Book Review: When Running Made History

When Running Made History, by Roger Robinson. Syracuse University Press, 2018. Book review by trail runner Laura Clark.  Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY where she is a Children’s Librarian. One of her favorite races is the Greylock Uphill Road Race, an 8 mile hill climb to the 3491′ historic summit house.

Once I finished reading, When Running Made History, I immediately wanted to do an about-face and begin the process all over again. It was difficult to say which was more compelling, the story line of each running event described or Robinson’s insights into the resulting historical implications. I felt the need to re-read and re-define.

Roger Robinson, literary scholar, elite runner, sports commentator and journalist, crisscrossed continents recording sixty years of seminal racing moments that he observed in one or more of these roles. Leading off as a schoolboy in drab, postwar London, he cheered Emil Zatopek’s 10,000 meter Olympic record victory. Robinson cautions that all episodes described—the 1960 drama of the stunning emergence of African dominance in the Rome Olympic Marathon, Paula Radcliffe’s London victory, the Boston bombing—do not represent the totality of events during this time period, but rather snapshotted the ones he bore witness to.

Still, these are by no means just play-by-play descriptions, but taking off points as Robinson explores how individual events “had a significance beyond the result of who won and who lost.” Thus, he transcends the act of placing one foot ahead of the other to offer a sense of how running, by its very place as a global phenomenon, has defined and affected history itself.

Each episode has its own chapter and while it is tempting to skip ahead to events that hold personal significance, Robinson’s exploration of historical details can best be experienced by an initial cover-to-cover read. For me, as a United States citizen and New York State resident, a military wife who has lived in Europe and the Pacific and a now aging woman, certain events stand out and make me proud to define myself as a runner.

For example, the Boilermaker 15K weekend struck a personal chord as my brother-in-law has a farm near Utica, New York. The Boilermaker literally rejuvenated a sagging community, much in the way the Leadville 100 Mile redefined Leadville. Ownership of this race truly belongs to the residents, who host thousands of elite and everyday runners during Boilermaker week. But that is just the beginning. Profits are used to fund a gradual revival of city districts along the route and the cadre of volunteers stand ready to accomplish a wide variety of community projects whenever there is an emergency. As the emphasis on charity increased, the ranks of women runners swelled since they could now feel that training was not “selfish” time taken from their families.

Robinson has also noted how mass running celebrations have served as an affirmation in the wake of cataclysmic events. Witness the Berlin Marathon that breached The Wall, the NYC Marathon after the 9/11 disaster and Meb Keflezighi’s run of redemption after the Boston bombing. Such occasions furnish a constructive means of demonstrating grief and beginning the healing process, all on a world-wide stage. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that our Meb is in fact one of the many immigrants who has been welcomed into the running community, fulfilling the American Dream for all of us. Hopefully, this inclusion will be allowed to continue.

Many races discover themselves at the forefront of their country’s green initiatives and this is due, no doubt in part, to the fact that runners are eager to spend large chunks of their day outside. Another area of society in which running has been influential is in the acknowledgement of aging as an opportunity to celebrate potential. With age group categories now extending into the 80’s and beyond, runners are encouraged to overcome the rocker-on-the- porch stereotype, leading the way for social acceptance in all areas of life.

So yes, while you will discover much about our recent history by reading Robinson’s book, his account is so much more than that. It is an opportunity to explore how running continues to shape history and an involved answer to the next time someone queries, “Why do you run?”

Postscript: Embracing Robinson’s line of thinking, a new exhibit has just opened at the National September 11 Memorial Museum detailing the impact of sports, including the NYC Marathon and the 2002 Olympics, after the tragic attacks. The exhibit runs through the summer of 2019 and is worthy of a visit and at least a partial re-read.

Book review by avid trail runner Laura Clark (pictured above).