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Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom Hardcover – April 9, 2013
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The lengthy subtitle states this book’s thesis, though the words “in America” might have been added. The volume captures a bright decade in American road racing, from Shorter’s marathon victory at the 1972 Olympics to Rodgers’ dominance mid-decade, to Salazar’s later ascendancy. It possesses a period charm. The author concentrates not on the major international marathons but on the shorter but highly popular Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod. It fails, though, to make the larger case, the “how” of the subtitle. Lost in the thunder of running American feet is the looming domination of the sport by the Africans, and Stracher understates the influence of women runners such as Joan Benoit Samuelson and the role of the athletic-shoe companies in fostering running as a mass phenomenon. He argues unconvincingly that race organizer Fred Lebow’s insistence upon inclusivity in the New York Marathon ultimately hurt the sport. What remains is an account that will largely interest runners and dedicated fans of the sport. Publication will coincide with this year’s Boston Marathon, an event that no American man has won in 30 years. --Mark Levine
“Combining a novelist's eye for character and detail with an historian's insight into patterns and connections, Cameron Stracher's Kings of the Road delivers a rollicking, informed account of the rise of the American running movement. Bringing the 1970's alive in all their brokenness, weirdness, and hope, Stracher shows how distance running helped define a generation. Kings of the Road rekindles Baby Boomer memories while introducing younger readers to an overlooked piece of sporting and social history.” – John Brant, author of Duel in the Sun and co-author (with Alberto Salazar) of 14 Minutes
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Falmouth was the brainchild of Tommy Leonard, an eccentric bartender from Boston, and high school coach John Carroll. In 1973, at twelve noon, the first “Falmouth marathon” was run—a seven mile race between two bars in Cape Code. There were 93 participants. In 1976, just the fourth running of the race, Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar lined up among more than two thousand runners officially registered for Falmouth. (Another five hundred would run unofficially.) The running boom was well underway.
Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic medal had sparked America’s love affair with running and introduced the sport to the Reagan generation optimistic about “morning again in America.” Just a few years later, in 1975 Bill Rodgers would became the first American to run a marathon under 2:10 and is still the only runner to win both the New York City and Boston Marathons four times. And in 1981, Alberto Salazar set a world record, running the New York City Marathon in 2:08:13.
In Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar, Stracher’s narrative finds its conflict and drama. Like the races they ran, the story is compelling and fast paced. Shorter is the veteran, Rodgers the challenger, and Salazar the student eager to surpass his mentors. Their exploits weave the fabric of this narrative as they rewrite record books and inspire a whole generation to lace up their running shoes for the first time.
As such, the book is defnitely worth reading for anyone with an interest in running.
I was, however, disappointed with the Epilogue, in which the author basically tries to answer 2 questions:
1. Why the decline in US running performance since the early 80s?
2. Should we care?
The author starts making the point of the decline by citing inaccurate or misleading statistics:
- he states that the average marathon time has gone from 3h32min in 1980 to 4h16min in 2011, although he says some of the slowing is due to the increase in number of women. In fact, the times he quotes are for male runners. Therefore, the 44min. increase in marathon times has nothing to do with female runners.
Note: for the statistically inclined, the figures represent median times, not average times as stated (in fact, the increase in average times would be even higher! ). All in all, the true figures would have made his point even stronger.
- the author also compares the number of sub-3 hour Boston marathon runners in 1978 vs. 2012: over 2000 in 1978 vs. 500 in 2012, with a field 6 times as large. However, 2012 turned out to be an unusually hot year for the Boston marathon, resulting in median times about 25 min slower than in the recent past. The point would have been made equally well by taking 2011 as a recent reference (roughly 1000 sub-3 hour finishers with a field also 6 times as large as in 1978).
The author then goes on to statistics about the decline in elite US marathoner performance, which seem relatively accurate.
Having established the decline, the author gets into the reasons. This is necessarily a superficial analysis, as less than two pages are devoted to this task. In any event, the main explanations are mentioned, i.e. movement from fast running to running for fitness (and media coverage as such), talented young athletes attracted by other sports, money, agents and managers killing "club culture" and isolating elite runners who lack the collective emulation.
However, the case for "Why we should care" is definitely the weakest. Clearly holding the view that we should lament the fall in elite performance, the author criticizes (largely unfairly) those who popularized the sport (Jeff Galloway as well as the pioneers of the barefoot running movement). By his own admission, running at the elite level can be brutal and debilitating in the long term, he even mentions the damage that the 1980s heroes have suffered as a result of years of heavy training (150 + miles per week) and frequent racing.
Why should we then care more about the few elite and competitive runners who risk destroying their health, than the millions of amateur and recreational runners having taken up running in the last 30 years and improved their fitness as a result (some of whom take their running quite seriously, by the way)?
Cameron Stracher does an elegant job of bringing this very special time in long-distance running in America to life. Literally the beginning and end of an exclusive era that no longer exists, Stracher unflinchingly points out that the days of running for the purpose of winning at all costs was replaced with a "fitness-crazed" American having lost their will to exceed limits to an acceptance of maintaining mediocrity, not exceeding one's own capacity to handle fear and pain, both.
A compelling look at what we've lost and why.