Running to Glory: An unlikely team, a challenging season, and chasing the American Dream. Lyons Press, 2019 – 280 pages.
Running to Glory is an example of immersive journalism, where the author, Sam Mcmanis, documents the 2017 season of the historically competitive Eisenhower High School Cross-Country program. The school is situated in a low-income neighborhood of Yakima, WA., which has a significant Hispanic population. Phil English, head cross country cross at Eisenhower High School and tough Irish expat, has coached the team for 37 years, won 11 state titles and sent over 100 kids to college with running scholarships.
Search for Authenticity
When reading this book, it’s hard not to make an immediate comparison between the Eisenhower High School Cross-Country team and the inspired-by-true-events Disney production of McFarland High School in McFarland, USA.
Both the Eisenhower and McFarland teams are underdogs from low income neighborhoods, who face the additional challenges of being a predominantly Hispanic school competing in a sport largely dominated by a white population. Both teams go on to beat the odds and become powerhouse distance running teams in their respective states.
Although I personally find McFarland U.S.A. to be a fun and inspiring story, Running to Glory makes it clear that it does not have the intention of leaving its readers with a classic “Disneyesque feel.” Whereas Disney movies may tend to over-dramatize, avoid touchy issues and guarantee a happy ending, Running to Glory clarifies from the first few pages that it follows a different objective:
“Sure, in early 2015, Disney had released a movie, McFarland, USA, about a plucky band of 1980s Hispanic farm kids in California who, overcoming the requisite Disneyfied adversity, won a small School cross-country title. But that movie, “based on a true story,” frankly was mostly the stuff of Hollywood, full of embellishment and brimming with poetic license and cheap sentiment. Where, I wondered, could one find the real version, the expanded and nuanced look at a minority high-school team that embraces this so called minor sport and produces winning teams and quality students, year in and year out, for decades on end?”
The book’s holds true to its promise to maintain authenticity and explore in detail relevant issues facing the Eisenhower cross country team. McManis spends over five months immersing himself within the cross country program for the creation of this book. The author’s dedication to observe the cross country team’s practices and meets allows this book to authentically portray relevant issues facing the team. Body image, cultural acceptance and obsession with winning are some of these issues. I recommend reading this book for those seeking a nuanced look into a real story about high school cross country, without the Hollywood flare and drama.
Providing Insight into Real Issues
As a high school and NCAA D1 collegiate runner myself, I can attest that one of the most true and pressing issues presented in this book is that of running-related eating disorders and body image.
Running to Glory dives boldly into this issue, showing the effects on individual athletes and the Eisenhower team as a whole. The book cites a Norwegian study which concludes that 24% of all female endurance athletes have an eating disorder. These athletes may experience symptoms of the Female Athlete Triad, including “disordered eating, amenorrhea (loss of period), and osteoporosis.”
One of the most gripping scenes in the book is a “face á face” between Eisenhower’s head coach, and Dantzel, the number two runner on the girls varsity team, who shows signs of having an eating disorder. The coach directly confronts her about her eating habits, while the author silently watches the tension unfold.
The author’s presence as a character completely disappears in this scene, turning the focus towards Dantzel and her coach. Direct quotes add authenticity to the scene and highlight the coach’s compassion for his athlete and Dantzel’s refusal to acknowledge her disordered eating.
As a result of the immersive journalistic writing style, the author is able to record intimate conversations such as this one without implicating himself in the scene. This writing style helps the reader feel like a passive observer watching scenes unfold. The conversations among athletes and coach feel authentic as a result of the author’s choice to include actual dialogue from the team in the form of quotes.
Real is Refreshing
Hollywood stories make it an objective to provide their audience with constant excitement and drama. Although Running to Glory may not always meet these Hollywood standards, its approach to depict scenes authentically is refreshing. Throughout the book, the author details daily team practice runs, meets without any big losses or wins, and spoiler alert – no dramatic win to cap off the book and the team’s season. Some might respond to the lack of drama with disdain, but in a market saturated with “underdog” winning stories, the author’s commitment to tell a real story makes this book a must- read.