In the pursuit of speed and endurance we often subscribe to running magazines or peruse training manuals. For inspiration, we can turn to the many available books on popular races or exceptional athletes. However, for running junkies like myself, who get their motivational fix from fiction, quality running novels – actually, any running novels – can be hard to find.
With the demands on everyone’s schedules, time to read can be as elusive as the running novels themselves. So, before wasting time reading bad books, we should examine how the available titles stack up as competitors.
THE FRONT RUNNERS
Recognizable marquee names include John Parker's Once a Runner, Dan Middleman’s Pain, Brian Glanville's The Olympian, Bruce Tuckman's Long Road to Boston, and the dark horse entry – Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Siltoe.
The story of college miler Quenton Cassidy, Once a Runner is considered the preeminent running novel. The writing is eloquent, presenting deep insight such as, “…running to him was real…the way he did it, the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as a diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.” The reputation of Once a Runner has been established through word of mouth. Battered copies are often handed from runner to runner to runner, which does little for the author's royalty statements, but testifies to the power of his creation.
The one area Once a Runner glosses over is the head-banging edge of modern college life. This experience is better served in the lesser known Pain, written by 10,000 meter and Olympic athlete Dan Middleman. Pain covers much of the same ground as Parker’s book, but in a much more irreverent, R-rated, and finally darker manner – a portrayal possibly closer to the truth for many collegiate athletes.
Also insightful, but characteristically snobbish in its approach, Brian Glandville’s The Olympian is a solid race entry. Glanville's highbrow writing, more often connected with the soccer world, takes us into the world of British athletics as long shot Ike Low prepares for the Olympic marathon.
First published in 1969, the novel is a Faustian tale filled with brutal training techniques and the type of tortuous race expected as the finale of a running novel. The greatest strength of The Olympian, however, is its dissection of the relationship between Ike Low and his coach, Sam Dee. As with its Big Race finish, The Olympian’s runner/coach relationship provides an often copied template seen even in films such as Chariots of Fire.
Another long shot marathoner is the focus of Bruce Tuckman’s Long Road to Boston. Locating a copy of this novel is the bibliophile's version of Heartbreak Hill, but it is certainly worthwhile. Tuckman's love of running imbues his writing with the same sense of physical effort and interior mysticism found in Once a Runner.
Tuckman’s main character, Bradley Townes, is a former Olympic caliber swimmer trying to mentally obliterate a major life disaster. He is a driven mass of guilt and grief, and is using his obsession to run Boston as a form of exorcism (having run Boston myself, I know this obsession well). The transformation Townes is seeking, however, demands he not only run, but also win (which certainly didn’t happen in my case – and to be clear, not even close). Told in alternating scenes of the race and flashbacks, Tuckman intertwines real runners into the story, adding a certain reality missing from many other running tales.
While the focus on the physical demands of a runner’s exterior life can be fascinating, it is a runner's interior life where the more interesting drama often takes place. This internal battle – the mental war with self – is notoriously hard to capture, but in Alan Siltoe's seminal Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner it is portrayed with incredible skill.
Sent to an inhumane English reformatory for committing a burglary, the novel’s main character, Smith, is an extraordinary runner with major anti-social behavior patterns. The novel's final haunting, futile, and infuriating scenes leave the strongest impression of any writing in running fiction. Once read, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is never forgotten. Instead, it lingers in the subconscious, your inner Smith waiting to emerge whenever the stresses of life gang up on you.
The second tier of running novels consists of some good efforts. Best known as a consultant on the film Chariots of Fire and a coach of the British Olympic team, Tom McNab’s first novel Flanagan’s Run is a sprawling epic of heroic proportions. Set in the 1930’s, and based on an actual 1929 Trans-America footrace, Flanagan’s Run follows a diverse group of runners as they suffer the physical and mental anguish of the ordeal – 3,000 miles for $30,000, fifty miles a day…day after day after day.
Flanagan, a P.T. Barnum-like character, is the unflappable promoter of the race who has as much to win or lose as any of the competitors. While McNab gets the running aspects exactly right, Flanagan’s Run misses the first tier of running novels as soap opera elements dominate major parts of the book. Lively and readable, Flanagan’s Run, is the most commercially successful running novel, reaching a mainstream audience with its blockbuster appeal.
