By Jesse Squire
May 29, 2019
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@example.com
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…
Quicksilver: The Mercurial Emil Zatopek
by Pat Butcher
Globerunner Productions, 2016
A four-time Olympic champion across three distances, Zatopek is on the short list for the greatest runner of all time. He was also known as a charismatic, generous, and indominable spirit who could not be beaten even by the machinery of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party. Yet despite the fact that he was someone you’d want to read about, there were very few biographies available.
That changed in 2016, with three major biographies released all in the same year: Butcher’s Quicksilver, Richard Askwith’s Today We Die A Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, The Greatest Olympic Runner Of All Time, and Rick Broadbent’s Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek.
You can’t go wrong with any of the three. All are well-written and informative. I felt I could put only one on this list so I went with Quicksilver. Jonathan Gault reviewed all three for LetsRun.com and said they all “discuss the details of Zátopek’s training, but Butcher does the best job of distilling the monumental impact Zátopek had on elite running.” He also note that Butcher’s book spends a good deal of time profiling Zatopek’s contemporaries, men like Gordon Pirie, Alain Mimoun and Jan Haluza, all of whom might deserve their own biographies.
Zatopek was more than a runner, he was someone who changed everything. That did not end when he stopped racing; he once literally stood up to Soviet tanks.
Beer and Brine: The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar
by Rob Hadgraft
Desert Island Books, 2007
Last year I said my Christmas wish list included a Paula Radcliffe bobbled and a Rob Hadgraft boxed set, because neither one exists even though it should. Hadgraft is a newspaper writer and runner whose hobby is researching sports history, and he has produced six great books on long-forgotten stars. The one I chose for this list is his biography of Walter George, the 19th-century British miler and distance runner who used the new railroads and steamships to become the world’s first sports superstar—one of his match races drew 30,000 to an 8,000-capacity stadium. Others he’s written are The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alf Shrubb, World Champion Runner (2004), about the the Haile Gebrselassie of the pre-WWI period who set dozens of records over many different distances before turning to the hardscrabble pro ranks and still going nearly ten years without a defeat. Then he turned to Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage (2007), the story of the Native American who toured England’s 19th-century pro racing circuit, a gambling-oriented working-class sport whose style is reminiscent of today’s pro wrestling (and whose results at times were just as predetermined). Hadgraft’s fourth book was Tea With Mr. Newton: 100,000 Miles – The Longest “Protest March” In History, about the South African farmer who took up running at age 38 to publicize his cause in a government land dispute and startlingly became a record-setting ultramarathoner. Next was Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters (2011), about the champion 1950s English marathoner whose racing style was as subtle as a sledgehammer. His most recent work is Sydney Wooderson: A Very British Hero (2018), about the now-forgotten middle-distance star of the 1930s and 40s. Racingpast.com calls these “intensely-researched and affectionately written biographies” and all are worth reading–if you can find them.
For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey From Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr
by Duncan Hamilton
Penguin Press, 2016
Liddell is among the more interesting characters in the history of track and field, a man is driven by religious fervor and faith and his story inspired the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. Many biographies have been written about the man, but I chose this one because it is written from a somewhat objective viewpoint rather than a proselytizing one. Hamilton, twice chosen as the U.K.’s top sportswriter, divides the book into thirds. The first covers his birth in China to missionaries through his 1924 Olympic triumph. The second covers his post-Olympic life back in China as an evangelist and teacher. The last covers the outbreak of World War II to his death in an internment camp. If there is a criticism of the book it is the heroic terms in which Liddell is described – but those terms come from interviews with people who lived with him during the war and survived to tell about it, in no small part due to Liddell’s efforts on their behalf. If you’ve ever watched Chariots and wondered what came next, here is your answer.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand
Random House, 2010
Is it a track and field book if only a minority of the book deals with that subject? Maybe. This issue is the only reason Unbroken is not in my top ten. The first part of this life story of Louis Zamperini deals with him as a runner: national high school record holder, NCAA champion, and 1936 Olympic sensation who was everyone’s favorite to come back and win in 1940. But then, the war…
“Zamp” signed up to be an Army bomber pilot. He got shot down over the Pacific and managed to survive adrift in a raft for 47 days before getting rescued—by the Japanese, who beat and tortured him. Every ensuing chapter is yet another turn for the worse. Some stories are so special that anyone can make them page-turners (as Zamp did in his autobiography Devil At My Heels) but in the hands of Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) this one is truly great.
