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LetsRun.com Running Book Reviews October 16, 2009
by: LetsRun.com
October 16, 2009

Below we have book reviews on 3 running related books. First up is Charlie Spedding's "From Last to First". Spedding was the 1984 Olympic Marathon bronze medallists and won the 1984 London Marathon."Last to First" is his autobiography and it chronicles the incredible journey to Olympic bronze of a man who finished last in his first race as a kid. A Race Like No Other:  26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York by New York Times writer Liz Robbins takes an in depth look at the NYC Marathon through the eyes of various runners in the 2007 race. Last up is Dane Rauschenberg's  See Dane Run which recounts him running 52 marathons in 52 weeks.

Charlie Speddings: "From Last to First"
Review by Joe Garland

Note: LetsRun.com viewer Joe Garland's full review can be found on his blog here. We have excerpted the first 3 paragraphs and a few other key passages below.

Note: Charlie Spedding finished last in his first race ever, but went on to win the bronze medal at the

In 1984 I finished second in a race won by Ireland’s John Treacy. I was so far back that the Times’ headline was “Treacy Wins By A Mile.”

In 1984, Charlie Spedding finished a race one place behind Treacy. He was quite a bit closer. Two seconds. The race was the Olympic Marathon in 1984, a race won by Carlos Lopes of Portugal. Both Lopes and Treacy had the pedigree, each having won the World Cross-Country Championships twice. Spedding’s finish was a surprise.

He has written an autobiography, and however unknown he was to me before, his Los Angeles finish remains stunning. But the book, “From Last To First,” goes well beyond I Trained/I Raced. It has a core lesson from which all serious runners can learn....

The core of the book, and what makes it more than I Trained/I Raced, is Spedding’s ability to peak. The flip-side to this was his relative inability to be competitive in other races. He spent a chunk of time in the U.S., chiefly in the Boston area, and appeared at some of the top races of the time, Peachtree, Gasparrilla, Falmouth, always running well but not great...

What This Book Is Really About:   The gold is Chapter 6, “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Sports Psychology.”...

*LetsRun.com viewer Joe Garland continues his review on his blog here. If you want to buy the book you can do so at Charlie Spedding's website. £8.99 for those in the UK and £12.49 ($20.41) including shipping for those in the US.

A Race Like No Other:  26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York by Liz Robbins
Review by: J. David

Telling the story of a marathon—particularly the largest one in the world—is similar to panoramic photography. The final image, since all lenses are limited, inevitably loses something. This limitation is particularly true when the nearly 50,000 runners who cross the finish line of the New York Marathon share only one thing in common: they all run 26.2 miles. Otherwise, like all marathons, New York City’s is run for so many different reasons and at so many paces that it can be difficult to stand in one place and appreciate the panoramic beauty of a sporting event that stretches from the greatest women’s marathoner in history to a cancer survivor whose only goal is simply to finish. Yet, Liz Robbins’ new book A Race Like No Other makes a rather courageous attempt to paint a picture that appreciates the subtle and often contradictory nature of major marathons. Written in 26 chapters that wind through New York’s five Burroughs, Robbins follows not only a number of the elite favorites but a pack of amateurs who run—not to win—but for far more complex and often more profound reasons. In the end, Robbins’ snapshot is both rather striking and bothersome. On the one hand, she rather remarkably tells the story of a dozen or so finishers for which the 2007 marathon had particular significance. On the other hand, her coverage of the elite racing too often passes quickly by the reader or (even worse) diverges down the long roads of “human interest” that frequently mar the spectacle of distance racing. Still, Robbins’ panoramic view is worth pulling over to read even if some of it gets lost in the seams.

A Race Like No Other spends considerable time tracing the New York Marathon’s history from its humble start in 1970 under the direction of pied piper Fred Lebow to its current, sprawling form. For Robbins the history of the race includes not only the winners who built their careers in New York like Alberto Salazar or Grete Waitz but unknown volunteers such as Carmine Santoli who has manned the same aid station for 27 years. In celebrating both the champions and the trumpet players, Robbins reiterates her thesis that the “professional runners are not so different from the recreational athletes.” Throughout the book, she tries to shrink the distance between the elites and the amateurs (whose stories she is more adept at telling). But, her efforts do seem strained and so the elite racing of the 2007 marathon passes by as if the reader is standing at a solitary intersection in Brooklyn. To be fair, Robbins has her moments such as Henrick Raamala’s surge at mile 17 or Gete Wami’s last minute move on Paula Radcliffe just before Radcliffe roared onward to victory. But, the bulk of the racing is swift, light and barely noticeable. This is particularly noted in the complete lack of training detail of any of the professionals.  While we hear about nearly every root on the 3.5 kilometer trail that Henrick Raamala trains on every day, we never hear anything concrete about how he trains to drop 4:30 miles into the middle of his races. While the reader learns the source of Gete Wami’s endearing modesty, we hear almost nothing about the training that earned her the 2007 World Major Marathon title. Instead, Robbins fixes her attention on the personal stories of these elites in an attempt to make them more like the finishers who stumble across the finish line hours later.

