Book Review: “From Coal Mine to Finish Line” by James McLatchie
By Jonathan Gault
September 11, 2020
A few minutes after the girls’ race at 2018 Nike Cross Nationals concluded, Jim McLatchie was ushered toward the awards stand. The Summit High School (Bend, Ore.) girls cross country team, the team he coached with his wife Carol, had officially finished in the top three, with the order of the top three set for a dramatic reveal on the live broadcast. As he walked over, his athletes asked how he thought they had done. McLatchie did not miss a beat.
“We won the fucking championship.”
That exchange tells you a lot about Jim McLatchie. Blunt. Occasionally profane. But usually, he knows what he’s talking about: Summit did indeed win the girls’ championship, ending Fayetteville-Manlius streak at four in a row and becoming just the second school from outside New York to claim the title.
Now 79 years old, McLatchie has lived quite a life. One of eight children, he spent the first 11 years of his life sharing a one-room house with his family in the Scottish coal mining village of Glenbuck. After a few years working at the mines as a teen, he took up distance running, became one of the best in Scotland, and earned a scholarship to Lamar University in Texas, where he once beat a young Jim Ryun in a mile. Eventually settling in Houston, McLatchie founded the Houston Harriers running team and transitioned to coaching, where he coached three Olympians and a half-dozen others to World Championship berths before moving to Bend and becoming one of the top high school coaches in the nation.
After overcoming prostate cancer, a heart attack, and a stroke, McLatchie’s family encouraged him to work on a memoir, which he published in March: From Coal Mine to Finish Line. While McLatchie’s life story is interesting, unfortunately, several issues prevent the book from reaching its full potential.
In addition to several typos and a few factual errors, there are two major problems. First: details. McLatchie clearly drew upon detailed notes from his racing and coaching career, even providing splits for half-century-old races. But in other areas, the lack of detail is stunning. It’s evident McLatchie cares deeply for Carol — whom he also coached to a 2:35 marathon pb — and his two daughters, Heather and Amy. Yet we learn almost nothing about them as people.
McLatchie has traveled to races all over the world, and he does share some good stories — his adventures at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton are delightful, including watching a friend of his patch up Brendan Foster‘s feet prior to Foster’s gold-medal run in the 10,000. But in general, these anecdotes are too few and too short.
From Coal Mine to Finish Line‘s other main problem is that it doesn’t flow nicely. It’s a fairly simple read, but it can grow tedious. For most of the 280-page book, each chapter is dedicated to a single year, and they mostly blend together. Too often, McLatchie lists race result after race result when he’d be better served zeroing in on one or two and providing additional context.
One thing readers will enjoy: McLatchie tells it like it is, and he doesn’t pull punches. If someone’s an asshole, he calls them an asshole; you always know exactly what McLatchie is thinking. This honesty extends to the 46-page appendix at the end of the book, where McLatchie includes training logs from his own career as well as athletes he’s coached. For Summit HS, he shares his entire coaching philosophy as well as the team’s final month of training leading up to its NXN triumph in 2018. For that alone, the book has some value.
McLatchie’s, undoubtedly, is a life worth documenting. From Coal Mine to Finish Line offers glimpses of it, but not enough.
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Other book reviews by LetsRun.com can be found here.