Two Books on Running And Marathons
- Reviewed by Jay Price
- April 23, 2013
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, two books on running celebrate storied athletes and the universality of the sport.
How strange that … even as an army of police tightened the noose on the second of two suspects in Boston’s deadly Patriot’s Day bombing, the culmination of a traumatic week that began with the detonation of a pair of homemade explosive devices on Boylston Street, near the finish of the Boston Marathon … the mailman should deliver not just one but two books chronicling America’s running boom, a story played out, in large measure, on those same streets.
Stranger still … and borderline macabre … when you realize that more than coincidence was at play. The publishers’ rollout was no doubt designed to coincide with the marathon, the traditional start — and in the minds of many traditionalists, always the highlight — of the road-racing season.
And in their own twisted way, the bombers were following the same timetable, for maximum effect.
All the more curious, then, at least at first glance, that Cameron Stracher, author of Kings of the Road, chooses to tell the story of America’s infatuation with distance-running icons Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar through the prism of another, less famous race.
Familiarity may have influenced Stracher’s choice; a one-time competitive miler, he was the waiter who served Salazar dinner at the Captain Kidd restaurant on Cape Cod the night before Salazar set a course record at the 1981 Falmouth Road Race.
in spite of some overheated writing — in Stracher’s retelling, Salazar doesn’t
just suffer heat stroke in an earlier duel at Falmouth, he “runs through death”
and “hovers on the knife-edge of darkness” — the device works.
Falmouth, the inspired concoction of Tommy Leonard, a Boston bartender who in an earlier age would’ve been described as Runyonesque, really is the perfect metaphor for the running boom: a mom-and-pop race where any weekend jogger could line up to run with Olympic champions. It also turns out to be the first, last and only venue where all three leading men in this narrative — calculating Shorter, simmering Salazar and perpetually affable Rodgers — compete head-to-head.
In one telling scene, Fred Lebow, the ambitious head of the New York Road Runners Club, shows up at the after-party in Falmouth in 1976 to recruit Rodgers and Shorter for the New York City Marathon, a modest hometown race he hopes to push onto the world stage.
But as heady as those days were, Stracher sees the burgeoning fitness revolution in America, abetted by Jim Fixx’s 1977 bestseller The Complete Book of Running, as the beginning of the end of something. Since Salazar’s back-to-back victories in New York in 1981 and 1982, no American male has won a major international marathon or distance race, a reversal Stracher attributes at least in part to the emphasis on participation in major road races, as opposed to the top-down competition that drove strivers like Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar in their glory days.
Kings of the
Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made
Marathon Man: My
Stracher, Rodgers the author — or Mathew Shepatin, the co-author of Marathon Man — opts to tell his personal
story through the device of a single race, in this case the 1975 Boston
Marathon, the first of his four triumphs at Boston, and the one that catapulted
Rodgers from obscurity to international acclaim and dinner at the White House.
Between the pages of a stride-by-stride account of his journey from the starting line in Hopkinton to the laurel wreath downtown, he relies on a series of flashbacks: “Eight years earlier,” “Seven years earlier,” to fill us in on how he got there, the unlikeliest of winners, wearing a secondhand singlet rescued from a dumpster and decorated with the initials of his Greater Boston Track Club, applied by his girlfriend with a magic marker.
After chasing butterflies as a kid and loafing through his days at Wesleyan, Rodgers takes a circuitous route to fame, applying for Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War, and working — some of the time — at a series of dead-end jobs, a period when he sometimes seems to be living on food stamps and the complimentary peanuts at Jack’s Bar in Cambridge.
As with so many sports autobiographies, we wind up feeling like we know more about Rodgers the runner, or his rivalry with Shorter, than we do about Rodgers the private man. After spending most of an entire book to cover 26.2 miles, he sprints through the pain of two divorces, the death of his best friend, personal bankruptcy and prostate cancer in a five-page cool down disguised as an epilogue.
But at the end of the day it’s impossible not to feel for Boston Billy, always the most accessible of champions, and the one most likely to stick around for the party after the race … or for a friendly jog with the locals the next morning.
After all these years, Rodgers is still chasing butterflies. A self-diagnosed example of untreated Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, he feels most at peace when he’s running, a sentiment that might’ve been echoed by generations of less-capable athletes, right up until the moment the bombs went off on Boylston Street.
Jay Price, a longtime columnist for the Staten Island Advance, is the author of Thanksgiving 1959. He lives in Manasquan, N.J., and is working on a book about Manasquan in the days after Hurricane Sandy.