‘Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen’ by Christopher McDougall (2009)

Born to Run was a huge hit when it was published in 2009.  Part manifesto, part love letter to running, the book is built around a secret race that the author took part in alongside the reclusive Tarahumara Native Mexican tribe and the legendary ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek.

McDougall becomes enthralled by stories of the Tarahumara who can run amazing distances without shoes and without injury.   McDougall intersperses the story of him tracking down and the secret race being organised with his own musings on how running has moved away from its original origins.

The book has gained most of its attention for its exploration of barefoot running and the (surprising) impact running shoes have had on injury rates.  Spoiler alert: as technology improves, injuries have gone up, not down.

McDougall also explores the hypothesis that gives the book its title – that humans have evolved as a running animal.  The theory goes that humans developed the ability to run long distances in order to literally run down prey.

The book is exceptionally readable and packed with a cast of fascinating entertaining characters.  McDougall’s passion and enthusiasm shines through.  He may not be the most neutral of narrators at times – he clearly had a blast and really liked the people he met along the way – but he manages to tell the story and make his points in a fast paced and entertaining way.

I first read Born to Run at a time when I 4 or 5 times a week and devouring every book on running I could find.  I was totally gripped and totally unquestioningly accepted McDougall’s hypothesis.  Reading it again now at a much more sedentary phase of my life  (I really need to get back running!), I found myself much more skeptical of the barefoot running theory and the pop-evolutionary anthropology.  However I still really enjoyed the book and McDougall’s writing style.

Born to Run has gone down as a classic sports book and it definitely deserves its place on your book shelf.  Highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered just how far they could run.

BTR

‘Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon’ by Ed Caesar (2015)

Two Hours is a comprehensive look at the world of men’s elite marathon running framed around the question of whether any man can run 26 miles and 365 yards in under two hours.

Two Hours is first and foremost a celebration of elite men’s marathon running.  While I expected the book to focus more heavily on the quest for lower and lower times, its actually much broader than that, and probably a better book for this broadness.  It combines the history of the marathon, a comprehensive look at the marathons raced between 2010 and 2013 and an in-depth focus on the career of 4 time major marathon winner Geoffery Mutai.  While it touches on all of the key things being considered in efforts to run a 2 hour marathon – shoe technology, genetics, doping etc – it doesn’t cover these in massive detail.

mutai

The years covered by Caesar ended up being really fascinating for marathon running – with the emergence of new superstars, world records and doping scandals – and the book benefits from the amazing access Caesar had to the athletes.  It’s pleasing that doping is addressed and Caesar’s insights into how doping appears to operate (at least for some athletes) in Kenya are interesting.  The insights gleaned from in-depth interviews with Mutai about his state of mind during races was also enlightening.  There are also interesting doubts cast on the ‘barefoot running’ craze popularised by the excellent Born to Run – Caesar observes that elites marathoners have been asking for more cushioning not less.

The one thing that I think was missing from the book was consideration of women’s marathon records – I think the fact that Paula Radcliffe held the women’s world record for so long (and still held it at the time of writing the book) would have been an interesting topic to consider when looking at both the progression of the men’s record during this time and the dominance of East African’s.

The book was finished before the launch of the academic led Sub2hrs project and was published before the launch of Nike’s Breaking2 Project which in 2017 saw Eliud Kipchoge run the distance in 2 hours and 25 seconds.  Caesar had speculated about the possibility of just such an attempt – but there is almost no mention of Nike in the book which talks much more about Adidas (as people from Adidas must have been willing to speak to Caesar). It is particularly interesting that the men’s world record, that must be set during an actual marathon meeting certain conditions, has not improved in the last 4 years – suggesting that a plateau has been reached for now?

Overall its a very enjoyable and easy read.  Caesar writes very well and is clearly passionate about the subject and fascinated by the athletes he meets. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in distance running.

two hours

‘Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women’ by Roseanne Montillo (2017)

Fire on the Track tells the story of Betty Robinson, the first ever women’s gold medalist athletics at the Olympic games, and some of her fellow pioneering female Olympians.  Robinson won gold in the 100m sprint in Amsterdam in 1928 at the age of just 16, in only her 3rd ever race at the distance, and 4th race at any distance.

fire track

The first women participated in the Olympic games in Paris in 1900, and even then they were only allowed to participate in “safe” events like lawn tennis and golf. The 1928 games was the first Olympics that women were allowed to compete in the track and field events. Many feared that women participating in track and field events would either deem them unattractive to men or actually turn them into men so its inclusion was still heavily disputed among officials.  Coverage of the events, especially the 800m, focussed heavily on the toil the race took on the athletes rather than the race itself.

