Inspired by Jonny Muir’s recent blog post I looked back over the good running books I have read in recent years. The following 20 books are ones that I feel show something of the range and depth of the running book genre. For the research for my 3 fell running books I read everything I could find on off-road, fell and mountain running. These books are excluded from this list, and are actually very well covered in Jonny’s post*. I tried to organise the books in categories, but they are VERY loosely defined, and I ended up forcing 4 books into each category, just to make a layout that worked. I hope you might be led to some books that you might have missed. Enjoy, and feel free to suggest others, via comments on this blog, or via social media.
* What to read when you read about hill running
Endurance – Zatopek had won the 5000m, 10000m and marathon at the 1952 Olympics. This book is well researched, not only describing his upbringing and athletic feats but also gives a great feel for the man himself, his eccentricities and his hard training ethic. His life after his running career is only briefly described which does not fully illustrate the price he paid for the stance he took in 1968, which was shaped by the oppressive hand of communism.
Running for their lives – An extraordinary story, predominantly about prejudice, with a sort of sad tone rather than being particularly uplifting. The runners’ double life stories are well intertwined by the author. An example of a book about ‘unknowns’ that reads better than many better known athlete biographies.
The Perfect Mile – The dramatic race to be the first man to run a sub-4 minute mile which had been thought unreachable. A well-researched book, reconstructing conversations and documenting the feelings and emotions of those involved. The protagonists are Bannister of the UK, Landy of Australia, and Santee of the US. The perfect mile was not Bannister’s run that first broke the barrier in 1954, but the later showdown between Bannister and Landy – which is covered in great detail.
Today we die a little – Zatopek was inspirational athlete and a complex and interesting person. Askwith tells his story well, and always engages the reader. He captures why Zatopek was one of the greatest of all time, but doesn’t try to cover up his flaws. Difficult to choose between this and ‘Endurance’.
BORN IN THE USA
Duel in the sun – You may know the basic story of this New York marathon epic, but do you know the life stories of the two protagonists. The format is to tell the story of the race inter-weaved with chapters about the backgrounds and post-race traumas of Salazar and Beardsley. Interesting to see the parallels and subsequent (different) demises they suffered.
Iron War – A story of human struggle, elite athletic prowess, suffering, and individual achievement, it is a great triathlon book. It is the personal stories of Dave Scott and Mark Allen who were greats of the sport. Massive respect to these elite athletes on the one hand for their discipline and courage, but pity for them for their inability to manage their actions and emotions better. There is also the post-publication defamation hooha, which is partly down to the author’s hard-hitting insights.
Bowerman and the men of Oregon – Detailed story of both the man and the times. He did so much more than coach. Kenny Moore tells it all well, from a good position of journalist and one-time trainer with Bowerman. He brings out the quirks in the man’s character well. The chapter on his fight against a ‘cult’ settlement was a bit of a surprise. The end very emotional – I had gotten to like this probably hard to like guy by then.
Born to run – OK, it is not even about running, but is possibly the best, and best written, book on the music world. It is an example of the artist’s own words being the best source. Springsteen once claimed that his parents wanted him to be a writer not a musician, and despite the quirky style he justifies that thought.
SCIENCE (of training/coaching)
Bounce – Fantastic bringing together of research into succeeding as athlete (and in business). Interspersed with incidents from Syed’s career that illustrate the points being made. Tries to analyse why Africans dominate distance running.
Two hours – A kind of homage to the art of marathon running. More than the sub-2 hr quest, it is a fascinating insight into one man (Geoffrey Mutai) and his life and training. Visiting the training camp in Kenya’s Rift Valley and following him at Berlin, New York and London, Caesar also interviews many of the world’s top runners, experts and sports scientists. He also gives wonderful insights into the minds and lives of top athletes.
How to support a champion – A great insight into sports science, and what it can bring to sporting performance. He also writes of his work with some world class performers, admitting that he was learning from them as much as vice versa. As an athletics coach this helped me focus on areas of potential improvement by identifying some of the important things an athlete (and coach) needs to work on to perform to their very best.
