It seems as if a majority of running books offer some sort of answer to the question, “How do I go faster?” When titles are published on the history of road racing, then, it definitely is a good idea to check them out.
I’m happy to report that two recent releases not only offer some good lessons and background on the sport, but raise interesting issues. “Kings of the Road” and “Marathon Man” offer a look back at what seems like ancient history – when the Americans ruled the roads. However, in reality the stories go back only about 30 to 40 years.
“Kings of the Road,” by Cameron Stracher, looks back at the era from 1972 to 1982. That’s usually called “the running boom” time period, when the sport stopped being reserved for a “fringe element.”
Until 1972, road racing received publicity essentially one day a year — the winner of the Boston Marathon would pop up in the day’s news, and then be forgotten. Frank Shorter took a big step toward changing that in the United States when he won the Olympic marathon in 1972. Suddenly, running captured more attention from the masses.
Shorter was followed by Bill Rodgers, who became the world’s best marathoner later in the decade by capturing four Boston and New York City marathon titles. Shorter, in turn, was followed by Alberto Salazar, who became the world-record holder.
The three men are the focus of the book, and all receive short biographies as well as detailed accounts of their biggest races. All of them were frequent participants in the Falmouth Road Race, designed in the 1970s to mix elite runners with participation by the masses in a party atmosphere.
Stracher may give Falmouth a little too much credit for having a role in the running boom, but the Cape Cod event certainly played a role in getting us to where we are today. In other words, it’s an easy to draw a line from the Falmouth model to running events that are basically fundraisers for charities.
The author also raises a point, without going into much detail, about one other aspect of the state of road racing today, and that concerns money. Shorter and Rodgers were loud advocates that the system of the time that prevented them from making much money at running stopped them from making a living at it. They had to work odd jobs and borrow funds to pursue their dreams, while in some cases officials were the ones that benefited from their labors.
It was hard to argue with the logic, and eventually those walls came down and runners earned money – from sponsors and then directly from races, whether it be in appearance fees or prize money – for their work. But, Stracher points out, this had an unexpected side-effect: the rise of the East Africans.
Countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia were capable of producing good runners for all sorts of environmental and cultural reasons. When running became a way to make a modest living, they came rushing to America and other countries to race for money. In Buffalo, events such as our marathon and the Subaru 4-Mile Chase draw foreign-born athletes seeking a modest payday.
“Kings of the Road” goes by almost too quickly at less than 220 pages. Those seeking more on that era can move on to “Marathon Man,” an autobiography by Rodgers with the help of Matthew Shepatin.
Rodgers once wrote an autobiography of sorts that left the feeling there probably was more to the story. There was.
Rodgers has an engaging personality that’s worked well with the masses. But he also took conscientious objector status to avoid military service during the Vietnam War. He took up running because he wasn’t sure he was good at anything else and became the world’s best distance runner.
Rodgers’ book has a great deal of space devoted to his first Boston Marathon win in 1975, but he covers his running days fully and in an interesting manner. If anything, Rodgers doesn’t spend enough time on recent years when he’s used his name to make a living – speaking before groups and running casually in races in exchange for appearance fees, and generally spreading the running seed wherever he goes.
Will some of those seeds blossom into runners who can challenge the Africans for world supremacy someday? Stay tuned.
• Lucy Town Half Marathon, 319 W. Third St. in Jamestown, 9 a.m. today, 488-2203 x230.
• Ryan Purcell Memorial, 4 miles, 2655 South Park Ave. in Buffalo, 10 a.m. Saturday, 713-5654.
• Monster Scramble 5K, Acacia Park Cemetery in North Tonawanda, 10 a.m. Saturday, 634-2573 x70503.
• Okay 5K, Ellicott Creek Park in Tonawanda (Shelter #15), 10 a.m. Saturday, 884-3256 x200.
• Tim Hortons 5K Coffee Run, 8289 Main St. in Eden, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, 445-0047.
• Lou Reuter Scholarship Run, 5K, 540 Parkhurst Blvd. in Tonawanda, 9 a.m. Oct. 20, 874-8402.
• Niagara County Deputy Sheriffs’ PBA 5K Run, Market Street in Lockport, 10:30 a.m. Oct. 20, 622-6416.