Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Kings of the Road" by Cameron Stracher

If I were a writer, Kings of the Road would be the book I would have loved to have written. I am not a writer however, and I am so glad that Cameron Stracher did the heavy lifting and put into book form so much of what I love about the history of running. This is a wide-ranging, but smartly cohesive book that should be on the must read list of every person who calls themselves a marathoner, a road racer, a jogger, or a runner. The complete and marathon-length title of the book is Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom (official release date is April 9). This is a book about how running invaded the consciousness of everyday people all across America in the years between 1972 and 1982: a time we now call the "The Running Boom." There were many catalysts of change that came together to create such a wonderful moment that reshaped the thinking and athleticism of people across the country. The running boom led to mass participation running events as well as to the world leading status of American distance runners. This book explores those roots and moments and how they all came together.

The Start of the 1978 Falmouth Road Race.
There were many catalysts which helped spur the running boom and Cameron Stracher covers them all. He adroitly captures the zeitgeist of the era through the music, movies, and politics of the time as he intertwines the significant people and events that shaped the running boom. He chose to identify the Falmouth Road Race as the unifying element upon which the running movement was shaped and polished. It was there that the three main running characters raced as the torch was passed from Shorter to Rodgers and then on to Salazar as the main players on the world and American running stage. The book is not just about Falmouth and these three runners, nor is it a biography of these champions. Stracher picks out the races and moments where the enigmatic and cerebral Frank Shorter, the friendly and somewhat loopy Bill Rodgers, and the aloof and focused Alberto Salazar strove for and achieved greatness. We learn their background, like we do the history of Falmouth, but we also learn of the multiple other characters, races, and events that merged together to help create the running boom.

Frank Shorter winning the 1975 Falmouth Road Race.
Stracher carefully and intelligently picked the details and moments that galvanized and transformed the running movement and which pushed running into the collective consciousness of thousands and millions across the country who decided that they too could become their own running heroes. No longer would a runner be laughed at for running through the streets in his "underwear" but rather the champion runners were widely known, even outside the running community due to mainstream newspaper, magazine, and television coverage, and thus wearing
red and white striped Dolfin shorts while running through town no longer brought catcalls or unpleasant comments (well, that may not be entirely true!). Runners were skinny, but tough and even admired. Besides framing and retelling the stories of Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar and their impact on the world stage, this book delves into many of the influences and history of athletes and events from ancient times up to those preceding and coinciding with the running boom. Without being wordy, the details are enough and quite interesting for a reader already familiar with this history of running as well as for a novice without a knowledge of these facts. Many runners will already be familiar with the three chosen runners, but this is not their biographies. Their achievements are noted, but framed within the greater context of moving onto the story of how running became the popular sport of the masses at this time in history and how the careers of these three athletes intertwined over this short period of time.

Bill Rodgers leading the 1978 Falmouth Road Race
at about the 6 mile mark.
I love this story, because it is also my story. It is familiar to me because I was there, pulled along in the excitement of watching a world class event develop in my Cape Cod hometown of Falmouth. I became a runner just weeks after the first Falmouth Road Race was held in 1973 and the great champions who came to run and party just down the road from my house excited me to no end as a teenager. As I was watching it all develop, it certainly molded me into the runner and fan of the sport that I am today. I still love the sport, the competition, and of course the Falmouth Road Race as well as all the events that were spawned from the boom in the 1970s and onward  It is a story I know well (and have tried to chronicle in this blog) , but I was entertained by all the new details that Cameron Stracher was able to piece together and highlight in this book. The story is book-ended between two races in which Alberto Salazar twice almost ran himself to death and I was also a participant in both of those events: the 1978 Falmouth Road Race, where Alberto was read his last rights as he lay in a ice filled pool with temperature of 108 degrees, and the 1982 Boston Marathon "Duel in the Sun" between Salazar and Dick Beardsley. In between these retellings lie a history worth knowing.

This is the book that should resonate with the beginning joggers trying to go from Couch to 5K, to the charity or bucket list marathoners who fill the roads in the big city marathons, all the way up to the highly competitive racers who compete throughout the country in scholastic races or in road races measured in distances from the 5k on up to the marathon. Those who have run the Falmouth Road Race know its winding roadways and this book likewise twists and turns as the story of running unfolds. You will enjoy how Stracher combines the personalities and events that somehow can be traced back in some way to a seashore race run along Vineyard Sound.