As well as Betty Robinson there are several other prevalent female track athletes covered. These names included: Polish-American Stella Walsh, Texan Babe Didrikson, the first African-American female to compete in the Olympics, Tidye Pickett, and young Helen Stephens.

Overall I found the story quite interesting but the writing style wasn’t my cup of tea.  It was written with an overly novelistic flair and at times I felt the author presumed too much as to what the inner thoughts of the various protagonists were.  It felt like a cross between biography and novel which always feels problematic to me as it blurs the line between fact and possible fiction.  If you approach the book as a fictionalized retelling it might be more palatable.  While the story was gripping, I ultimately struggled to finish it due to the style.

As I read this book, it really struck me how few of the sports books I’ve read relate to women’s sport.  I’m struggling to think of any others that I have actually read – and I’ve read a lot!  I’ve read great sports books written by women – none more so than Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – and books about how sportsmen mistreat women – like the very interesting Night Games by Anna Krien – but very little about women athletes or players.   It’s been an interesting realisation for me and I’d appreciate any recommendations for good sports books about women athletes that I have overlooked.

betty

And here’s 12 I prepared earlier

Before starting this blog, I very occasionally reviewed books on Goodreads.  This post captures 12 long ago, and in many cases forgotten, musings on a wide selection of sports books.  Some of these are in the re-read pile and will get a fuller, updated review when I get to enjoy them again.  These 12 cover a range of topics including: Boxing’s 4 Kings, Brazilian and German football, Irish cycling and drugs in sport.

Ringside.jpg    Drama     fifa.jpg  brazil

1) ‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’ by James Lawton

A Ringside Affair is a love letter to boxing from one of the UK’s great sportswriters. Each chapter covers one of the great fights or fighters that Lawton had the immense pleasure of witnessing throughout his career. It’s clear that the era of the Four Kings
(Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran) stands out as the golden age of the title, but it’s the career of Iron Mike Tyson which clearly shines through in the book. Lawton’s admiration for young Tyson’s talent is only topped by his disappointment at the Tyson’s eventual troubles and crimes.

Lawton’s accounts really bring the fights to life as well as placing them clearly in their time and place. His passion and love for the sport shines through. Its a work of remembrance and of celebration as Lawton reflects on his career.

For all fight fans the book is a fantastic summary of 30 years of top level boxing. It’s excellently written and will make you want to pull out the you tube videos and track down the great boxing books.  I highly recommend it.

2) ‘Drama in the Bahamas’ by Dave Hannigan

An entertaining and in-depth look at Ali’s last fight and the sad spectacle it was. The book is best enjoyed by someone well versed in Ali’s life story – it paints some characters a bit too thinly for anyone coming to Ali;s story without a reasonable knowledge of the cast of characters that surrounded the Champ.

Hannigan paints a picture of an Ali who is his own worst enemy.  It is apparent that there is no is villain guiding Ali to fight one last time. It really appears to be Ali himself and his own desire for attention and love that motivates him to take one more totally unnecessary and disproportionate risk.

Like all Hannigan’s work, it’s an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the library of Ali books.

3) ‘The Fall of the House of Fifa: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer’ by David Conn

I greatly enjoyed this book on FIFA’s troubled history. Its extensively researched and well written. As a follower of David’s writing in the Guardian the book lives up to expectations.

Its a sad reminder of the scale of corruption and the breath of individuals involved. Blatter emerges as not quite the villain but rather the enabler and master politician. There is plenty of new material even for those following FIFA closely, especially a fascinating interview with a post retirement Blatter.

The only criticism is that it is a bit too detailed at times. Sometimes the narrative could be shortened and there is a bit of repetition at times.

All in all its a highly recommend for anyone interest in football politics or just good journalism.

4) ‘Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup’ by Fernando Duarte

Very enjoyable history of Brazilian football. Examining the most successful team in history by focusing on their lowest moments, Durate paints a convincing narrative of the impact each of these games had on shaping the team.

One of many books to come out in the lead up to the Brazil World Cup, Durate captured a lessor seen angle of the 5 times champions.   Considering that the worst defeat of all was yet to come – who will ever forget that 7 – 1 – its a timely book and one that will remain relevant as Brazil try to rise again in Russia.

