‘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