By Jonathan Gault
April 22, 2020
Over the past 100 years, the world records in the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters have dropped from 14:36 and 30:58 to 12:37 and 26:17, two times that still don’t look quite real, even a decade and a half after they were set. During that period, 10 men have held both records. And it is through that lens that Richard Amery chooses to trace the history of modern distance running in his book, The Five and Ten Men: Ten Men Who Redefined Distance Running.
Amery examines each member of that exclusive club, those men who held both the 5,000 and 10,000 world records, each chapter revealing that era’s contributions to pushing the sport forward, from the pride and determination of Finns Paavo Nurmi and Taisto Maki to the interval training revolution ushered in by Emil Zatopek and Sandor Iharos to the altitude-based professionalized approach of Ethiopians Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele. By its conclusion, we learn not just how Bekele reached 12:37 and 26:17, but how the sport got there as well.
There are no interviews, not much (if any) new reporting here; rather Amery’s accomplishment lies in synthesizing the information that does exist into a single book. For Gebrselassie and Bekele, this is a relatively straightforward task, and while those chapters are fine, they’re also very familiar for anyone who has followed the sport over the past 20 years. The book’s true value lies in the early chapters, detailing not just the athletes’ accomplishments, but the geopolitical and cultural circumstances into which they were born — and which ultimately shaped them into legends. Between that and the detailed race recaps and biographical information, it’s clear a lot of research went into this book.
For instance, Amery astutely notes that the first three men to break both records following World War II — Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, Iharos of Hungary, and Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union — were all Eastern Bloc athletes and members of their country’s armed forces. They were, essentially, professionals, decades before professionalization was formally legalized for their Western Olympic competitors.
“At a time when there were still shortages of basic items, and life was harsh for many, membership of the forces guaranteed regular meals, time to train, and time off for competitions,” Amery writes.
Amery also highlights some holy shit moments that (at least to this US-based reader) have been lost to history because they were achieved long ago in a far-off land. By reading this book, you learn about the day in 1924 that Nurmi broke the 1500 and 5,000 world records within the span of 90 minutes. Or the day in 1939 that Maki won a local club 1500 in a Helsinki suburb in the morning and became the first man to break 30:00 for 10,000 in the afternoon. Henry Rono‘s 1981 season was not so long ago, but it’s still fun to read about a year in which an overweight, out-of-shape Rono began his European track campaign by running 15:40 in Finland and ended it by running 13:06 to break the world record.
Amery has graciously allowed us to publish that chapter of the book for you to read here: LRC When Henry Rono Went from 15:40 to a 13:06 World Record in Two Months.
Amery tells the story of hundreds of races in the book — every major championship for all 10 subjects, plus most of the other races in their prime. The details and analysis are insightful, but in this respect, the book’s format occasionally works against it. Several of the athletes featured in the book overlapped with one another, and because each chapter is a standalone story, some races and details are told and re-told. Additionally, there are some minor factual errors and a few cases where Amery could provide a deeper background (he has a habit of introducing athletes by last name only). Still, all things considered, the book is an impressive feat.
The Five and Ten Men is an entertaining journey through the sport’s past, and a valuable resource for anyone looking to brush up on their distance running history. If you know names like Nurmi, Ron Clarke, and Lasse Viren but not the stories behind them, then add The Five and Ten Men to your quarantine reading list.
Four out of five stars.
To order The Five and Ten Men, and support LRC in the process, click here. You can read an excerpt below, detailing Henry Rono‘s 1981 and 1982 seasons — including a shocking 5,000m world record and a classic duel with Alberto Salazar at Hayward Field. Other book reviews by LetsRun.com can be found here.