The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop
by Bill Jones
Pegasus Books, 2011
You’d swear this was made up unless you saw the “nonfiction” designation on the book jacket. John Tarrant took £17 in expenses in a teenage boxing match, and in 1950s Britain that meant when he fell in love with running he found he was banned for life from amateur long-distance races. He’d show up in disguise or otherwise hidden, jump in as an unregistered competitor, and defy and outrun enraged officials. He became a folk hero of sorts in the running community. Then he took up ultramarathoning, which led him to South Africa and again battling officials, this time over apartheid.
The Impossible Hero: A Life of Gordon Pirie
by Dick Booth
Corsica Press, 1999
Pirie is mostly a forgotten man these days, but he was a massive figure in the 1950s British sporting press. He was an Olympic silver medalist and a world record holder, but he was brash and outspoken bordering on arrogant. His training, severe by English standards of the time, dragged British distance running into postwar modernity. This is no hagiographic life story; Pirie had extremes of good and bad in him and Booth’s biography captures them all.
by Tom Jordan
Track and Field News Press, 1977
Believe it or don’t, but there was a whole decade when this book was available only out of ads in the back of Track and Field News or Runner’s World and few teenage runners knew who Steve Prefontaine was. The original version was published just two years after Prefontaine’s untimely death and was written by a man who knew him well: Jordan is now managing the Prefontaine Classic for the 37th consecutive year. If you had this book in the 1980s or 90s, you felt like you were transported back to a mythical time and place where a runner was the biggest sports star in an entire state.
His Own Man: Otto Peltzer: Champion Athlete, Nazi Victim, Indian Hero
by Donald Macgregor and Timothy Johnston
Pitch Publishing, 2016
In 1962, one of the last combined German track and field teams toured the developing nations of Asia and defeated them all with ease in dual meets. Then they came to Delhi, where an unheralded Indian national team matched them in event after event. At the end of the second day, the Germans were stunned to find they had lost. And then they found the Indians were trained by an unknown, haggard 62-year-old German who lived a lone and meager existence, subsisting on handouts. Well, mostly unknown: a German journalist recognized him as “Otto the Strange”, Dr. Otto Peltzer, the German champion who broke world records at 800, 1000, and 1500 meters in the 1920s.
How did he get here? How did he get that name? What happened to him in between the 1920s and 1960s, when A LOT of things happened and especially in Germany? He and his story are bizarre and fascinating, and this book won the International Society of Olympic Historian’s Karl Lennartz Memorial Book Award.
by James McNeish
Lovelock, a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford medical student in the 1930s, won the 1936 Olympic 1500 meters with a race that was described as nearly perfect, setting a world record while defeating the best field of milers ever assembled at the time. Thirteen years later he died when he fell underneath a New York subway train. Did he commit suicide? No one really knows. McNeish wrote this fictionalized biography as if it were a journal kept by Lovelock, one of the most enigmatic characters in track history.
A Cold Clear Day: The Athletic Biography of Buddy Edelen
by Frank Murphy
Wind Sprint, 1992
Murphy is a lawyer by profession but has written three of the best nonfiction track books around. The other two are The Last Protest (see “Top Ten”) and The Silence of Great Distance (see “History”). This was his first effort, the story of America’s only marathoner of note between Clarence DeMar and Frank Shorter. Edelen was a Minnesota native who said he truly became a distance runner the day he moved to England. Immersed in the British road-racing and cross-country culture, his finest moment was setting the marathon world record in 1963.
by D.H. Potts
Track and Field News Press, 1993
Lon Myers ran for the Manhattan Athletic Club in the 1880s and 90s and at one time or another held every American record from 50 yards to the mile. He could be a flamboyant racer; he set a world record for 440 yards after losing a shoe with more than 100 yards to go, and once finished a race running sideways, Ricky Bobby style, while in conversation with an opponent who claimed he could beat Myers. Potts was a writer and historian for Track and Field News who expertly communicated just how different American track and field was in its infancy. Example: you could get boxed in around the turn in the 220 yards!
