doping officials, many of its top athletes, and even Bolt’s family, but was unable to get to Bolt himself. What he learns when immersed in Jamaican athletics is that it is possibly the only country on earth where track and field is THE major sport, especially in its youth and high school programs. It’s a trip inside a sporting culture unlike any other.
The next collection of the best running books will focus on collections…
The Lonely Breed
by Ron Clarke and Norman Harris
Pelham Books, 1967
I could barely believe my eyes when I saw it: a first edition of this book, Ron Clarke’s deep dive into the 21 distance runners he most admired, at a secondhand bookstore for $3.95. Online such a book would go for nearly $100.
Sports Illustrated reviewed it in 1968:
In recent years Author Ron Clarke has been so busy setting pen to paper that it is a wonder Distance Runner Ron Clarke ever has time to set spike to track…Co-authored by Norman Harris, an able New Zealander, Clarke’s newest volume is called The Lonely Breed (Pelham Books, London, price 30s net) and is a very remarkable book indeed—a lively collection of biographical vignettes of 21 athletes, whose careers cover 86 years and 11 countries. Clarke and Harris write about many of history’s most famous runners—Paavo Nurmi, Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Gerry Lindgren—as well as some shadowy figures whose names would be familiar only to the most dedicated historian: Walter George, Arthur Newton, Teddy Flack, Jean Bouin. The well-known stars in the book are shown for the most part in some of the less well-known moments of their lives. Elliott, the Olympic champion, is seen in action only at a relatively unimportant race on a grass track in Brisbane. Snell, the double Olympic champion, has his moment at an invitational mile race in Modesto, Calif.
If Authors Clarke and Harris have ignored the cliché guidelines to commercial success, however, the result is an artistic one. They have picked their men and their moments with care, and their research has been extremely thorough.
This is one of the great forgotten running books. If you ever ran on a high school or college team, you have memories of a bunch of crazy episodes. This is Ebbets’ account of his freshman year at Villanova, dozens of two-to-five page vignettes featuring colorful characters such as Eddie John Denny, Randy ROTC, and Charlie in the Cage. Most of it is centered around the daily grind of training and studying, simultaneously making you nostalgic for your own college days and thankful you’re done with them. Ebbets can turn a phrase with the best of them (“Mickey’s arm raised his beer roughly in the direction of his mouth”) and the tales are howlingly funny accounts of how stupid 19-to-22 year old men can be.
Ebbets wrote another book, Time and Chance, a novel in which one of the above characters becomes a high school track coach and is on the receiving end of the foolishness he once doled out.
Talking Track: The Best of the Track & Field News Interviews
by Jon Hendershott
Track & Field News Press, 1979
The title pretty much sums it up. This is a collection of 39 interviews from “The Bible of the Sport”, all published in the 1970s. The subjects run from household names (Jesse Owens, then-Bruce-now-Cailtin Jenner) to the largely forgotten (James Butts, Kate Schmidt). I am of the opinion that the 70s was the greatest decade for track and field (and just in general as well), and this collection does a good job of taking the reader back in time.
On the Run from Dogs and People
by Hal Higdon
Roadrunner Press, 1971
On being chased and sometimes bitten by dogs: “I never met a marathoner who could watch Lassie on television without getting the same feeling that an Indian must have when he watches a John Wayne movie.” Higdon was basically the first to write about running for average Joes in widely-read publications (although Higdon was anything but average), starting as early as 1962. All of the material in this collection of magazine articles dates from the 1960s when the general public considered running an obscure pastime for mental deficiency. It is a window into a time that is largely forgotten because there just weren’t that many runners around to remember it. It has long been a staple on lists of best-running books, and an original 1971 edition is so rare and valuable it belongs on Antiques Roadshow.
Thirty Phone Booths to Boston
by Don Kardong
Penguin Books, 1987
If Don Kardong is to be believed – and I’m not sure he should be – his writing career began when a friend played a joke on him and submitted a story to Runners World under his name. By that time Kardong had already developed a reputation as running’s resident goofball, a man who took his racing seriously but the reporting of it somewhat less than seriously. This book is a collection of his articles from various publications. The titular story comes from a year when he was denied a spot in the Boston Marathon media vehicle, so he wrote down the numbers of pay phones along the course and called them in succession to get reports from whoever picked up the receiver. Did it work? Well, we’re still talking about it now, aren’t we?
And Then the Vulture Eats You: True Tales about Ultramarathons and Those Who Run Them
by John L. Parker, Jr
The title must have been the winner in a “describe ultramarathons in six words” contest. While the author credit is given to Parker (best known for Once a Runner) this is a collection of magazine articles by such well-known writers as James Shapiro, Kenny Moore, Don Kardong, Ed Ayres, Hal Higdon and Tom Hart before finishing with the article that earned the title, Parker’s hilarious analysis of ultrarunners. As a group, ultrarunners tend not to take themselves too seriously–Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell is basically normal by ultra standards–so you don’t have to be one of them to find this book highly entertaining.
The next collection of the best running books will focus on a variety of other genres within running books…