Black box thinking – You could sum up Syed’s thesis as: learn from your mistakes. He uses a wide range of examples but also takes time to probe why we often don’t learn. The examples range across transport, sport, and health care, amongst others. He is perhaps weakest in offering any practical changes required to embrace failure, but he does clearly illustrate the need to make such changes.
TRAINING (sort of)
From last to first – This is way more than a biography. It has some good points to make about doing things ‘your way’, not always the way ‘the book’ tells you. It is also surprisingly good on altitude, lactate, psychology and stuff of a more academic nature. Has more practical information to offer than many a coaching book.
Swim, bike, run – This is a (ghost-written) joint autobiography of the Brownlees. They are quite open about each other and their relationship, which I liked. Shame their achievements in, and love of, fell running was hardly mentioned (I AM biased mind). Their training tips are instructive, giving a good picture of what it takes to be (arguably) the top two triathletes in the world.
Running Scared – This was originally published in 1997, but had resonance when the Salazar investigation and other news came out and still makes depressing reading. Athletics is arguably Britain’s most successful sport, and Mackay investigates the cost of that success. He charts the trials and tribulations of the Olympic Games’ principal sport and reveals some pretty awful drug, money and corruption issues, even before the turn of the millennium.
Austerity Olympics – The whole story about the ’48 Olympics was fascinating in comparison to the 2012 version. It is the result of some pretty serious research. A good read, which in a strange way pointed up the fact that some of the main players from this era have never had THEIR full story told – Fanny Blankers-Koen for example.
RUNNING WITH THE ………
Running with the Kenyans – A fantastic insight into the culture of running in what many consider the leading distance running country in the world now. Finn takes his family to live there and he tries to run with the locals and work out their ‘secret’ – which there isn’t of course. The inter-weaving of family life, his attempt to train a team of contenders and the insights into the greats makes a marvellous mix.
Running with the Buffaloes – An unbelievably compelling read, not surprising considering the distance athlete (and coach) in me. It takes a while to get used to the Americanisms, I even had to look some up. Some scenes and quotes now have regular use among athletic clubmates who are ‘in’ on the book. A good combination of story and ‘coaching’ which certainly made me think about how I have gone about things.
Born to run – Argues that modern trainers cause injuries and we should all return to barefoot running, or as near as reasonably possible. Written in what might be called a ‘gonzo’ style, it is good at telling of the tale of the big race at the core of the story, the characters within the story, and his search for the legendary Caballa Blanco, a Tarahumara Indian.
Way of the runner – Finn writes about the Japanese lifestyle and also the traditional Ekiden relay race. Long-distance running is big business in Japan and they have plenty of young/university athletes, but can’t seem to translate it to the world stage and take on the Ethiopians and Kenyans at the marathon. Finn immerses himself in the culture to try to find the answer.
… and of course there are my three books, all from Sandstone Press.
It’s a hill, get over it – A detailed history of the sport of fell running. It also tells the stories of some of the great exponents of the sport through the ages. Many of them achieved greatness whilst still working full time in traditional jobs, a million miles away from the professionalism of other branches of athletics nowadays.
The Round – A history of the Bob Graham Round, but also an exploration of the what, why and how of this classic fell endurance challenge. After covering the genesis of the BGR in detail, it documents its development from a more-or-less idle challenge to its present status as a rite of passage for endurance runners.
Running Hard – For one brilliant season in 1983 the sport of fell running was dominated by the two huge talents of John Wild and Kenny Stuart. Wild was an incomer to the sport from road running and track. Stuart was born to the fells, but an outcast because of his move from amateur to professional and back again. Together they destroyed the record book, only determining who was top by a few seconds in the last race of the season. Running Hard is the story of that season, and an inside, intimate look at the two men.