The King of Spring: The Life and Times of Peter O’Connor
by Mark Quinn
Liffey Press, 2004
In 1901 O’Connor set a long jump world record that would last for 20 years, and stand as an Irish national record for more than 90 years. He was also a sprinter and high- and triple-jumper, and the book explores his rivalries with Americans Alvin Kraenzlein and Meyer Prinstein. Even more important is the exploration of O’Connor’s Olympic exploits which raised issues that last even until today. O’Connor was Irish but there was no free Irish state until 17 years after his last Olympics, and those tensions play a large role in the story.
The Perfect Jump
by Dick Schaap
New American Library, 1976
Dick Schaap was known in the 90s as the host of ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, but in the three decades before that, he was a groundbreaking sportswriter. This is his story of Bob Beamon, whose Mexico City long jump record was so beyond description that it created a new word, Beamonesque.
Jeremy Schaap, Dick’s son and a great writer in his own right, called this one of his top five Olympic books of all time:
Growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, Beamon was deemed incorrigible by his teachers and hauled off to a school for those from whom nothing was expected. More than anything, the book is about a life touched for an instant by perfection.
Left unsaid was what happens afterward, and it was generally not good for Beamon. After a long period of trouble, Beamon has righted himself and tells the rest of the story in The Man Who Could Fly (Genesis Press, 1999).
Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics
by Jeremy Schaap
Mariner Books, 2007
Numerous biographies have been written about Owens but I chose Schaap’s as the most accurate. We’ve often been told that Owens destroyed Hitler’s notions of racial superiority, but that ignores some inconvenient facts, including that he had zero effect on American notions of racial superiority. Owens was never above telling a good story if it was what his audience wanted to hear, even if untrue, and Schaap does his best to find the truth.
Terry Fox: His Story (Revised)
by Leslie Scrivener
McClelland & Stewart, 2000
I hate “inspiring stories”. Especially inspiring stories of runners. I mean, you just go and you do the thing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. All the time you try. It’s a crutch if you need the inspiration to go out and do this. Yet all you have to do is mention “Terry Fox” and the tears well up in my eyes.
No Canadian needs to be told the story, you already know it. He was voted #2 in CBC’s list of the Greatest Canadians, and he’s the only Canadian to ever appear on Canadian money. It says a lot about a country that they revere someone who literally died trying.
Fox was a star teenage athlete who lost a leg to bone cancer at the age of 19. He was so disturbed by the children he saw suffering from and dying in the cancer ward that in 1980 he decided to try to run across Canada – on one leg – to raise money for cancer research: $1 for every person in Canada (24 million at that time).
Canada is big. Very big. It was going to be somewhere around 6,000 miles. His mission was unknown when he began in Newfoundland but became a national sensation by the time he hit Toronto. He stopped in Thunder Bay, 5,373 kilometers into his “Marathon of Hope” because he fell ill again. Cancer had come back and spread to his lungs. He never started again and died the next summer; his funeral was carried live on national television, and his $24 million had already been raised. To date, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised more than $750 million for research.
Virgin Territory: The Story of Craig Virgin, America’s Renaissance Runner
by Randy Sharer
Blackjack Road Publishing, 2017
Despite the fact that he never won a medal at the Olympics or outdoor World Championships, I would put Craig Virgin on the short list of greatest American distance runners of all time. He was dominant from high school through college and into his late 30s. He was a three-time Olympian at 10,000 meters and narrowly missed the world record in 1980. He was a two-time World Cross Country champion, the only American man to ever have won that race. Shortly after the second of those he entered the 1981 Boston Marathon at the behest of his sponsor, and despite a lack of specific training he finished second in 2:10:26. All of these great accomplishments were achieved despite a dizzying array of injuries and illnesses: mononucleosis, knee surgery, a bulging disc, a detached retina, a kidney removal.
