I’ve often made reference to the fact that for a very long period of my running career, I was something of a marathon fanatic. I ran several races per year, routinely travelled hundreds of miles to find new courses or revisit old favorites, and excitedly watched every major marathon I could find on television.
I also absorbed every piece of information I could find about the history of the event, which I considered nothing less than the most epic and legendary race in the history of the world (I was a bit younger then, and a bit more inclined to hyperbole). Although I now have a different perspective on the race – it’s not nearly as epic as I once imagined, but perhaps just as legendary – I’m still fascinated by the marathon as an event, particularly in the details of its formative years.
Accordingly, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been completely geeking out over Showdown at Shepherd's Bush, a captivating history of the marathon at the most critical time in its existence: the years immediately before and after the 1908 London Olympics. Most folks know the ancient Greek origins of the marathon; very few, however, recognize how pivotal the London race was in cementing the marathon as one of the preeminent athletic pinnacles and cultural touchstones of the 20th Century.
The book is also the story of three remarkable runners whose paths converged on that fateful day in London: Dorando Pietri, a determined and hard-nosed Italian who almost literally ran himself to death in front of the Queen and 80,000 spectators; Johnny Hayes, an opportunistic working-class Irish-American who rose from an often tragic upbringing to achieve athletic immortality; and Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Indian from Canada whose sheer athletic talent was rivaled only by the severity of the persecution that followed him to every corner of the globe.
|Dorando Pietri at the 1908 Olympics; photo from Getty Images|
Author David Davis culled literally hundreds of source documents to create a vivid narrative (along with a cool collection of vintage photos) of the three runners in the years before 1908, and follows them throughout their post-Olympic notoriety. At the center of it all is an extended account of the 1908 Olympic Marathon, which has to go down as one of the most dramatic and controversial of all time. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say if something similar took place today, it would cause a fair amount of hysteria among Olympic aficionados or sports junkies.
Aside from putting some wind into my geek flag, another pleasure of the book was its depictions of the training conditions and prevailing exercise science wisdom of the day. Davis reports that before key events, “competitors were given breakfast [of] milk and a couple of beers apiece”, and that during long footraces, “If a runner was in extremis, he downed a shot of whiskey or brandy.” Other anecdotes are particularly amusing in light of the current natural running craze: Davis notes that the “primitive, arduous” footwear the runners used were nothing more than a leather upper and rubber outsole. He doesn’t mention that today, modern minimalists shell out upwards of 100 bucks for similarly primitive gear.
With another London Olympic marathon just around the corner, the timing of this book is just about perfect. If you’re a marathon geek like me, or if you simply enjoy the historical intersections of athletics and sociology, Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush makes for a very entertaining read. And for one of my readers, you’ll get a chance to check out the whole story for free.
Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush retails for $17 from Amazon.com (or $13 in Kindle format), and the publisher has provided one copy for me to give away as a contest prize. But since I’m celebrating my inner geek in this review, I want to give my fellow running geeks out there an edge of sorts in winning.
So here’s the deal: you get one contest entry for leaving any old comment, one additional entry if you identify a memorable world-class marathon moment (for example, German Silva turning the wrong way in NYC or Bob Kempanien puking Gatorade at the Olympic Trials – and no, you can’t use those), and a third entry if that moment happened in an Olympic marathon (like Deena entering the stadium in Athens – and that one’s now ineligible as well). Also, there’s no copying someone else’s moment; if there are duplicate memories listed, I’m only giving credit to the earliest entrant. As I said, the advantage definitely goes to the geeks on this one.
Leave your comments in the box below to enter, and I’ll announce the winner this Saturday, July 8. Thanks very much to St Martin’s Press for sponsoring this contest, and good luck to everybody!
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