“Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight

I read a lot of business books and listen to podcasts about entrepreneurs. I know, I know. That makes me a Boring-Arse Business B*stard. Forgive me, but until I find a way to monetise this website of fart joke reviews, I need to have a day job. Ugh, I just used the word ‘monetise’. Yes, I hate myself, although I at least spelt it without a -ize suffix.

Anyway, having imbibed a lot of business literature, I am aware that virtually every successful company has a foundation myth. Some sort of story about how it emerged by accident or eureka moment, or how it was built from the ground up while the founder lived in a shipping container. Examples include Apple being started in Steve Jobs’ garage, Clif Bars starting after the founder did a day-long cycle ride and hated the energy bars he took with him, or the first bookings for Airbnb literally being for an airbed (and breakfast), so that the founders could pay their exorbitant San Francisco rent.

Shoe Dog is effectively one big foundation myth, telling the story of Nike from Phil Knight’s original vision in 1962 through to going public in 1980 and making him a multi-millionaire.

By ‘myth’ I don’t mean that there isn’t truth here, just that the sharp edges have been smoothed out. Scores are settled, we hear one side of the various arguments – often legal in nature – and the question of Nike’s culpability in sweatshops is relegated to a brief “we try our best to improve things” statement towards the end.

Accept this for what it is – a story. And what a well-written, entertaining story it is. In 1968 the sports shoe world was dominated by Adidas and Puma, and hardly anyone ran for fun. It was a terrible time to start a sports shoe company, but during his MBA Phil Knight hit on the realisation that Japanese shoes were of good quality and cheaper than the established brands. He bluffed his way into an exclusive distribution deal with the Japanese firm Onitsuka, and began selling their Tiger shoes in the US out the back of his car. One of the surprises of the book is that Nike did not create their own products for many years, and much of the early section of the book is dedicated to the pitfalls of doing business in Japan.

For those readers interested in running their own business, the story of Nike becomes a lesson in the importance of understanding money…as in really understanding it. When Knight established the company, he had very little cash, and only one bank willing to lend him any capital. Even once it was experiencing double-digit growth and generating $8m a year, he still only had one bank willing to lend him cash and struggled to pay the bills; Nike nearly went under in 1975 when all of their cheques bounced simultaneously. Shoe Dog is one of the best textbooks I have ever read on liquidity, cash flow and how fluctuating exchange rates can seriously screw you over, no matter how successful your business seems.

If that all sounds rather dry, trust me when I say it reads like an adventure story. There is some running in here of course. Knight himself points out the irony that half the leadership of Nike in its heyday were morbidly obese, but in the 1970s they had the most famous runner in the world on staff: Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Shoe Dog provides a much better description of Pre’s appeal than in Tom Jordan’s biography: “Most runners are introverts, but Pre was an obvious, joyous extrovert…He was always putting on a show, always conscious of the spotlight”. As an amateur runner, Pre was not paid to run, and therefore lived in a trailer on food stamps. By offering him a job, Nike preserved his amateur status and lifted him out of poverty…but in a cruel twist paid for the fast car that would ultimately kill him.

There are other good stories here too. Nike’s breakthrough shoe was invented when coach Bill Bowerman used his waffle iron to create a new kind of sole. The terrible alternative company names that were floated before they settled on the name of the Greek goddess of victory. Dimension Six anyone? The fact that in 1977 no-one thought anyone would sponsor an athlete for $100k, only for Adidas to nab Illie Nastase, the bad boy of tennis, leading to today’s sponsorship arms race.

But for me, the biggest thing I took away from this is that, when years later Phil Knight was staying at Michael Jordan’s house, he picked up the phone in the night and was offered room service. Yes, Michael Jordan has 24-hour room service in his own flipping house. Of all the stories in this book, I really, really hope that one isn’t a myth.

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“Tea with Mr Newton: 100,000 Miles – the Longest ‘Protest March’ in History” by Rob Hadgraft

Have I mentioned that I ran a sub-3-hour marathon earlier this year? It’s one of my proudest running achievements and one, indirectly, I probably owe to a stubborn old goat who died in 1959. Arthur Newton (1883-1959) was a trailblazer in ultra-running and responsible for placing an emphasis on high mileage and The Long Slow Run in training for distance events. Later coaches (such as Arthur Lydiard) would take these principles and refine them, all leading to me running 80-mile weeks in the early months of 2018 and achieving something I once thought impossible.