Why Die? The Extraordinary Percy Cerutty, Maker of Champions
by Graem Sims
Cerutty appears in the BBC’s excellent The Four Minute Mile TV movie as the coach of Australia’s John Landy. He is shown as a ridiculous character, reminiscent of Terry Jones’ portrayal of the man about to be stoned to death in Life of Brian. Surely there had to be more to the coach who drove Australia to the top of the running world in the 1950s. Sims tells us the remarkable life of a man whose response to a health crisis at age 43 was to go back to nature and become a particularly Australian version of Jack Lalane. He truly was a nutjob and an entertaining one, but he got the best out of the athletes willing to work with him.
The next section of the best list of books will cover memoirs…
The First Four Minutes
by Roger Bannister
Distributed in the USA as The Four Minute Mile, this is Bannister’s own account of his running career and the chase for the sub-4:00, written just one year after it happened, and it’s the best running autobiography ever written. ‘Nuff said.
The Animal Keepers: The Story of an Unlikely Hero and an Unforgettable Season
by Donn Behnke
KCI Sports Publishing, 2014
I wasn’t exactly sure where to put this book but it ended up in “Memoirs” because it’s written by a participant in the true story. More than a participant, actually, he was the coach. Behnke is a very good high school coach whose teams have won ten Wisconsin state championships and who has been named a national coach of the year. This book focuses on just one year, the 1985 cross country season.
Behnke was about to start the first day of practice that year when a special education student was brought to him. This was 1985, a much less enlightened time than now, and Behnke flat-out didn’t want the kid on his team. But he didn’t get that choice.
The student’s wild appearance earned him the nickname “Animal”, and he turns out to be a decent runner. The experience of being on a high school team has a major impact on “Animal”, but more so on his teammates. At first, resenting him, they grow to love him. This book really gets at the most important parts of high school sports.
The Unforgiving Minute
by Ron Clarke with Alan Trengove
Pelham Books, 1966
Ron Clarke was an unusual runner. He set world records for everything from 3000 meters to 20,000 meters but never won Olympic or Commonwealth gold. Others have done this but not like Clarke; he basically had two careers with a brief step away from the sport in between, and he followed two completely different training systems in each. This is not an easy book to get in printed form, but a good one.
The Self-Made Olympian
by Ron Daws
World Publications, 1977
Books exclusively about training don’t belong on this list because they’re not written to be entertaining. This isn’t exclusively about training, though, since it mixes narrative with training theory. Daws tells his story of starting as an unremarkable collegiate runner and, by applying superior training methods over several years along with smart racing tactics, eventually gaining a place on the 1968 Olympic marathon team. Arthur Lydiard’s Running the Lydiard Way (Anderson World, 1978) is similar–it also mixes narrative and training, and Daws used Lydiard’s approach–but Daws’ storytelling makes The Self-Made Olympian a superior read.
by Clarence DeMar
New England Press, 1937
A recent republishing is titled Marathon: Autobiography of Clarence Demar- America’s Grandfather of Running but the original title was wonderfully simple. DeMar was a self-coached runner who won the Boston Marathon seven times between 1911 and 1930. Four years ago Runners’ World summarized this long-forgotten classic.
Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness
by Suzy Favor Hamilton
Dey Street Books, 2015
A few years ago a friend sent me a photo from a pre-race meet-and-greet with Suzy Favor Hamilton. He told her he was a big fan and would like to get a picture with her. Instead of the usual side-by-side smile for the camera, she wrapped her arms around him and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. His uneasy grin said, “This is cool but so much more uncomfortable than I ever thought it would be”. Maybe a year or two later the news broke that the umpteen-time national champion was leading a double life as a high-priced escort.