The roads are crowded these days with runners, but I am not sure the younger post-running boom crowd really knows or appreciates the vibrant history of the sport that is so readily available to them each weekend with choices of multiple races from which to choose from in order to compete. It is time to remember.

A photo I took of the awards ceremony after the
 1976 Falmouth Road Race.
Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Randy Thomas, George Reed,
Alberto Salazar, Amby Burfoot, Bob Hodge, and Mike Buckley.
If Born to Run can ignite a multitude of people to contemplate ultramarathons and barefooted running, then a more sensible book about the historic roots of road running and mass participation events should appeal to both the casual and competitive runner. A few years ago I was running with a very fast local runner in my running club and in conversation I realized that he had never heard of Steve Prefontaine. I can just as readily assume that many, if not most runners under a certain age might not have any clue who Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar are or how they impacted the sport. Here, you can learn their stories, achievements, motivations, as well as learn their influence on the growing sport. You will also read about lesser known characters and contributors to the sport who also deserve credit for their part played in the history of running.The book is also about how the big city marathons got started as races went from dozens of participants or hundreds in the case of the Boston Marathon, to thousands of racers, and then to the point where races had to limit the number of participants.

Finish line at Falmouth 1980.
Nowadays, a race can sometimes have thousands of runners in just its first year. Hundreds of runners sign up for low key local races. My first road race (not including high school cross-country and track races) was the third Falmouth Road Race held in 1975. This was a most pivotal race in the running boom as it was the first time the 1972 Olympic Marathon Champion, Frank Shorter, and the 1975 Boston Marathon Champion Bill Rodgers competed against each other in a road race. A crowd of about 800 runners participated in the race that year and that was considered a huge field at the time. The running world and the national press took notice. Nowadays, Falmouth limits the field to about 10,000 runners. Of course, this 1975 race plays an important role in the Kings of the Road story and I was happy to be there.

Here is a photo I took after the 1980 Falmouth Road Race
 of Bill Rodgers and Fred Lebow of the New York City Marathon
 having an intense conversation.
You can read about Bill and Fred and their disagreements
 over money and competition
throughout "King of the Road." Little did I know that
I was probably interrupting a serious disagreement here.
The book is an enjoyable and fast-paced read. The details and background information is abundant, but not excessive so that a reader is not bogged down in wordiness. The thrill and unique excitement of those early days are readily apparent and definitely true to my recollections. Just like "Born to Run" Kings of the Road twists history, science, and culture together with a cast of compelling characters, a noteworthy setting, and some rather dramatic races. I have heard that certain parts of "Born to Run" were more storytelling than accurate reporting. The events and happenings retold in Kings of the Road are told with a reporters accuracy to the facts (I did notice a couple of minor mistakes). It all rings true to what I saw and experienced! I wanted to rip through the book to find its secrets, however I also wanted to slow down my reading and savor the retelling of events, because they brought back so many pleasant memories. Each chapter starts with a historic photo (nice to see), a running quote, and an intriguing title. As I was reading, I was constantly brought back to many a hot humid Sunday afternoon in August starting in the small village of Woods Hole and ending up 7 miles later on a ballfield in Falmouth Heights. The ocean along Vineyard Sound, the salty air, Nobska Lighthouse  the winding roads, crowds of spectators, bursting lungs and weary muscles, a downhill sprint finish, and a party with thousands of other runners where you could mingle with the running superstars of the day. This is the annual Falmouth Road Race and a great event to evoke the times when running became King and the Kings of the Road became superstars.

Salazar at 6 miles, 1977 Falmouth.
Please do yourself a favor and read this book and become enthralled with the athletes and a time when a sport was born. Learn the history of our sport and enjoy the many stories and characters. Just like any time you lace up your running shoes and hit the roads, I can guarantee that you will have a good time!

This is already a wordy post, but I have more to say. Look for additional posts centered more on my recollections and connections to the Falmouth Road Race with a local flair as well as an additional reason, with ties to Falmouth, for the demise of the popularity of competitive running and the nationwide disintegration of interest in the sport of running.

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