Running Literature

Like many of my generation, I own a considerable number of books about athletics. In fact I read about the topic long before I became a runner myself. Back in the 1950s, I used to get several comics a week, and of course two characters stood out as superstars.

The Great Wilson (of The Wizard) was a mysterious black-clad figure who followed a strict regime of diet and exercise and became a multi-talented world-beater at anything from sprinting and distance running to breaking the long jump record over a pit of fire, flying a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain and climbing Mount Everest. I treasure a rare copy of The Truth about Wilson by W.S.K. Webb, published by D.C. Thomson & Co. Thanks to the invention of charity shops, I have three ‘Hotspur’ annuals, featuring Wilson. If you google britishcomics, you will find several sample adventures to read or print out.

Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track, was the other figure that nowadays would be termed iconic. Although I was a middle-class lad who went to a state grammar school (non-fee-paying!), somehow I had no difficulty identifying with this determined eccentric who lived off fish and chips, trained very hard after a tiring day’s welding, and time and again managed to defeat a succession of snobbish university runners and poisonous class-conscious officials. A kind friend lent me his extensive collection of ‘Victor’ comics and I photocopied rather a lot of Alf’s adventures. In addition I obtained a dozen ‘Victor’ annuals; and a complete set of the actual comic saga which finishes with Alf Tupper winning the marathon at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games on the very same day that Ron Hill set a world-best time at that same venue! Once again, several tales are available at britishcomics. In 2006 Brendan Gallagher published Sporting Supermen (The true stories of our childhood comic heroes) and I would urge anyone interested in sporting nostalgia to buy that through Indeed quite a number of the books I intend to mention in this article are cheaply available, although others are very hard to track down and far too expensive, even for unrepentant saddos like me!

My first memories of watching (or listening!) to athletics were from 1954: the first four minute mile and Chris Chataway outsprinting Vladimir Kuts at the White City. Naturally, I read Roger Bannister’sFirst Four Minutes as soon as I was able. After that, newspaper reports about the 1956 Olympics, Derek Ibbotson’s world record, the 1958 Commonwealth Games and Herb Elliott’s exploits.

Then in the late 50s, while browsing through the stock in Aberdeen Public Library, I came across Knud Lundberg’s The Olympic Hope, a fascinating tale about a fantasy version of the 1996 Olympic 800m, with chapters on the background of each finalist and a metre-by-metre, thought-by-thought account of the final. Years later I found it again and promptly photocopied the lot!

The films of the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were terrific. Neil Allen wrote two very good ‘Olympic Diaries’ about these. Chris Brasher was another wonderful athletics journalist, if rather emotional! Shortly after Tokyo I began running increasingly seriously and was able to borrow books from Alastair Wood and Mel Edwards.

Olympic hero Peter Snell’s No Bugles No Drums was very enjoyable; as was Murray Halberg’s A Clean Pair of Heels; and the incredible Gordon Pirie’s Running Wild. Ron Clarke’s autobiography TheUnforgiving Minute was excellent, as was his The Lonely Breed, about great distance runners of the past. Then there was David Hemery’s Another Hurdle.

After the joys of watching every day of the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games I was delighted to pick up a marvellous little book by Derrick Young called The Ten Greatest Races, which started with Ian Stewart’s recent 5000m triumph, and then focused on Wooderson, Zatopek, Bannister, Peters, Chataway, Elliott, Abebe Bikila, Clarke and Ryun.

My interest in the history of running was developed further by Peter Lovesey’s Kings of Distance; and Cordner Nelson’s Track and Field: the Great Ones.

The list goes on nearly for ever. Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.

Zatopek the Marathon Victor by Frantisek Kozik. Tinged by communist propaganda but still a great story about an incredible individual.

  • Brendan Foster by Brendan, helped by Cliff Temple.
  • Ovett: An Autobiography by Steve, helped by John Rodda.
  • Barefoot Runner by Paul Rambali (about Abebe Bikila).
  • The Marathon Makers and 3.59.4 by John Bryant.
  • Marathon and Chips by Jim Alder.
  • The Long Hard Road (two volumes) by Ron Hill.
  • Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey (a detective novel set in Victorian times, featuring an epic Six Day Race for ‘pedestrians’.)
  • The Iron in his Soul by Bob Phillips (about Bob Roberts, an outstanding 400m racer).
  • The Road to Athens by Bill Adcocks.
  • Four Million Footsteps by Bruce Tulloh.
  • From Last to First by Charlie Spedding.
  • Paula: My Story So Far by Paula Radcliffe.
  • The Universe is Mine by John Emmet Farrell.
  • Running High by Hugh Symonds
  • Running my Life by Donald Macgregor.
  • Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.
  • The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes.
  • Running by Thor Gotaas (the ultimate history of the sport).
  • Scottish Athletics by John Keddie (SAAA centenary).
  • Runs will take place Whatever the Weather by Colin Shields (SCCU centenary).