This book has track and field and running in it, but it is not the central focus of the book. It’s about someone who was a track star and what happened to her. If you’re a cynic you’ll say it’s mostly about sex and cashing in on lurid fame. I debated whether or not to include it on the list, but ultimately decided this is an important track story, even if I feel certain that much of the real story has not yet been told. Favor Hamilton has also used this as a platform to speak out about mental health issues. A worthwhile follow on social media as well.
The Wizard of Foz: Dick Fosbury’s One-Man High Jump Revolution
by Bob Welch with Dick Fosbury
Skyhorse Publishing, 2018
There have been many revolutions in track and field–starting blocks, fiberglass poles, the shot put spin–but none have been so closely associated with a single person as the high jump technique known as the flop. This book was published a half-century after Fosbury set the world on its head with his win at the Mexico City Olympics.
Fosbury didn’t invent his high jump style because he was a 60s revolutionary. Quite the opposite, he was a civil engineering student. He invented it in high school because he wanted more than anything to be on the track team and he was bad at the then-dominant Western Roll. He switched to the scissors kick and started experimenting.
This earns its place on the list because is a well-written and interesting biography but also because there aren’t a lot of books about high jumping.
Run, Bullet, Run: The Rise, Fall, and Recovery of Bob Hayes
by Bob Hayes with Robert Pack
Harper & Row, 1990
Hayes may have been the fastest man who ever lived until Usain Bolt came along. From Sports Illustrated, May 18, 1964:
When Robert Lee Hayes runs you get the impression that cotter pins have come out and dowels loosened and that at the end of the race there will be sections of Bob Hayes—elbows, kneecaps, forearms—strewn along the track like the Florida Keys. … Hayes does not run a race so much as he appears to beat it to death…
From the Olympics, he went on to a record-setting career as a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. But after retirement, he became peripherally involved in a drug deal, went to prison for ten months, and suffered from alcoholism until setting himself straight. The honesty and realism in which Hayes describes his own highs and lows makes this more than just another sports biography.
The Long Hard Road
by Ron Hill
Ron Hill Sports, 1981-82
The three-time British Olympic marathoner ran every day for more than 52 years, and his heyday was the late 60s and early 70s when running was a small fraternity of men. Besides being a champion runner, he was a textile chemist who advanced athletic clothing more than any other single person—and managed to fit in triple-digit training weeks and run 2:09:28 while working full-time in his HillSports clothing business. He was a tough, interesting man during interesting times, and his two-volume autobiography is one of the rarer running books.
Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory
by Deena Kastor with Michelle Hamilton
When I was a junior in high school, my coach had me read Richard Elliot’s The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Racing. It’s a classic primer on sports psychology as applied to distance running. To a teenager who felt ruled by his emotions and anxieties, and especially to a smart teenager who was used to using his brain to be in control of everything else, it was liberating like nothing else to learn not only that I could harness the power of my mind, but how.
Deena Kastor is one of America’s greatest ever on the track, and she was even better in cross country, and better than either of those at the marathon. She was consistently good through high school and college yet never an NCAA Champion. How did she manage to improve from mere collegiate All-American to one of the best runners in the world?
Explaining that is what sets this apart from other running memoirs, and it’s the mental approach she learned from coach Joe Vigil and his training group in Alamosa, Colorado. She went there nearly burned out and ready for one four-year Olympic cycle before quitting and moving on. She ended up with an Olympic bronze medal and kept at it for much longer than four years. What she learned was how to separate her racing results from her feelings of self-worth, and to practice positivity and gratitude. Of course, it’s all a lot more complex than that, but this is why you need to read the book.
Run to Overcome: The Inspiring Story of an American Champion’s Long-Distance Quest to Achieve a Big Dream
by Meb Keflezighi with Dick Patrick
Tyndale Momentum, 2010
Keflezighi may be the most likable and inspiring running star since Emil Zatopek, and his story of survival through civil war and struggle as an immigrant makes him as much of an All-American as his many NCAA triumphs did. The one shortcoming of this book is its timing. It was written and released to take advantage of Meb’s fame after winning the 2009 New York City Marathon, one that was assumed to be his swansong. Of course, that was wrong and he had several more heroic runs in him, none greater than his win at the 2014 Boston Marathon. The companion book is 26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running, and Life from My Marathon Career (with Scott Douglas, Penguin Random House, 2019) which tells less about Men’s remarkable life and early racing career and concentrates on his marathons. If you read them both you’ll get the whole story.