More focused on running, but lacking the depth of Flanagan’s Run, Mark Kram’s Miles to Go follows three international runners as they prepare to set a record shattering pace in the 1983 Boston Marathon. The runners, American, Japanese, and East German, share a history of animosity driving them to huge physical and personal sacrifices.
Like many running novels, Miles to Go leads up to the Big Race. The training sequences along the way are mildly interesting, and the interplay among the runners well designed. But while the action in the Big Race is the best written sequence, the thought of runners in 1983 breaking the two hour marathon barrier – especially in Boston – is enough the blow apart a knowledgeable reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The marathon is again the focus in Huge Atkinson’s The Games. Another blockbuster-style novel with all the associated pitfalls. The Games is again the story of three runners (this seems to be the magic number) preparing to do battle in a marathon, this time at the Spain (!) Olympics. Scott Reynolds is the American running at the risk of his own life. Sunny Pintubi is an Australian aborigine with the gift of speed, but a naïve target for ruthless promoters. Harry Hayes is a quite English runner torn between loyalty and love.
Yes, all the clichés are here mixed together in a readable recipe borrowed from the many other running novels that established the clichés. Not a bad book, but nothing exceptional to break it away from the pack.
While marathoners and milers get the most attention in running fiction, there have been several forays into the drama of the sprint.
Not quite up to the standard of his first novel Flanagan’s Run, Fast Men by Tom McNab is notable for creating a new fiction genre – the sports western. In the 19th century West, fleet-footed con-men Billy Joe Speed (creator of the kangaroo start) and Buck Miller (proponent of the English Method of training – purging, sweating, and a diet of beef and ale) make their way from Kansas City to Mexico establishing their reputation for speed – not with their guns, but with their feet. The duo take on local champions in feats of pedestrianism. They never cheat at racing, but they aren’t above hiding their true identities from opposing bettors and runners.
With coverage of a world-record sprint in England, a climatic men-and-horses competition in 1878 Arizona, and its focus on running’s physical and psychological warfare, Fast Men is the most unusual of running novels – Chariots of Fire meets The Sting via Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
In a more traditional vein, Split Seconds - Tales of the Cinder Track by Jackson Scholz is a collection of sprinting stories loosely connected by the character of a wise, but unnamed track coach at a mid-western university. Published in 1927, the stories are timeless in their positive portrayals of running and sportsmanship.
An Olympic gold medalist in Paris in 1924 (captured peripherally in Chariots of Fire), Scholz is the only sprinter in history to compete in the final events of three consecutive Olympics (1920, 1924, and 1928). He raced all over the world before turning to sports writing for a major metropolitan daily. He wrote over three hundred short stories for the sports pulps of the 30’s and 40’s, many of them about track. Of his over thirty young adult sports novels, Split Seconds is the only track title among the football and baseball stories that were his specialty.
Split Seconds begins with the story of the Winning Bug, which has been anthologized more often than any other track story. However, The Booby Squad, in which a young sportsman trains the general physical education class to take on the varsity track team, is actually much more fun and inspiring.
Unlike many other sports, running presents limited clever opportunities to use cheating as fictional fodder. There are two novels, however, which use the dark side of performance enhancing in a satisfying fashion.
When Golden Girl was written in 1977 by Peter Lovesy (under his pseudonym Peter Lear), its use of human growth hormones to help create and package an American Olympic superwoman was ahead of the curve. At the time, HGH was not a banned substance, and athletes were not tested for usage despite its dangerous side effects. The book, was ultimately derailed by the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the setting for the story. The boycott also killed the feature film, best remembered for Susan Anton as the classic Golden Girl, dooming it to occasional appearances on late night television.
Prophetic in tone and consequence, Golden Girl has recently been reissued with a short, but insightful introduction by the author. Read with hindsight, the novel’s cautionary tale is outdated, yet still remains an intriguing slice of running science fiction.