In addition there are good books on Eric Liddell, Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram etc etc right up to the present day.

Since the 1980s running boom (concentrating largely on the marathon) several good American journalist/runners have published interesting work, especially Kenny Moore. It is well worth finding out what is available for free download on the internet.

One novel I particularly like is Once a Runner by John L Parker Jnr, which is based on the author’s experiences while training at the University of Florida with Frank Shorter, who went on to win the 1972 Olympic Marathon. The book is mainly about a miler’s quest to beat a champion who seems suspiciously like John Walker, the 1976 Montreal Olympic gold medallist. Parker also wrote Runners and Other Dreamers and, just last year, Again to Carthage. Both are recommended, although the latter (which is mainly about an attempt to run a very fast marathon) for my taste goes on too much about scuba diving! If you like those books, google the author for an interesting recent interview.

Roger Robinson is one of the finest athletics writers. He was a contemporary of Aberdeen’s Mel Edwards at Cambridge University and went on to run international cross-country for both England and New Zealand. He won the masters division of the Boston and New York Marathons; and won world masters championships in cross-country and on the roads in the M40 and M50 sections. Dr Robinson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at Victoria University of Wellington.

Roger’s running books, which I recommend unreservedly, are eloquent, intelligent, witty and well-researched. One has just been republished: Heroes and Sparrows: a Celebration of Running. Then there is the beautifully illustrated 26.2 Stories of the Marathon; and the marvellous Running in Literature.

The latter provides for me half of this article! It is about running as described by famous historical figures like Homer, Thomas Hardy and James Joyce; the history of cross-country and marathon running; and finishes with an invaluable list of modern running literature.

One chapter has the title: “Running Novels – The World Championship”. The Semi-finals include thirteen books, mainly focusing on fictitious Olympic Games. I will only mention three. Knud Lundberg’sThe Olympic Hope, which I discovered in Aberdeen Library so long ago. Bruce Tuckman’s Long Road to Boston, which I am finding difficult and expensive to buy. I lack the modesty to refrain from mentioning the inclusion of my own Running Shorts – a sequence of stories about the experiences of ‘Scottish runners’ (i.e. me) in youth and age, success and failure, over a variety of surfaces and distances.

Most of the Finalists are quite cheaply available.

13: Brooks Stannard, The Glow is a quirky, dark thriller.

12: John Owen, The Running Footman (very rare), is set in 18th Century England. 11: Peter Lovesey, Wobble to Death, has been mentioned previously, as has

10: John L Parker Jnr’s Once a Runner.

9: Bill Loader, Staying the Distance is the tale of Tigger Dobson, a working-class Northern English runner who overcomes self-doubt and a social inferiority complex to win an international 5000 metres. (Loader wrote another good book Testament of a Runner about his life and times, mainly as a sprinter in the 1940s.)

8: Paul Christman, The Purple Runner (expensive, unless you want the Kindle download) is set on Hampstead Heath, where so many Londoners train and race. There is a range of interesting runners, including a mysterious fantasy athlete, a cross between Wilson and Steve Prefontaine!

7: Pat Booth, Sprint from the Bell (very rare) is a New Zealand novel about a dedicated runner with an inspiring coach, striving to be the first man to break 3.50 for a mile.

6: James McNeish, Lovelock, is ‘a skilled, highly professional biofiction on the life and inner perplexities of Jack Lovelock, who won the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in world-record time’. Roger Robinson praises the book, but states that the suggestion that Lovelock later committed suicide is wrong.

5: Tom McNab, Flanagan’s Run is ‘an energetic and engrossing tale of an imagined coast to coast footrace across America in 1931.’ It was a thoroughly justified best-seller – and written by a prominent Scottish coach too!

4: Patricia Nell Warren, The Front Runner features a passionate gay love affair between a track coach and his star athlete, as they prepare for the Olympic 10,000m.

3: Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is a small masterpiece concerning a troubled seventeen year old Borstal boy who finds release through cross country running but struggles to cope with authority.

2: Brian Glanville, The Olympian is about the rise of a club quarter-miler to the status of Olympic 1500m contender. The book is rated very highly as genuine literature with real insight.

1: Tom McNab: The Fast Men is a story about runners set in the American Wild West. The book has a wonderful variety of historically-based characters and is ‘a novel of vivid imagination and passionate truth about running.’

And of course there’s more. Amazon are about to send me The Runner’s Literary Companion by Garth Battista, which I hope includes top-class excerpts from American writers – and all for £2.69 including postage!

I expect to continue reading about running until my eyesight becomes even worse than my legs are now.

That’s Colin’s contribution to the topic and – on the strength of it – I bought four or five books that I had not known about.   There is a fairly comprehensive list at the link below (Running Books) which was drawn up by Hugh Barrow who did all the work and I have done the easy bit of adding some comments!   Have a wee look.

[ Running Books ]