“Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley and America’s Greatest Marathon” by John Brant

As I write this, I am a shambles of a man. My legs have been replaced with twin pain sticks. Negotiating stairs requires abseiling equipment. Going to the toilet requires the assistance of a full SWAT team. Yes, I have just completed a marathon…and it went very, very badly. Inevitably this means I am sat on my sofa feeling glum and muttering “never again”, while simultaneously looking up the dates and course maps for “revenge marathons” next year.

Reading Duel in the Sun, an account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, made me realise that, despite my collapse from sub-3 pace to 11 minute mile-ing, I hadn’t actually pushed my physical barriers at all. 1982 became the stuff of legend not only because Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley finished within 2 seconds of each other, but because the toll of the race effectively destroyed both men’s athletic careers. John Brant’s gripping book cleverly interweaves the narrative of that day with the surprising backstory and terrible consequences.

To runners of my generation, Salazar is better known as Mo Farah’s coach, a man with allegedly questionable attitudes towards performance-enhancing medication. Reading this book helped me better appreciate his mindset. In his prime, Salazar was a teenage prodigy and fearsome competitor, winning the New York Marathon 3 times between 1980-2. Tapering was for wimps, and he would do intensive speedwork and flat-out 10ks days before a marathon. In both running and life, he was a man of extremes, and once pushed himself so hard at the Falmouth Road Race that he collapsed and was read his last rites by a Catholic priest.

Following Boston in 1982, he spent years unable to train properly, constantly suffering from mysterious breathing difficulties. It would later transpire that he had lost 40% of his lung function by over-exerting that day. Salazar’s career was cut short because pushing the body to absolute extremes was not sustainable. In the athletes he coaches, it seems he seeks people who can push themselves super-hard, but whom he can help with a more scientific attitude towards recovery and training than he himself followed. The question is, I suppose, where science ends and cheating begins.

For those who think Salazar arrogant and aloof, his family’s story is illuminating. His religious father was a college friend and early supporter of Fidel Castro, but was then forced to flee Cuba when he became increasingly critical of Castro’s communism and godless government. The son inherited his dad’s strong faith and sense of machismo. Salazar’s innate conservatism would occasionally lead him to be shocked by the actions of his fellow athletes…although even I was gobsmacked by the author’s revelation that the race director of the first London Marathon in 1981 had hired “escorts” for the elites!

At that very same London Marathon, Dick Beardsley was responsible for one of the most iconic images in British running. He and Inge Simonsen crossed the finish line in joint first place, holding hands as they did so. Many found the gesture a heart-warming image of solidarity and comradeship. Salazar, tellingly, was disgusted by the lack of zeal to win. Yet Beardsley was no hippy. He ran because he needed to earn, and he entered and won an extraordinary number of races, averaging a marathon every 8-10 weeks. Despite this pedigree, in the pre-race build-up, Salazar didn’t even acknowledge Beardsley as a threat.

That would change during the race itself. For mile after mile, the two men stuck together. One of the best sections in the book highlights racing tactics that you simply cannot see on TV coverage. The surges. The deliberate attempts to disrupt rhythm. The mind games. But neither man was able to break the other.

Beardsley would ultimately push himself too hard that day, overriding his brain’s ