Review by Ben Peel
Although Cameron Stracher in, Kings of the Road, writes about the American running boom which occurred in the 1970s many of his arguments about the sport are still pertinent to this day and age and not just in the States.
It is a fascinating look at the nascent period of running before it turned into the boom of the eighties and which, although Stracher disagrees, continues to this day. Stracher places the development in its historical context as the more innocent free loving America of the sixties gave way to a darker introspection as the country struggled with Civil Rights, Vietnam and gender equality. Indeed up until the early 1970s many people still regarded long distance running as harmful to women’s health.
Stracher brings out the rivalries and very different backgrounds of his three main protagonists very effectively and shows how the rise of running dovetailed with the development of better equipment and training methods. It was also an era still overshadowed by the conflict of amateurism and professionalism which Stracher argues was part of the problem when the boom turned to bust.
According to Stracher long distance running entered the public’s consciousness in February 1978 when Jim Fixx’s, The Complete Book of Running became the number one best selling non-fiction title. That he dropped dead of a heart attack in 1984 aged 52 was used by some to mark the end of the running boom. However becoming a runner, after being an overweight heavy smoker before, probably added to his life expectancy. There are a lot of interesting digressions along the way such as Stracher’s dismissal of bare foot running saying that today, ‘only a fool or fanatic would train for a marathon in bare feet, and the number of elite athletes racing barefoot is exactly zero.’
As interesting as the book is I disagree with Stracher’s overall theme that the running boom also inevitably led to its downfall. Stracher’s main contention in conclusion is that the growth of running has slowed the median pace in a typical race and that commercialization has `ruined’ the sport as it has become more about the mass participants than the elite runners. As more people enter races then the average pace will be slower. It is true that some marathons such as London have become too commercial in the amount of charity places available and there has been controversy over payment to some athletes to take part. There are plenty of races that promote the taking part rather than the running with their emphasis on goody bags and on site retail. There are also plenty of running clubs that put on small scale no frills events as well which are about the running.
Does this mean that the boom is over though? Surely in this sedentary age any form of running is to be encouraged and applauded and as Stracher himself says in his final paragraph;
‘In the end, running fast is not about fame or fortune. It is not even about winning. It is about pushing the human body to the limit…It is about staring at death and beating it back, kicking it hard to the other side of the road. “No, not today. I’ve got a race to run.'”