‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.
Losers is a fascinating collection of stories written from the perspective of losers – a very broadly defined term given that the essays cover some very successful athletes! The stories all share a common theme of reflecting on defeat in sport, its impact and the challenges of bouncing back. Fourteen of the essays are new unpublished work and are complemented by eight classic pieces including Gay Talese’s superb essay on Floyd Patterson.
The stories each offer different perspectives and range from sombre to hilarious. The subjects covered range from obscure to famous. Each story is insightful and works well as a standalone piece. Like all good collections, however, the sum of the whole adds up to more than its individual parts. Together the collection represents a brilliant reflection on human nature. Stories of how we respond to failure, and bounce back (or at least try to) capture something far more universal than the more written about moments of unbelievable glory.
The quality of the collection is reflected by how difficult I’m finding to pick a favourite. I’ll go for Jeremy Taiwo’s (as told to Stefaine Loh) reflection on being the 2nd best decathlete in the USA and Brian Platzer’s take on two young table tennis players chasing Olympic glory. Each story is a treat though and the collection one to saviour.
Running to the Edge tells the story of distance running coach Bob Larsen through two distinct phases of his career. Futterman uses Larsen’s career to examine both why we run and how we should train to run further and faster.
Larsen was a high school and collegiate athletics coach who was obsessed with finding ways to run long distances faster. He developed his ideas of ‘running on the edge’ – now generally known as tempo running – in the 1970’s.
It is very much a book of two halves. Firstly, Futterman examines Larsen’s early coaching career in California high school and junior college jobs. Larsen became obsessed with exploring the concept of running on the edge and became convinced he could turn a bunch of young runners from San Diego into an elite team that could claim national titles. Futterman tells this narrative entertainingly and paints a vivid picture of the underdog ‘Jamal Toads’ running team and the key runners who brought Larsen success. He captures the joy and heartbreak of competitive sport as he traces the ups and downs of this fascinating cast of characters.
The second part of the book skips ahead to the 2000s. Larsen had spent many happy years at UCLA with much less focus on distance running. However, Larsen was determined to improve American distance running (which appeared in terminal decline) and set out to develop a training system and camp for elite athletes. Futterman traces the success of Larsen’s unorthodox methods through the careers of two American distance running Olympians. It’s a story I was totally unaware of and a fascinating journey of triumph, despair and every emotion in between.
In addition to the main narratives, Futterman interweaves a short history of the science behind distance running (which will be familiar to fans of Born to Run or The Sports Gene) and his personal running journey. I’m not sure how much the personal material added but, as someone trying to get back running afters years of inactivity, I found them interesting.
Overall, Running to the Edge is a really enjoyable book. The narrative flows and the characters are vividly brought to life – I found myself nervous about the results of races from nearly 50 years ago as Futterman brilliantly told the long forgotten careers of many unknown runners.
Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA. Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport. The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.
This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true. The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s. At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source. Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.
Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example. What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids- it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting. Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial
Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing. These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.
I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out. It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available. If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.
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.
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.
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.