The paperback of Running Hard was launched at a great event at The Rendezvous Hotel, Skipton, on 27th October. Kenny Stuart and Ben Mounsey were both on great form as we discussed the topic of ‘running hard, then and now’. Thanks go to Due North’s Mel Steventon for organising the event. A proportion of the entry fees went to two charities – The Brathay Trust and Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association – to the tune of just over £300. Thanks for coming, I enjoyed it greatly, and obviously was pleased to sell and sign a good few books (or is that a few good books!).
There was a great crowd there, to whom I must apologise for the late start (waiting while Ben got the drinks in for he and I!)
I introduced Kenny and Ben and we discussed differences and similarities between the training and lifestyle of runners then and now, with me orchestrating the questions.
Both were interesting on how they had trained, revealed a few good tips, and also raised a few laughs with their responses to questions about such topics as diet and Strava dependence (in Ben’s case).
A thoroughly enjoyable evening, thanks Mel and team, Kenny and Ben. Do check out other events from Due North, including one I am very excited to be involved in (details of which have to remain under wraps till finalised), but it does involve another absolute fell legend.
Finally, just a reminder that the book launch was accompanied by a fantastic Blog Tour. You may still read the nine guest blogs by going to my blog tour post, where the live links are.
Running Hard: the story of a rivalry is available in paperback from good bookshops and online (as are my other two fell running books). [Amazon link].
All three of my books on fell running are available from good bookshops and on Amazon. They are respectively: a history of the sport of fell running, the story of the Bob Graham Round, and the lives and achievements of two of the sport’s finest (Kenny Stuart and John Wild). Running Hard will be out in paperback next month, and will be launched at an event with Kenny Stuart and Ben Mounsey, helping raise money for The Brathay Trust and The Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association.
Last month I speculated on whether the East Africans who are starting to dominate mountain running could come over and take longstanding UK fell race records like Snowdon. The blog drew a few comments, as did the social media coverage. Subsequently I have had a long discussion with the Snowdon race organiser (Stephen Edwards), who explained his take on it.
A tad provocatively perhaps, but the conversation started with me asking how ‘international’ The International Snowdon Race really is? It obviously has great Italian runners coming, but as an event do they try to get the nations that do well at WMRA’s World Mountain Running Champs (for example) to send athletes. I was particularly thinking of the Eritreans and Ugandans, mentioned in that first blog posting.
Stephen replied that he understood my point of view and that it’s a question that a few others have asked, but that money comes into the equation. The race pays approximately £5,000 for the hotel accommodation and food for athletes at present, with the number of international team member having gone up now to four males and four females, so cost is always increasing. However, the rule to change the number of team members came with no financial support from the rule changers.
The race organisers would love to get more different countries coming to the race, but another issue is the timetabling of events. It doesn’t help that this year the European Mountain Champs were held a week before Snowdon and the Worlds two weeks after. There is also a feeling many of the current runners don’t like the terrain of the Snowdon race. There is room for all these events, but only so many top class runners to share around them. Stephen commented that they would love to get the Snowdon Race as the European or World Championship event. [It was host to the European Mountain Trophy in 1996.] He also feels that it’s not just getting more country’s teams to Llanberis, it needs the highest quality athletes to compete at the highest level to challenge the record. He adds that in the past they have come from a few different countries, but in the end local runners were quicker than them.
The World Mountain Champs race came to Betws-y-Coed in North Wales in 2015 but it was run on what was really a trail route in a forest and consisted of a multi-lap course. Stephen felt that having looked at the pictures of this year’s Worlds (in Italy) it was basically running on grass – well grass on the side of a mountain.
We ended up discussing the idea of a UK Cup, consisting of the Snowdon, Scafell, and Ben Nevis races. Run in all three and best placed runner is the champion. I liked the idea but can imagine issues with FRA approval, and of the races being too popular and perhaps not wanting more entries. Out of curiosity I went to the FRA website to check when the Scafell race is. Well, it is this Saturday (16th Sept) but is by far the least well attended of the three races – having only 31 pre-entries as of today (11th), perhaps due to a class with the Three Shires race. Interestingly though, presumably in an attempt to raise the race profile, the FRA race page for Scafell says: Note trophies/prizes for “Jack & Jill” fastest couple and for King and Queen of “Snowden/Ben Nevis/Scafell Pike mountains”.