Newton’s story is remarkable because of what an eccentric crank he was. He only took up serious running in his late 30s, but then proceeded to win South Africa’s Comrades race 4 years in a row, and subsequently set several world records at the 100 mile-distance.

What prompted him to run was entirely idiosyncratic; his cotton and tobacco farm in colonial-era South Africa was failing, and he placed the blame on the government, whose policy of providing land to native South Africans around his farm was – from Newton’s perspective – making commercial farming impossible. There’s no escaping his racism here – Newton would use derogatory language to describe black Africans throughout his life. This, combined with his stiff-upper-lip formality means that in Rob Hadgraft’s excellent biography Newton comes across as an easy man to admire, but a difficult man to like. (See earlier reviews of Hadgraft’s books The Little Wonder, Deerfoot, and Plimsolls on Eyeballs Out).

Newton wanted the government to change its policy, or at least give him decent compensation, but he felt that he would never get a fair hearing while he remained a nobody. This introverted, limelight-avoiding man therefore decided that he needed to become famous, and the simplest way to do it was to become a successful runner. Obviously. At this point I was reminded of a scene in the Oscar-worthy masterpiece “Snakes on a Plane”, where the crime lord is asked whether he is certain that he wishes to go through with the titular plan, and his response is that “we have exhausted all other options”. Really? What about Bubonic Badgers on a Bus? Killer Kite-Flying Kittens?

But the extraordinary thing is that he achieved the fame he desired. After winning the first of his Comrades victories in 1922 he became one of the most famous men in the country…but still couldn’t get the government to change course. This became a recurring theme in Newton’s life – fame but no riches. Eventually this strict believer in the purity of amateurism was forced by poverty to switch to a paid professional career, joining the inaugural trans-America run, nicknamed the Bunion Derby, in 1928. This turned out to be a shambles of an event – effectively a travelling circus – that lost money and was unable to pay prizes to any of the 55 runners who completed the 84-day fiasco. Newton himself dropped out through injury early on, but he stayed and became a mentor to the other runners, forming a particularly close bond with working class runner Peter Gavuzzi The history of their friendship is chronicled in more depth in another excellent book “Running for their Lives”. Gavuzzi and Newton went on to form a pro-running partnership, competing in Canada.

Newton would go on to set his final 100-mile record in 1934 at the age of 51, and then he retired. Over the course of his 10-year career he had run an extraordinary 100,000 miles. Even in retirement he was running 600 a month! In later years he became a deliberately controversial columnist, with his views on the pointlessness of speedwork at odds with those of other coaches. Although Newton believed in training slowly, it’s worth pointing out that he was no plodder in races; during the London-Brighton 52-mile race he covered the marathon distance in 2:42.

In death he is now known as the Father of Comrades, and at the halfway point in the race runners will go pass Arthur’s Seat, where legend has it that doffing your cap to the great man will lead to a strong second half of the race. For my part, I will thank him for persuading me that running all those snowy 20- and 15- milers in February and March would be worth it in the end. Did I mention I broke 3 hours?

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“Strides: Running through history with an unlikely athlete” by Benjamin Cheever

Running “makes a wide variety of people palatable to each other” says Benjamin Cheever in this memoir about his lifelong passion. Well, it doesn’t sound to me like he’s been in a fast-moving pack of men – and I do mean men – during a 10k. By mile 2 it’s like they’ve been scoffing baked beans all night. The sheer amount of methane that gets emitted is staggering, let alone the frog chorus of orchestral flatulence. The only thing palatable about a fast farty group is that it gives you an incentive to head to the front and push the pace, if only so you’re not downwind of several tiny pairs of Ron Hill shorts.

Strides is one of those running books I pick up occasionally on Amazon at random for 1p. I knew nothing about it before reading, and was not familiar with Cheever himself, who is apparently a successful novelist with an even-more famous father. I hadn’t heard of him either.

It’s a ramble through a life in running, interspersed with stories of running in history. Cheever himself is easy company, and his attitude to running – sociable, yet still mildly competitive even in his veteran years – is far more familiar to me and most runners I know than the knit-your-own-snacks-bollocks (see earlier review) of some writers I could mention.

