|Photograph of Salazar in the 1982 Boston Marathon, courtesy of A.P. Photo.|
The first sporting event that I remember caring about was the 1982 Boston Marathon. I was six years old, which is an age when most sports make no sense: the players wear masks, are freakishly tall, or contend with complicated matters like strike zones. But children know how to run and they know how to race. There’s little competition that’s purer than two men—Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, in this case—racing side by side for 26.2 miles. Beardsley wore a white cap; Salazar wore red shorts; they ran so close together that they seemed like one.
Salazar was twenty-three years old, and full of swagger. “I’m the fastest runner in the race,” he told reporters beforehand. He was the world-record holder in the event, and he seemed both indestructible and indomitable. He drank almost no water during the race, and he stayed right on Beardsley’s shoulder as the two surged through the Newton Hills. In the last half mile, Salazar sprinted out in front. Beardsley tried to counter, but a motorcycle cut him off. Beardsley swerved, accelerated, and almost caught back up. But Salazar won by two seconds. I vividly recall my outrage: couldn’t they just do it again, fair and square, without the motorcycle? Salazar, who was nearly six feet tall, had begun the race at one hundred and forty pounds and ended it at one hundred and thirty. He collapsed at the finish line; to revive him, paramedics administered six quarts of intravenous saline.
Competitive running is a relentless sport. The training usually happens alone, and failure is personal. When you lose, there’s usually no teammate or referee to blame. When your skills start to decline, your watch lets you know by exactly how much. Perhaps not surprisingly, for both Salazar and Beardsley, the race was more of an ending than a beginning. Beardsley never ran so fast again, and he lost much of his life to an addiction to painkillers. Salazar won one more marathon, six months later. But soon his body fell apart. His stride had always been chaotic, and he was never a graceful runner. Eventually, everything began to break; he won his last marathon at the age of twenty-four. (This is the same age at which Sammy Wanjiru, the subject of a Profile in this week’s magazine and perhaps the greatest marathoner ever, died in a drunken fall.) For years—through endless surgeries and thousands of vitamin pills—Salazar tried futilely to reverse his decline. As he writes in his new autobiography, “14 Minutes,” “My workouts turned slower and slower, more and more of a chore, while my emotional distance from my family widened and my black reverie—my daydreams of definitive catastrophe—grew longer.” Running had made the young Alberto Salazar cool. (This is often the case: track is the rare sport where success comes to the scrawniest, and it has helped thousands of dorks at thousands of high schools.) In rather short time, it made him a world champion. And then, after the injuries, it made him a little crazy.
Salazar followed his burnout with wandering. He sought spiritual guidance in Yugoslavia, briefly returned to health and won an ultramarathon in South Africa, hurt himself again, half-heartedly went into the restaurant business, and eventually found himself back where he had gone to college: in Eugene, Oregon. There he became a track coach—a terrible one at first, who was too focussed on getting his runners to use obscure gadgets and sleep in altitude tents. But then, somehow, he became a great one. He is now perhaps the most successful distance-running coach in America. One athlete he has coached for a decade, Galen Rupp, is the fastest ten-thousand-metre runner in American history. A more recent recruit, Mo Farah, will be a favorite for a gold medal in this summer’s London Olympics.
Part of Salazar’s success is that he learned to teach his runners to avoid the mistakes he made. When you watch Farah or Rupp run, they look like they’re gliding. There’s no wasted motion, and nothing seems forced. They would fit in on the Kalahari. In 2010, Jennifer Kahn wrote a piece for the magazine about Salazar, explaining his obsession over how his runners kick their legs, swing their arms, and angle their thumbs. At the time, Salazar was training a running prodigy named Dathan Ritzenhein for the New York marathon. One of Salazar’s principal goals was to make Ritzenhein land more on the front of his foot than on his heel. The idea is somewhat counterintuitive. Why land on the thin, bony part of your foot instead of the large, fleshy part? Is it really good to put so much stress on your metatarsals, the little bones in the front of your feet? But Salazar was convinced. In an interview with Runner’s World, he said, “There has to be one best way of running. It’s got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that—the way I did in my career—it can be a big handicap. Dathan can’t be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners… You show me someone with bad form, and I’ll show you someone who’s going to have a lot of injuries and a short career.”
The search for the one best way of running is what drives Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run,” which came out in 2009 and has sold at least half a million copies since. The book tells the story of a group of larger-than-life ultramarathoners, with names like Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted, and the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, a tribe of men and women who spend their lives racing, in sandals, through canyons—except for when they come to the United States to win hundred-mile races. It’s a rollicking narrative, a romanticization of a distant group of people, and a broadside against American shoe companies. “Born to Run” is not the best book on the intricacies of the sport—my pick would be Timothy Noakes’s “Lore of Running”; for a training guide, I’d select Scott Douglas and Pete Pfitzinger’s “Advanced Marathoning”—but it’s certainly the most accessible and the best selling.
In McDougall’s view, Americans have been duped by running-shoe companies, eager to sell us shoes with ever more cushioning in the heel at ever higher prices. Modern running shoes, McDougall writes, are sort of like plaster casts, inhibiting free movement, and pushing us into all sorts of bad habits, like landing entirely on those well-cushioned heels. He started researching the book because he wanted to know why so many runners—himself included—get hurt. The answer is that our shoes did it. McDougal’s book has changed the way that Americans run, and it has led to a surge in sales for thin running shoes, or even “five-fingered” shoes that make someone look something like a lizard. If you haven’t seen these shoes before, head to a Manhattan track on a sunny afternoon. Or look for the people stepping on buses to remote corners of Mexico to search out the Tarahumara.
Running is indeed a sport defined by injuries. Each stride puts stress across the body in the same way every time. Our shins splint, our tibias fracture, our patella tendons become inflamed. Part of the problem is that the thing that injures a runner—running—is the very thing that makes him better. Basketball players may get injured by crashing into people as they rebound, but they can improve by shooting jump shots alone in a gym. You improve at running by running. Many of the sport’s injuries are chronic. And in those cases, there’s no question that a minimalist shoe, or running barefoot, can help. Chronic problems typically derive from some ingrained habit. Maybe you twist your hips in a way that puts pressure on the outside of the leg. A radical change in shoe, and a radical change in stride, changes the habit. The new techniques are better just for being different. Just as the Atkins diet makes you lose weight quickly, barefoot running can quickly make your knee pain go away.
But there’s a danger. Our ancestors may have run barefoot, but they didn’t do it on asphalt and concrete. They didn’t do it on roads caked with broken glass. They also didn’t have potato chips and soda, or bodies shaped by days spent in offices. Running is an extremely complex physical motion. Changing your shoes might help, but the way stress is distributed across your body depends a great deal, too, on how your hold your head, and even how you swing your arms. Ultimately, we don’t really know whether the movement spurred by “Born to Run” will make us more or less hurt. My guess is that, ten years from now, we’ll see it as a useful corrective. Runners will spend much more time thinking about their form, and there will be lines of well-tested and well-designed thin shoes. But most of us, particularly those of who live in cities, will be training in relatively thick shoes. When Salazar started adjusting Ritzenhein’s form, he came down with stress fractures in his metatarsals. He’s been battling injuries since.
Lizard shoes or not, the real virtue of McDougal’s book is that it reminded readers about our primal connection to running, the purest of sports. It reminded us that there are different ways to run—some of which hurt our bodies more than others. And it gave us new ways of appreciating distance running. It has, in other words, made hundreds of thousands of people look at the sport again, with the same excitement that one little six-year-old kid had for the great duel between Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar.
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