Having speculated here on the future of fell/mountain running, I was interested to note that Jonathan Whyatt was recently elected as President of the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA). Under a title ‘Newly elected WMRA President Jonathan Wyatt shares ideas for the future’ he makes some interesting points on the future of the sport on the WMRA website.
His nine main points included:
- Ensure that courses for World events will be a good test of true mountain running ability so we need to look for more difficult tracks than in the past. This is something we will be talking about as well as trying to work together with other groups that organise events in the off-road environment.
- Bring together the best athletes at the most important events. The sport needs this, so we can show to the World how good Mountain and Trail Sports can be. We will start the discussion with the calendar in mind, so that we give the athletes the chance to run a World Championship all together on one day.
- Support iconic mountain events and make the most of events that are held in beautiful mountain terrain, thereby showing how positive Mountain Running is.
Tougher courses, the best athletes, support for iconic events. Fine words that I would like to see them deliver on, a view Stephen Edwards totally agrees with. Watch this space.
Finally, cycling back to my point about East Africans, the Guardian last week carried an article entitled ‘Untold stories: why we should know more about East African runners’. It emphasized the achievements at the recent World (track) Champs at the London Stadium, particularly some lesser-known Kenyans and Ethiopians. The article concluded:
If athletics is to remain popular in the post-Bolt/Farah era, we need to make more of an effort to engage translators, journalists and managers in getting to know the top East African athletes a little better.
Three things recently have got me thinking again about changes in the sport of fell/mountain running. Firstly it was the World Mountain Running Championships, where Ugandans had a clean sweep in the men’s race. Secondly, the recent debate over whether Kilian Jornet would/could take the BGR record from Billy Bland; and thirdly was reading an advance copy of a chapter of Jonny Muir’s upcoming book on Scottish Hill Running, in which he speculates on the future of the sport.
So, let’s take these one at a time. Mountain running is the de facto global branch of fell running, and has been since it came to prominence in the early 1980s. [For more on its early history see ‘Going Global’, Chapter 17 of my first book, ‘It’s a hill, get over it’] It is organised by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), whilst at the extreme end there is also the International Skyrunning Federation – which administers ‘mountain running above 2,000m over extremely technical trails’. Mountain running is more akin to fell running and is predominantly run by Europeans, run in Europe, and won by Europeans. The World Mountain Running Champs were first held in Italy in 1985 and have been held at a European venue each year since, reaching out just once – to New Zealand in 2005 [Correction: there have been two – Alaska in 2003]. A rather selective stat I admit, but taking the results of the men’s race over the years you find that Italy won the team prize all but two years of the first 21 occasions. Then in the next 7 years, Eritrea won 4 to Italy’s 3. But then the big change: in the last 5 years Uganda have won 3 times and Italy just once, with Uganda providing 4 individual winners and Italy none, having not had a winner in the last 10 years.
OK, enough stats but definitely a pattern there. In mainstream athletics we have been used to domination of many events by Africans in recent years, the steeplechase and marathon in particular. For example, the world’s 11 fastest steeplechasers where all born in Kenya (Kenyans have won Gold at the event at last nine Olympic Games), and the 10 fastest male marathoners are either Kenyan or Ethiopian.
Having hopefully got you interested with the slightly provocative blog title, these rambling lead me to ponder whether if the best Eritreans and Ugandans were to run races such as the Snowdon International Race (which leading Italians have for years now) whether they could challenge Kenny Stuart’s superb course record of 1-02-29 which has lasted since 1985. I recall that Kenny was interviewed about his record at the 2010 Snowdon race and as I noted in my third book, ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’, he replied:
I am quite amazed it [the record] still stands, but is something I am reasonably proud of. I think it is time it was broken. The record might stand for a number of years. If athletes of a certain calibre, maybe Africans, came over en masse they might break it. But it will take some breaking.
But so far that hasn’t happened.