Structurally, Strides is a mess, but it had just enough “Did You Know” stuff in it to keep me interested. One fact that struck me is that exercise science only started as a field in 1953. Professor Jeremy Morris found that London bus drivers, who spent all day sitting, had significantly more heart attacks than the conductors, who ran up and down stairs all day. The connection between exercise and heart health – so obvious now – was finally established.

There are some interesting chapters about Kenya (but Adharanand Finn’s book is better) and the wine-soaked Marathon du Médoc (which went straight on my bucket list), but surprisingly for me the best chapter was about running in the US army. Strides was published in 2007, with huge numbers of American soldiers still stationed in Iraq. Where I am a bleeding-heart pacifist liberal, Cheever is unapologetically pro-military, and his descriptions of the various men and women he met challenged my assumptions about who signs up for the US army and why they serve. In one scene that stayed with me, he asks a Princeton-educated lieutenant if he should salute a high-ranking officer, and is told no – the US army believes Cheever, as a civilian in a democracy, outranks everybody in the army.

We learn about how running is an integral part of army life, with every rank of soldier expected to pass the Army Physical Fitness test, which includes a 2-mile run, at least once a year. To get full marks, the run needs to be completed in 13mins, which is a decent pace…but reassuringly feasible for the likes of me. Many soldiers take their running far more seriously than just passing the test, and the Boston and Honolulu marathons even run satellite versions of their races on US army bases in Afghanistan and Baghdad, complete with official t-shirts, numbers and timing gear.

Cheever ended up running a 10k in Iraq, running on the pavement around Saddam’s ornamental lakes, coming first in his age category

He declines to mention how fragrant the race was.

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“Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human” by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

When I posted a link to my review of Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” on an earlier incarnation of this site, someone commented that they couldn’t stand Jurek and his “knit your own snacks bollocks”. Bit harsh I thought. I liked Jurek’s book – especially his guacamole recipe, which I make to this day – although I found sections of it troubling, and I’m not convinced anyone has time to mill their own flour.

Still, the phrase has stuck in my head. Anytime I read a running book that wants me to worship the earth beneath my toes, subsist entirely on wild leaves, or is just generally pretentious, I mentally write “knit your own snacks bollocks” in the margins.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid is an English Literature lecturer and ‘psychojographer’, and his book explores the links between the body, movement and landscape. Footnotes interweaves his personal running journey, scientific research, philosophy, and ideas from literature and history. Throughout he explores why the simple act of motion brings us such extensive but elusive-to-define rewards.

Footnotes came highly recommended, but I have to admit it trod a very fine line for me, teetering between knowledgeable and knitting needles. It doesn’t help that Cregan-Reid is a barefoot running advocate, with all the certainty of a convert. The idea that there is a “right” way to run (or to eat) irks me, particularly when writers seem by implication to be condemning the rest of us for our foolish high-carb eating, trainer-wearing ways. Both Running Free and Natural Born Heroes annoyed me for the same reason. As he later admits, Cregan-Reid is not someone who enjoys races and the competitive club-running side of the sport, which colours his outlook and makes him a different sort of runner to me.

The book is saved by the fact that the more scholarly elements are genuinely interesting and accessible. I learnt that a ‘black mirror’ was the colloquial name for an 18th-century gadget called a Claude Glass. It was a pocket-sized convex mirror, with a tint that gave landscapes a ‘painterly’ quality. Artists would turn their back on the landscape and look at the scene in the mirror instead, just as today’s tourists view the world through smartphones. Distracted Claude Glass users were known to fall off cliffs, showing that nothing changes.

The section on the history of treadmills is arguably the best part of the book. As all those who love running know, the treadmill is an instrument of torture, used as a last resort when it is impossible to run outdoors. What I didn’t know was that the treadmill was genuinely invented as a tool of punishment. In 1778 the Hard Labour Bill set out the concept that, instead of sitting in restful confinement,  prisoners should undergo toil of ‘the hardest and most servile kind, in which drudgery is chiefly required’. However, this couldn’t mean taking work away from the innocent and free, so in 1817 Sir William Cubitt invented the ‘treadwheel’ or ‘Discipline Mill’, on which up to twenty men would climb on together. It’s most famous victim? Oscar Wilde, who worked the treadwheel for as much as six hours a day and wrote about it in the Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,

And sweated on the mill:

But in the heart of every man

Terror was lying still”

