Running: A Global History – Thor Gotaas

You may have noticed that I read books about running from time to time. And why not? I love running. It hurts sometimes, sure. And when it’s raining and cold (like it is quite often round here) you get cold and wet. And yet, you still love it, and when you can’t do it for a few days, you miss it so much. Some people don’t seem to get it, and I think the problem is that they’re doing it wrong somehow. But anyway. Books about running. I read them.

And this is almost the definitive book about running. It covers everything that has ever been thought or known about running and runners, from the first humans who ran (there’s a nod to the study that features in Born to Run about how humans evolved to run long distances) to the first civilisations who ran (the Egyptian Pharaoh had to run around a set course once a year to prove he was still fit to rule), messenger runners (including the Marathon myth, and how Phidippides probably didn’t keel over and die after delivering the message to Athens, as he was used to running 60-100 miles per day) and on and on. There are the native American runners who ran naked through the frosty wilderness, with ice forming on their bits. There are stories about the old running races in medieval Europe, especially the ones for prostitutes, who often ran naked (depending on the local laws at the time). There’s a bit about the Tarahumara. And a bit about running and the Highland Games.

Then, as the book comes into the modern era, there are stories about the development of professional racers, and the tricks they used to fix their handicaps, often working up to a big race in the future. Or the guys who would travel from town to town, tricking people into betting against them in a running race (they’d have to save a bit of energy to run away from all the people they’d fooled too).

There’s a bit of speculation about the speed that people used to be able to run. We often think that running started with the 4 minute mile by Roger Bannister (there’s a bit in The Perfect Distance which describes how the old milers never trained at all and would often just plain pass out during races, but this doesn’t tally with Running‘s version of events) but there is some evidence that people have been running a mile in about 4 minutes for as long as it’s been possible to measure 4 minutes (and measure a mile accurately, come to that).

Then there are dozens of mini-biographies of famous runners. All the favourites are in there, telling the story of how running changed and didn’t change through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Some of it is familiar, some of it was new to me – I didn’t know about Henry Rono, for example. The book also deals with drugs – any book on the history of running should – although it has to be said that I don’t think anyone takes arsenic during the marathon any more.

The only thing about the book I didn’t like – and it may be a translation thing – was the way it repeatedly slipped into the present tense during an anecdote about something that happened over a hundred years ago. It is utterly unnecessary. If a story can’t be told well in the correct tense, then perhaps it is not a good story. That minor niggle aside, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Also, Thor! What a name.


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