The writer is also a very entertaining journalist and great as a guest on football podcasts.

Das reboot   Match  vol  nowehere

5) ‘Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World’ by Raphael Honigstein

A really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a confusing manner.   A good companion piece to ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’ by Ulrich Hesse to complete the picture of how the world champions became the world champions.

6)’Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga’ by Ronald Reng

Ronald Reng is the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke.

His second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld.

Reng uses Hoher’s story to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.

All round an enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read.  The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

7) ‘Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager’ by Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin is modern footballer’s great chronicler.  He examines the less beautiful side of English football shining a light on the real life experiences of those who live and breath the game.  Living on the Volcano focuses on the stresses of football management – showing the cost, the emotion and the real lived experience of managers at almost every level of the game.  It is an interesting and enjoyable read that offers a unique perspective of the job we all love to try on a computer game.

The book does suffer from Calvin at times being a bit too close to some of the subjects.  Its hard not to get the sense that he lets the fact he grows to like many of his interviewees/subjects as people get in the way of his objectivity as a football journalist.

8) ‘The Nowhere Men’ by Michael Calvin

Before data, analytics and youtube, talent needed to be scouted. Calvin’s book offers a fascinating insight into the enclosed world of football scouts in the UK

It chronicles a profession teetering on the edge – slowly being replaced by technology (and those who use it) yet a profession that continues to prove that data alone can’t tell you everything.

Above all, the love of football some of the scouts who work for mileage only is amazing, inspiring and heart-breaking all at the same time.

roche   Race   Running with Fire   Nike

9) ‘Born to Ride’ by Stephen Roche

Very interesting and enjoyable book. A chronicle of a time when Irish cyclists ruled the world.  Roche really was some rider had an incredible career and I wish I had been older in 1987 to have been swept up in the Roche/Kelly era.  Roche’s book is well worth a read for any cycling fan.

As with all cycling books, the issue of drugs hangs over every story like a bad smell.  Roche does at least address the drugs controversy which emerged after he retired.  His position is not entirely convincing and it is very hard not to believe his accusers.  Roche may have been part of the problem, and is definitely not willing to be part of the solution, but his achievements should not be underesimated.  If he was clean, its doubtful there has ever been a greater Irish sportsman.

Hunger by Sean Kelly is a very good companion book to give Kelly’s perspective of days that Irish cycling will never see again.

10) ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’ by Richard Moore

Moore is better known as a cycling journalist and writer.  Here, he moves away from cycling to the other sport dominated by drugs.  He crafts the story of the 1988 Olympic 100m final where Ben Johnson smashed the world record then dramatically failed a drug test.  Will there ever be another Olympic final where so many competitors had their legacies tarnished as the testers caught up with the cheats?

The book provides an in-depth look at Johnson’s rivalry with Carl Lewis and both of their journey’s to Seoul.  Johnson’s assertion that, while he was on lots of drugs, he never actually took the drug that the test found creates a bizarre and intriguing story.

It is well written, well researched and entertaining.  It provides an interesting look at drugs in sport in general – although Moore’s eagerness to believe in Team Sky over the years totally unfairly taints his comments on drugs in sport in my eyes.   Highly recommend.

11) ‘Running with Fire: The True Story of Harold Abrahams’ by Manterrk Ryan 

Very enjoyable biography of the 100m Olympic gold medalist and legend of athletics officialdom. Charts the prejudice he faced for being Jewish, his fantastic athletic career and even more successful (and interesting) administration career after he retired.

A must read for any fans of Chariots of Fire.

12) ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight.

Every long lasting company needs its origin myth.  What is unusual is the founder telling his story so long after the fact. Shoe Dog is both a sports book and a business book.  It is much better than I would have expected.

Knight tells the story of the founding of Nike and its early years before it broke into the big time.  It ticks the usual boxes of near disaster, dramatic recovery and eventually incredible growth.

What becomes clear is that for Knight, the early years are where is heart remains. It is a loving reflection on the days before he became a bazillionaire and a love letter to Steve Prefontaine.

I would have liked it to go a little further and look at the signing of Jordan and the groundbreaking nature of that change for Nike and for sport.

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore is a great companion piece to round out the story of the technical genius that combined with Knight’s business brain to change the sporting world.