Another novel centers on a questionable performance enhancing system possibly still in current use. Runner’s Blood by James J. Fischer is a fascinating expose of the lengths athletes, coaches, and countries are willing to go to ensure victory. A serious recreational runner and cyclist, Fischer based his plot on discoveries made in his own laboratory while researching cancer cures. Produced by a very small publisher, the book needed an editor with a sharp blue pencil who could have cut the manuscript by a third to keep the story moving. Despite this flaw, the science in Runner’s Blood has the ring of reality provided by the author’s expert background. This authority makes up for the slow pace, which turns the story from a middle distance read into a marathon.
Golden Girl and Runner’s Blood both bring a unique layer of depth to their storyline. For a change these novels go beyond the Big Race finish of most running fiction. As such, they deserve a readership.
THE RELATIVE NEWCOMERS
Then there are four relative newcomers to keep the field on its toes.
Sharp writing and real insight give Life at These Speeds by Jeremy Jackson a definite edge on the competition. Star 800 meter runner and golden boy Kevin Shuler rides home with his parents after a local track meet. Following behind on the team bus, his entire track team is wiped out in a traffic accident. Numb with loss, Kevin suddenly changes from running star to running phenom as his single minded obsession with being perfect threatens to destroy him. A knock-your-socks-off book as much about the quest to be a runner as it is about the cost of being human.
For something completely different try Geoff Wightman’s Sports Armageddon. Carrying review quotes from running stars Paula Radcliffe and Sebastian Coe, Sports Armageddon is a timely look at running crossed with the hype of reality television. This tale of a junk sport endurance event gone very bad requires participants to swim Lake Okeechobee in Central Florida, then cycle around the state before running from Jacksonville to Atlanta. It is a harrowing page turner of murderous competitors and television ratings driven by the constant threat of death.
Robert Kellogg’s Murder on the Run is a lighthearted look at a group of Hash House Harriers involved with exotic poisons and murder and bizarre sex. The portrayal of the harriers and their antics is affectionate and funny, making you wish the murder plot had been left on the editor’s desk.
Robert Douglas Spetta gives us another outsider in High Tide, Low Moon Running. Against the backdrop of the Big Race, the story of the main character’s life unfolds in flashbacks as he seeks new direction through training and running marathons. A first novel with the usual flaws, High Tide, Low Moon Running does hold the promise of the writer running a better novel length race in the future
RUNNING FICTION’S CURIOSITIES
In every major race there are always a few runners dressed up in silly costumes to support political agendas, university japes, or to boost their flagging egos with momentary attention. Running fiction also has its share of these flashy curiosities.
The Marathon Murder, by once renowned paperback hack James Moffatt, began when he was challenged, on a late night English television show in 1972, to back up the claim he could write a book in a week. The talk show provided the opening line for the novel, and Moffatt wrote the first paragraph on live TV. Seven days later, he delivered the manuscript to the publishers. In another two weeks, the novel was selling briskly over British bookshop counters. While the story hook is serviceable, the slim volume suffers from Moffatt’s lack of knowledge regarding training, racing, marathons, and any other aspect of running. Moffatt completed his task of producing a book in a week. The challenge, however, should have been to produce a good book in a week.
While The Marathon Murder is a passing curiosity at best, The Truth About Wilson is the most unique curiosity in running fiction. It features the first superhero track star, and while totally unbelievable, its sense of tongue-in-cheek fun makes it an outstanding addition to running fiction.
Unlike Spider-man and The Hulk, The Truth About Wilson won’t be a summer blockbuster anytime soon. In 1943 England, however, Wilson, The Man in Black, was the stuff of legends. In the midst of a war with Germany, any British sporting victory was considered a morale booster, even if it took place in the pages of The Wizard, a boy’s adventure broadsheet.Any champion runner would have been cause for celebration, but a mystery man who lived secretly on the Yorkshire Moors, was reputed to be 150 years old, and shattered athletic records all over the world like cheap crockery, was a major sensation.
A slight, wiry figure in an old fashioned, black running costume that would be very stylish today, Wilson appeared out of nowhere to run races, participate in track events, and generally defend the standards of the British Empire against all-comers. At the end of whatever record crushing track event he completed, Wilson would virtually collapse before slinking off to again rejuvenate himself secretly on the vast English moors.