My second reference was to the possibility of Billy Bland’s supreme BGR time of 13 hrs 53 mins being beaten this year, possibly by an ‘incomer’. Prompted by rumours on social media of a fast time having being done ‘under the radar’ and also public statements from the Catalan Kilian Jornet that he was planning an attempt sometime in 2017, I posted a blog with comments on things that Hugh Symonds and Billy Bland had said to me on Jornet’s chances when I interviewed them for my second book, ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’. It was thoughts on an outsider taking the record, which I won’t repeat here, but in many ways reflected some views on the changing sport. But, what about an African mountain runner coming over and having a blast at it? What do you think? If you are interested the blog post is here, and the parallel FRA forum thread is here. Suffice it to say that there was an amazing level of interest in the topic, which meant I had 1,292 visitors to this blog the day after it appeared – WAY more than I normally get.
Thirdly, Jonny Muir will be commenting in his upcoming book about the effect that high profile, high cost, extreme events like the Glen Coe Skyline will have on ‘traditional’ hill running (as it is usually called in Scotland).
He decided to check his fairly robust view by doing a vox pop via the Fell Runners UK Facebook site to try to gauge the views of participants in the sport. There appeared to be a strong anti-commercialism strand in the replies. One I liked was: “Underground, word of mouth races are the future.” I would judge the mood to be worried rather than happy with the way things are/might go. But maybe (like sites like TripAdvisor) there is a tendency for complaint rather than praise in a public forum such as this. Do have a read of the responses (you need to be able to sign in to FB to do so).
I perceive a very insular attitude from the governing body (Fell Runners Association) who in communications say they are very worried about increasing numbers of competitors and their environmental impact affecting race access agreements. This inward looking attitude is exemplified by this response that I got, on behalf of the FRA Committee, when I asked for access to their archive in order to pursue my book research, in 2011: ‘It may be helpful if I make clear that the policy of the FRA is to avoid media exposure of and publicity for the sport. The prospect of yet another book about fell running is not welcomed and the FRA Committee will not wish to co-operate in providing assistance. “Feet In The Clouds” did no favours to the sport.’ At the time I found this a stunning attitude to adopt. Since then I have thought a lot about the future of the sport when writing about it, and I have quite a positive outlook. I will finish with what I said at the time (and which I still stand by):
I am sure though that the good races will survive, and that a responsible attitude to the environment can indeed see the sport prosper. I do think that attitudes have to change and that the sport should welcome all those who want to take up the challenge to compete that it provides. We should be celebrating the variety of events and competitors that there are.
It was great to be a guest at the International Snowdon Race this year (thanks RO Stephen Edwards for the invite), and watch the action at close hand, some 23 years after I had run in this iconic fell race.
We travelled up earlier in the week to spend some time in wonderful Snowdonia, staying at the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert one night (a nostalgic visit to a hotel from childhood holidays with my parents), and with friends from Uni days another night. On the Friday we took a stroll up Snowdon, choosing one of the less frequented routes for a change of scenery.
On race day it started very wet and we parked up at the Royal Victoria Hotel and bumped in to first Kenny and Pauline Stuart, and then John and Anne Wild. We wandered down to the start area to get the vibe as the rain seemed to be gradually lessening. Getting in to a good roadside position we watched the runners come out of the start field and head off up past the start of the mountain railway, then the hotel and on to Victoria Terrace before hitting the lower slopes, expecting them to get as much of a view as we had on the day beforehand (none). Fancying a coffee and a bite we made for a cafe in Llanberis and came back for the finish of the race.
The youthful looking winner, Italy’s Davide Magnini, came down the last bit of road seeming to be still full of running, although he was over 4 minutes off Kenny Stuart’s course record. He was followed in by England’s Chris Farrell, Tom Adams and Chris Holdsworth (thus taking the team prize). Watching the race video later Magnini showed great style on both the ascent and the descent. His time to the summit (5 miles) was 42-47 (at a pace of 9:52 per mile), with just 23-55 for the descent, giving him a 1-06-42 finish time.