Overall, I’m giving Footnotes the benefit of the doubt and saying it stays on the right side of the KYOSB divide, but it’s a close-run thing. Curious to know what others think. Comments below the line please…

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“Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” by Matthew Algeo

The human brain can be very creative when bored. On day 3 of a particularly boozy stag weekend, a group of us found ourselves in a Munich park with zero desire to keep drinking, but without a football or other traditional forms of entertainment either. Within minutes we had invented “shoeball”. A target is nominated, and then you have two chances to get as close to the target as possible. By tossing your shoes. We learnt a lot of things that day. Cowboy boots have a size advantage but suffer from “floppy trajectory” syndrome. Trainers are too light and are typically thrown too far. The humble loafer is the best all-rounder, combining solid handling with a stable landing. By the end of the afternoon we had a small league up and running, and a Korean family had delightedly joined in and later sent us photos of our “George W Bush Memorial Game”.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this may explain the peculiar appeal of pedestrianism in the 19th century. Pedestrianism was essentially competitive long distance walking (and sometimes running), and a forerunner of today’s ultramarathon scene. But unlike today’s ultras, pedestrianism events could regularly attract huge crowds of 10,000 people. There was even an infamous riot in New York City at one event when spectators couldn’t get in.

Why? As society became more urban and industrialised, people found that they had leisure time, which was a completely new concept. The problem was that there were very few things to do in that time, as most forms of mass entertainment were in their infancy. As Algeo explains: “the public was so desperate for entertainment, especially affordable entertainment, that watching half-dead men stagger in circles for days on end was, if not absorbingly entrancing, at least an unobjectionable way to kill time”.

Algeo does a fine job of explaining the appeal of pedestrianism, and conveying some of the genuine excitement that these events generated. As with all great eras in sports, a significant rivalry emerged that raised the appeal. The dandy-ish and extrovert American Edward Payson Weston competed against the taciturn Irish immigrant Dan O’Leary in a number of the highest profile events, and they were the Borg-McEnroe, Hunt-Lauder, Coe-Ovett of their day.

These were serious athletes. The blue-riband event was a 6-day walking contest, where the top participants would regularly walk more than 500 miles. On a 200m track. Indoors. While the audience smoked. Pedestrians were masters of sleep deprivation in ways that perhaps only today’s transatlantic rowers are comparable.

One of the joys of this immensely readable book is that Algeo shows how the sport reflected its times, but sometimes subverted them. Women such as Madame Ada Anderson competed in their own pedestrian events, much to the horror of the moral guardians of the day. Despite contemporary commentators (including Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame) arguing that women’s bodies were not designed for endurance walking, in 1879 Madame Anderson walked a ¼ mile lap every 15mins for 1000 consecutive blocks of 15mins. She completed the feat 28 days and 2700 laps later. It would be more than 100 years before women would be allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon.

Equally notable was that one of the most popular stars of pedestrianism, Frank Hart, was African American. This was the era just following the Civil War, with slavery only recently abolished, and more than 60 years before Jackie Robinson would become the first black player in major league baseball. During his career in pedestrianism, Boston-born Frank Hart would set a world record of 565 miles for the 6-day event, win the equivalent of $500,000 (in today’s money) in a single race, and become the most discussed athlete of his day.

In 1880 pedestrianism was the most popular sport in the English-speaking world, with its stars depicted on some of the very first cigarette cards. Within 20 years the sport was dead. This was partly because other forms of entertainment took off. In Britain the Factory Act of 1878 gave workers Saturday afternoons off, which had the unexpected consequence of allowing football – previously an aristocratic pursuit – to become the nation’s favourite sport. The invention of the bicycle also put a huge dent in the popularity of pedestrianism, as a ‘cycling mania’ took over the industrial world, and cycling races offered faster paced excitement (and crashes) than pedestrianism.

However, pedestrianism also died because its credibility became eroded with accusations of match fixing. Gambling was a huge element of the sport, and criminal groups increasingly tried to determine the outcome. The association with gambling also brought pedestrianism into conflict with religious groups and other moral crusaders, who eventually succeeded in banning any 6-day race in the US. They are still banned today.

There are lessons here to be learned for today’s sport of athletics. Sports need to move with the time and protect their integrity, or else audiences will vote with their feet and find new forms of entertainment. Shoeball for the 2024 Olympics anyone?

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