The Wilson saga began as a short story serial in The Wizard, later making the transformation to illustrated comic strips. A fascinating collection of the serialized stories was produced in paperback in the 60’s under the title The Truth About Wilson by W.S.K. Webb. Hard to find, The Truth About Wilson is a true collector’s treasure.
From the 40’s through the 70’s, British comics Rover and Victor also carried stories about a track star. Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track was not a super hero like Wilson. Instead, Tupper was a poverty level working lad who ate fish and chips and could run the legs off of any toffee-nosed opponent from the privileged class.
Similarly to Wilson, Alf’s adventures were first serialized short stories before transforming to illustrated comic strips. Alf’s stories, however, were never collected in book form. To check out episodes of Alf’s or Wilson’s adventures hop on the web at www.britishcomics.20m.com/
THE REST OF THE PACK
Rounding out the field of running novels are a scattering of lesser known running titles of questionable quality. The best of the bunch is The Other Kingdom by Victor Price. The story of struggling Irish miler Colin Wornock, the story is hampered by far ranging musings on the nature of heroism and overcoming yourself.
Author Paul Christman throws women runners into the mix in Purple Runner, as a New Zealand woman marathoner tries to shake off her baggage of never finishing quite high enough in a race. Involving herself with a facially disfigured male marathoner, whose workouts would put the fittest Kenyan to shame, the woman trains madly as both characters aim toward the Big Race climax at the London Marathon.
In The Long Run by Tim Van Wagoner gives us a somewhat successful running as metaphysical journey story. Josh Chamberlain is the great-great-grandson of an acclaimed Civil War hero. As Josh prepares to run his first 26.2 miler, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., he finds himself getting into the zone.
In this metaphysical state, brought on by the classic endurance test, Josh communes with his Civil War ancestor and contemplates the meaning of life and love. Notable for its portrayal of small town America, In The Long Run doesn’t quite pull off its triple act as a contemporary running story, a historical novel, and a love story. It would have done better concentrating on one event.
Though Tom McNab scored with both Flanagan’s Run and Fast Men, his third running novel, Rings of Sand, squanders its premise on characters nobody cares about. Attempting to hijack the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by creating a professional Olympics backed by Arab oil money to be held at the same time, is an interesting topic for sports column commentary, but tough for something novel length. Unfortunately, McNab gets so busy trying to fill the holes in his concocted plot, he forgets what made his other books special – the running.
A women runner also figures in Jeffrey Recker’s first novel, Chasing the Bear. Jennifer Ledge, a fresh from college competitive runner, rambles all over the place in the first person narrative. This creates a lack of focus in the novel that even the page zipping ending, can’t rescue.
Slinger Sanchez Running Gun by Bruce Glikin should be commended for taking on racism and family abuse issues against the backdrop of Jesse Sanchez’s attempt to become a top 800 meter runner. Unfortunately, far-fetched athletic performances, a men’s magazine romance, and several the political plotlines turn the story from a sprint into a never ending steeplechase over an unmarked, potholed course.
There may be a running novel or two that didn’t make it to the starting line here, but they obviously weren’t ready for the competition. For those of you wanting a wider sample of many of the above stories, check out The Runner’s Literary Companion by Garth Battista. The collection is comprised of twenty-four running short stories/novel excerpts and a selection of running inspired poetry. It is a great way to find an author or a novel you want to explore further.
Okay, running fiction junkies, get your checklists ready and put on your racing shoes. It’s time to hit the new, used, and cyberspace book stores for titles and tales. Unlike drinking and driving, running and reading do mix. So, enjoy, but be sure to watch where you’re going.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Novelist, screenwriter, and television personality, Paul Bishop spent 35 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was twice honored as Detective of the Year. He continues to work privately as a deception expert. His fifteen novels include five in his LAPD Homicide Detective Fey Croaker series. His latest novel, Lie Catchers, begins a new series featuring top LAPD interrogators Ray Pagan and Calamity Jane Randall.