In this regard, Robbins’ book is quite a feat as she possesses tremendous skill at capturing the story of the other 49,000 people who cross the finish line every year. This is a world of women who talk on cell phones while they race; men dressed as superheroes; and an endless stream of charity causes and custom t-shirts. And Liz Robbins seems at home in the middle of them. She makes their struggles and triumphs—which plod along at about the pace they run—seem exceptionally vivid and meaningful. She details everything from the smell of Patsy’s Pizza as the pack turns onto First Avenue to the gospel harmonies that ring through their heads. This is terra firma for Robbins and she uses the ground to tell some compelling tales that will certainly inspire another wave of runners to discover the strange painful grace of running New York’s unique 26.2 miles. 

So, if the thesis of A Race Like No Other, is really that the elite runners and the ordinary finishers are not all that different then the book is a success. Paula Radcliffe’s victory, as told by Robbins, is much more about her returning from the birth of her daughter than it is about Radcliffe being the best female racer on the course. In this story, the elites become part of the crowd but, sadly, the movement is one way. There is something touching about humanizing the likes of Martin Lel and Paula Radcliffe. But there is something so much more powerful about the untouchable—that peculiar arena where we catch glimpses of the human potential. Robbins does much to make the elite seem more like people; she struggles to make the people see the untouchable beauty of elite racing. This issue here is that Robbins misunderstands—like every network that covers distance running—that some of us just like watching the race. There is a complex, powerful beauty to a two hour race that one only appreciates in time like a full size Van Gogh or Dylan’s Basement Tapes. There is an audience—albeit smaller than the one Robbins had in mind for this book—that is content to simply stare, study and let the inspiration come slowly. But, we will have to wait another day for someone to tell that story in such a way that the even the slowest finishers will appreciate. For now, A Race Like No Other is the best there is and, if nothing else, it will keeps things moving.  

Writer J. David is a runner and former coach. He now lives and writes in Raleigh, NC. He can be reached at [email protected].

LRC Note: A Race Like No Other was named a Top 10 Sports Books of the Year by USA Today and by Booklist

“Robbins, a longtime New York Times sportswriter, offers a broad and loving look of the 39-year-old event through the prism of the 2007 race...The book so seamlessly interweaves the micro and macro stories of the New York marathon that it may require two reads to catch every amusing detail.... Robbins nails the race, painting a broad, impressionistic portrait of what I consider New York’s greatest day.” 
   — Wall Street Journal

*Buy a Race Like No Other for $9.98 at Amazon.com (Where it Gets 4.5 Out of 5 Stars)

See Dane Run by Dane Rauschenberg
Review by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Columbus, Ohio

 There are probably not a lot of people who could run a marathon a week—or frankly would even want to, supposing they were physically up to the task. How many pasta dinners, cups of Gatorade and blackened toenails can a person handle, anyway? But there are plenty of us who could benefit from the motto of someone who did lace up for 26.2 miles every weekend for a year. “There are many things in this world you cannot do,” says Dane Rauschenberg, author of  See Dane Run (The Experience Publishers, 245 pages, $19.90). “Trying is not one of them.”

      Rauschenberg conceives of his 2006 odyssey after getting hooked on the marathon distance but realizing he probably won’t ever run fast at that distance (an arguable point, given the steady stream of near three-hour races he produces). Looking for another goal, he decides to run a race a week. Looking for a cause to support, he connects with L’Arche Mobile, an international organization that works with the disabled. With the discipline of a general preparing for war, Rauschenberg undertakes the task of finding enough marathons to run—it has to be each weekend, no cheating with two races over two days—booking flights, arranging schedules and promoting his charity. He dubs his venture “Fiddy2” (after a mispronunciation of “52”) and gets underway with the Walt Disney World Marathon. He concludes, twelve months and 1,362 miles later, with the Run for the Ranch Marathon in Springfield, Missouri. In-between he takes readers on a tour of some of America’s most famous marathons—Marine Corps and New York—and some of the most obscure: the Frank Maier Marathon in Juneau, Alaska, anyone? Rauschenberg concludes with summaries of the questions he got over the year. My favorite: “Are you going to do all 52 states?”

      So far, so good. The problem with Rauschenberg’s book, as with similar personal accounts of running achievements, is it becomes an insider’s journal that sets much of the experience off limits to the average runner, let alone non-athletic readers. His prose reads like a cross between a long, breezy e-mail to friends and a gossipy Christmas letter to family—not exactly inviting styles. His frequent use of mild profanities like “damn” and “crap” is off-putting. His sexist comments about attractive women he sees during races are offensive. His complaints about air travel—late departures, crying babies—are annoying in the least: it’s not as if anyone is forcing him to do this.

      More troubling, we get little of the local color of the marathons that Rauschenberg runs and a lot—a whole lot—about him: how many times he stopped to use the bathroom, how many times he needed a gel pack, how many times he felt good or crummy. Enough already. It would also have been nice to hear more about the training he did between marathons, and how he managed to squeeze his career as a lawyer into what feels like a full-time job of running and travel. He makes it clear he paid for everything himself, but that doesn’t help the average person trying to figure out a way to do something similar. To add a final insult to injury, the poorly edited book mangles the name of Czechoslovakian running legend Emil Zatopek. It’s a mistake a three-second Google search could have fixed.

      All of this is a shame. Rauschenberg’s heart is in the right place. His accomplishment is remarkable. His mantra about trying is inspirational. Unfortunately, the flaws of See Dane Run obscure his feat and limit his ability to spread a message all of us could benefit from: the only way to test our limits is to try.
*Read More Reviews and Purchase From Amazon.com

      --Andrew Welsh-Huggins writes and runs in Columbus, Ohio. He has written a book on the Death Penalty in Ohio you can find here.


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