Book reviews: Kings of the Road, The Lazy Runner and Downstream

Serpentimes-Book-reviews-vests
Illustration credit: Grace Sim (www.swimbikerunart.co.uk)

Our team reviews “The Lazy Runner”, by our very own Laura Fountain and books on the US running boom and swimming the Thames.

“Kings of the Road” by Cameron Stracher

Review by Tom Poynton

Permission for use of cover artwork given by publisher

U.S. writer Cameron Stracher tells the story of the American running boom of the 1970s and early 1980s through the lives of three of its most high-profile stars: Frank Shorter; Billy Rodgers and Alberto Salazar.  Setting out the wider context in which they raced, in which endurance running suddenly went from a niche pursuit to mainstream high-profile activity, Stracher tells how they raced new mass events such as the Falmouth Road Race and the New York Marathon and breathed new life into the long-established Boston Marathon.

Shorter put endurance running on the map when he became the first American in 64 years to win the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and went on to win silver at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and achieved great success at the 10,000m.  Often appearing cool and aloof, it was only much later that his family experiences of enduring emotional and physical abuse came to light.

Rodgers was strongly associated with the Boston Marathon, being based in the city, winning the event four times and known as “Boston Billy”, but lacked the success at shorter distances that Shorter and Salazar enjoyed.  He did though enjoy greater acclaim, and was seen as far more approachable and popular with the wider public.  But he had his own personal problems to overcome before enjoying success.

Salazar, probably the most familiar figure to a British audience given his subsequent coaching career, was the last to make his marathon debut, after early success at cross-country and track races.  His intensity and temperament mixed with prodigious talent, in what was always an uneasy rise to the top.

Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar raced against each other on many occasions, and Stracher tells the story of their careers and how they each brought something unique to make the endurance running scene a place of excitement and innovation.  Pulling together their stories, rather than simply telling three individual accounts of very different men, Stracher weaves in a supporting cast, with characters such as Tommy Leonard, a Boston barman who instigated the Falmouth Road Race; and Frank Lebow, the man behind the New York Marathon.  In basing the story around the three men, many of the top distance runners of their era are relegated to walk-on roles – there’s little about Ron Hill or Derek Clayton for example, or indeed of events outside the US.  The book could also have benefitted from tighter editing in places, with a few lengthy diversions away from the main story.

That said, this is a fascinating look at a time when distance running really grabbed public attention, told through the lives of three wonderfully talented but troubled men and well worth a read for anyone with any kind of interest in marathon running and modern US history.

Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames by Caitlin Davies

Review by Diana Valk

Permission to use the cover given by publisher. Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames by Caitlin Davies, published by Aurum Press (£16.99), is out now in hardback and eBook.

Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames is Caitlin Davies’ homage to the swimmers of the Thames – past, present and future. Before writing the book, she believed that swimming in the river was a recent pastime, but one day she chanced upon a historic poster featuring a swimmer named Agnes Beckwith. Davies discovered that Beckwith was a trailblazer, swimming from London Bridge to Greenwich in 1875 at just 14 years old. Even more surprisingly, Davies found that Beckwith was not the only one swimming in the Thames. Over the years a multitude of people, male and female, young and old, have dipped into the river for feats of endurance or simply to cool off.

Starting at the source and ending at the sea, the book is arranged into chapters that focus on the history of swimming at a particular location along the Thames. We are introduced to a host of eccentric and inspiring individuals who conquered long distance swims fuelled on beef, tea, and the cheers of their fans. Davies also discusses more understated activities including swim club handicaps, diving competitions, and just plain paddling. The only thing the book lacks is the inclusion of a timeline and map to help the reader keep all the interesting events and quirky characters straight.

Some of the most enjoyable portions of the book are Davies’ personal swimming anecdotes. In order to fully immerse herself in the subject, she participates in three open water swims: the first in the peaceful, grassy Upper Thames; the second at the industrial Millwall Dock; and the third in the Thames Estuary, where the mighty river meets the sea. We are privy to both her fears and elation as she plunges into the storied river to challenge herself.

Downstream is the perfect read for history buffs and swimmers alike, but be careful, it will almost certainly make you want to go out and sign up for an open water swimming event, so you too can become a part of the Thames’ swimming heritage.

“The Lazy Runner: How I Got off the Sofa and Ran a Sub-4 Marathon” by Laura Fountain

Review by Natalia Delfino

Book cover artwork published with permission from Pitch Publishing and Author.

The Lazy Runner follows Laura Fountain’s highs and lows from starting out as a novice runner – unfit, clueless about running, and incredibly lazy – to finishing her first marathon and then setting about chiselling seconds off her personal best. At first used to only running 400 metres for the bus, amidst much panting and stopping, Laura has now completed 16 marathons, 2 ultra-marathons and several triathlons and also become a UK Athletics qualified running coach and personal trainer.

Along the way, Laura has learnt countless lessons about running – most of them the hard way – but, most importantly, this self-confessed couch potato has learnt to love running and to identify herself as a runner.

Offering practical tips on buying the right kit, choosing the best races and what to do on race day (in the form of “what I wish I’d known then” paragraphs), The Lazy Runner also tackles those all-important running questions you may always have been too embarrassed to ask: ‘Why do gym instructors speak a foreign language?’, ‘When will it get easier?’ and crucially ‘What happens if I need the toilet?’!

The stories behind the runs and other little life anecdotes in the book will keep the reader engrossed throughout, making this an inspirational short story and an essential easy-to-read beginner’s guide: as such, it will probably mainly appeal to newbies to this running malarkey, but it’s likely to also amuse some of the most seasoned Serpies, who may chuckle as they cast their minds back to their own running beginnings.

As Laura explains: “I run because of how it makes me feel alive, relaxed and happy. Running has shown me I can do more than I ever thought possible, and I want to share that feeling with others. I now help other people learn to love running and achieve their running goals.  Whatever your reasons for wanting to run – whether it’s to lose weight, get fitter or de-stress – learning to enjoy running is key. If you enjoy something you’re more likely to keep doing it. And we all need more things in our lives that we enjoy and that make us feel good”.

Today, Laura Fountain is a journalist, blogger, author and beginners’ running coach based in London. Along with Laura Stewart, she coaches the Monday evening track sessions at Paddington Recreation Ground, and is a regular columnist for Men’s Running magazine.  She has also penned a second book, “Tricurious”.

For more information, check out www.lazygirlrunning.com.

Sources:

  • Fountain, Laura. Lazy Girl Running. http://www.lazygirlrunning.com/.  [Accessed 01.08.16].
  • Hammond, Derek. Press Release: “The Lazy Runner: How I Got off the Sofa and Ran a Sub-4 Marathon”. Pitch Publishing Ltd, 2013.

 

Tom Poynton has been running since 2008 and a Serpentine member since December 2011. When not running he enjoys food and drink and exploring the countryside.

Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S. three years ago. When she is not running she is thinking about archaeology, forensic anthropology, or her next knitting project.

Natalia Delfino (known online as Nat Dolphin), has been a ‘relaxed’ runner for about seven years, joined Serpentine two years ago after reading about Sid’s beginners course, and has in the last couple of years been bitten by the triathlon bug.

Grace Sim did the illustration for this article, and is a club member who coaches the juniors on Tuesdays. Have a look at her website for more artwork.