Inside Track: My Professional Life in Amateur Track and Field
by Carl Lewis with Jeffrey Marx
Lewis was the biggest star in track and field between Emil Zatopek and Usain Bolt, but he was seen as icy and aloof by the US sports press. It’s not as if he was the only great athlete to have treated the press with some level of disdain, but it’s likely that his being an Olympian rather than a football or baseball player meant the press didn’t have to kiss his ass. Lewis is such an important figure that his book is a must-read for track fans, despite the fact that it came out before the late-career triumphs that put him on the short list for the greatest of all time.
I think Lewis was misunderstood simply because he was ahead of his time. He thought track and field should be a professionalized sport rather than one based on obligation. He was derided because he accused Ben Johnson of being doped to the gills, then turned out to be correct. His battles with USA Track and Field (then known as TAC) seem eerily familiar to anyone who has to deal with that organization today. And the whispers about his sexual preference, something he has always kept close to the vest, were a big deal in the 80s but would be a non-issue today.
Lewis wrote another autobiography in 1996, One More Victory Lap: My Personal Diary of an Olympic Year, and an updated version of Inside Track was released in 2014.
Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games
by Lopez Lomong with Mark Tabb
Thomas Nelson, 2012
There are stories so amazing that as fiction they would be called unrealistic. Lomong’s is one of them.
By age 15 he had spent 60% of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya. At six years old he was kidnapped from his Sudanese village and was going to be forced into military service, but he and others escaped and ran for days. They ended up in the camp.
He had never seen a television nor ever heard of the Olympics until September of 2000, when he saw Michael Johnson win the 400 in Sydney. He decided he was going to be an Olympian someday, which at that point seemed as unlikely as becoming an astronaut.
But he soon became one of 3,500 “Lost Boys” refugees accepted into the United States, where he joined his high school track team and was really good right away. You may know the rest: college All-American, two-time Olympian, elected flag-bearer for the US team in 2008. There is more, a lot more.
My Race Be Won
by Vincent Matthews with Neil Amour
From the book jacket:
Vince Matthews reveals with gritty candor the rampant hypocrisy of amateur athletics in a nation that often humiliates many of her finest athletes. Millions around the world watched their television screens when Matthews, after winning the Gold Medal in the 400-meter dash at the 1972 Olympics, failed to stand at attention during ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Now, Vince tells the whole story of what led to his defiance on the victory stand–from the struggle against poverty and the society that shaped his values to the quest for identity; from the tough streets of Brooklyn to a black college in the South during the tumult of the movement for civil rights; and on to disillusionment with the stormy 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Thrown Free: How the East German Sports Machine Molded, Trained, and Broke an Olympic Hero and how He Won His Fight for Freedom
by Wolfgang Schmidt with William Oscar Johnson and Anna Verschoth
Simon & Schuster, 1991
The writing here is nothing special, just a run-of-the-mill athletic biography. The subject matter, though, is chilling. Schmidt was a champion East German discus thrower who spoke and thought a bit too freely, and he was eventually sentenced to prison. Remarkably, he escaped across the heavily-guarded border to West Germany and once again became world champion. The totalitarianism is palpable and as I read I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see if I was being watched. It is so easy for us to forget that hundreds of millions of people lived under these conditions in the mid- and late-20th century.
The Miler: America’s Legendary Runner Talks About His Triumphs and Trials
by Steve Scott with Marc Bloom
Scott is a miler of great success and not-quite-success. He ran sub-4:00 136 times, more than anyone else in history, but never won a truly big race. What elevates this book above the ordinary athletic biography is Scott’s willingness to talk about how things really were. The description of training and racing is excellent, but he also tells about what life is like off the track for a professional runner (often isolated and insecure) and the kind of stresses that can have on relationships. It’s remarkably honest for a man who admits he joked around far too much.