Not long after that, the first lady came in, who was Annie Conway (who was actually not representing one of the national teams, and came home in 1-20-15), followed by Scotland’s Louise Mercer, and England’s Katie White.
After the race we went to the Electric Mountain to set up for the post-race talk that I was doing with Kenny and John. I was worried we might only have a small crowd, but there must have been 60+ there when Stephen Edwards hot-footed it over from the prize giving to introduce us.
I talked for a while about John and Kenny’s achievements, before giving them the floor for some anecdotes. I then refereed a bunch of really interesting questions from the audience, before selling and signing a good few of my three books, including the latest Running Hard: the story of a rivalry (which details the ups and downs of John and Kenny’s lives and running careers).
Back to the Vic for the excellent buffet provided for us (and the elite athletes), before repairing to the garden for a few beers and some banter with John, Kenny and co. When we went to bed the action was just starting (was there a disco?), but we were fortunate to have a room way at the back of the hotel so were not disturbed.
In the morning we had breakfast with John and Anne, chatted with some stiff looking athletes, and headed for Joe Brown’s for a bit of retail therapy, before heading home, via an impromptu road-side swim in Llynnau Mymbyr as the sun was now showing itself.
But what was that ‘Think Spinks’ bit all about in the title (I imagine you thinking)? Well, my fitness isn’t what it was and I am having some issues with one of my knees just now, so was worried if the Snowdon summit bid was a good idea. We set off, me nervously, on the path which starts at the Rhyd Ddu railway station knowing the weather was ‘variable’. In order to try to get me over the nerves my wife (who has obviously read It’s a hill, get over it) suggested I just ‘Think Spinks’ and all would be fine. So, having no cold rice pudding to hand, I resolved to just try to be as determined in adversity as Nicky Spinks always seems to be. So, we plodded on at a steady pace, rarely stopping and soon moving into the clouds. Having memorised the map I was expecting a false summit before we reached the top, and when Moira asked if we had reached it yet I replied ‘no’. In the mist we had not seen it (just after where the Watkin path joins, which we also didn’t see) as the main path contours under it, and thus you don’t have to go over it. As we slogged up another seemingly interminable steep path I began to lose my faith in Nicky, and was heard to mumble ‘I am bored’.
But then there was a strange noise and large spaceship loomed up in the misty cloud above. Lo and behold, we were there, and we rushed past the café and up the steps to touch the summit (and have a photo). A coffee and a short respite was taken and then we set off down. After only a short while the clouds were clearing and we had some marvellous views, seeing the knolls, paths, crags that we had missed in the cloud as we ascended.
Reaching the bottom with very sore legs and a raging thirst we took more coffee in the marvellous independent Beddgelert café next to the Post Office (can you see a pattern developing here) before a brilliant swim from a layby alongside Llyn Dinas.
A great day, and a great weekend. A lot of mental energy was spent in that walk up Snowdon, and I am sure the positive Spinks thoughts had helped immensely.
I thought it might be interesting to see which of the blog posts seemed to strike a chord best, and were thus the most viewed each year since this blog has been going. [For the purposes of this review I am necessarily ignoring the homepage, which always shows up as the highest in the hit stats, yet obviously varies as new posts are published.]
For the first year (2013) it was a blog entitled Why I wrote ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, in which I give some background to how I came to write my first book, having as it seemed no previous inclination to do any such thing.
By the second year (2014) I had started thinking that I should write about almost anything BUT the books I was writing. So, the most viewed that year was Are we now a cafe society? Some of my favourites …. – a subject I had actually thought vaguely of writing a book about!
In 2015 my second book (The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps) came out, and I wrote a blog about my experience of supporting a friend’s Round, as a sort of tie in. Good game – a BGR from the roadside support viewpoint was the most viewed posting of that year.
By 2016 I was writing more blog posts (and books!), averaging a post every 3 weeks. The most popular of the year was about attending an amazing event at Brathay Hall to celebrate Joss Naylor’s 80th birthday. Evening with Joss, Billy and Kenny has been the most viewed post of all, so far.