Just Call Me Jock
by Jock Semple with John J. Kelley and Tom Murphy
Waterford Publishing, 1981
I found this in a secondhand bookstore for a few dollars and had no idea who Semple was, but I bought it because I recognized scenes of the Boston Marathon on the cover. It turns out that for several decades, Semple and Will Cloney did basically all the work to organize Boston. Semple’s life story is interesting enough—a Scot who started factory work at 14, moved to the USA at 18, and struggled to find employment until he became the masseur to the Boston Bruins and Celtics. But it’s the running part that really sparks, showing what road racing was like in the days when it was mostly a pursuit of Northeastern manual laborers, along with the trials and tribulations of putting on one of the world’s great footraces at a time when the AAU barely tolerated its existence.
Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women’s Sports
by Katherine Switzer
Da Capo Press, 2007
Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, and the chaotic scene surrounding that situation instantaneously put her in the spotlight. She continued to be a pioneer of women’s sport, as an athlete, a journalist, and a race organizer. Her efforts culminated in the IOC’s acceptance of a women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics, just 17 years after she received a six-month suspension from the AAU for running a marathon.
This is an important book for runners and track fans to read, but that doesn’t mean it is without drawbacks. There are inaccuracies, and sometimes important ones. For example, Switzer wrote that Harold Abrahams (the 1924 Olympic star whose story was told in Chariots of Fire) found the first Olympic women’s 800 meters to be “a spectacle of exhaustion” and a “disgrace to womanhood”, when in fact he defended the competitors from criticism and championed women’s participation in track and field.
Life Outside the Oval Office: The Track Less Traveled
by Nick Symmonds
Cool Titles, 2014
A review by Canada’s Athletics Illustrated:
The reviews have largely been positive for its pure entertainment value; however, the cleverness stops at the title; don’t seek belletristic finesse here…
As autobiographies go, the Frenchness and possibly the hint of sophistication that are evoked from the word, “memoir” would allude to something that Nick Symmonds’ book is not: aesthetic literature. At no time does Symmonds appropriate a literary device; neither a metaphor nor an allegory is found within the 230 pages that make up this read. Saying this: entertainment value and literary savoir-faire are not mutually exclusive. As for telling one’s life story, the biography serves; it is a fun and entertaining read.
So it’s not good writing but definitely an interesting story because it’s Symmonds, a resolutely anti-establishment figure (and occasional wild man) who does not hold back or whitewash anything. He’s gone up against USATF, Diamond League meet managers and Nike. He could have named the book They Might Be Giants for the opponents he’s picked.
Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story
by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis
Akashic Books, 2018
Try to imagine track and field without African-American women. It’s about impossible, isn’t it? Now try to find mass-market adult-oriented biographies of African-American women in track and field. There are shockingly few of them, just five that I know of.
Tyus is not as well known as her contemporary, Wilma Rudolph, but in some ways that makes this a better biography. She was the first person, man or woman, to win back-to-back Olympic 100-meter gold medals, doing it in 1964 and ’68, and readers will be surprised how little attention was paid to women’s track back then and how unequally the athletes were treated. The title refers to the nickname of Tennessee State women’s track team, which supplied the majority of the USA’s Olympic stars during coach Ed Temple’s 44 years at the helm of the program, and the book helps tell that story as well.
The next section of the best list of books will cover novels…
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.
Staying the Distance
by Bill Loader
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…
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.
For further reading, try their autobiographies Staying the Course, A Runners Toughest Race (Beardsley) and 14 Minutes (Salazar).
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.
For further reading try their autobiographies, Ovett: An Autobiography and Running My Life: The Autobiography (Coe).
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.
Anything for a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon, the World’s Greatest Footrace
by Ron Rubin
Syracuse University Press, 2004
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…
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.
by Russ Ebbets
Off The Road Press, 1995
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…
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.
I was second in the 1980 Olympic* long jump. (*Cub Scout Olympics, Pack 99, 9-10 age group.)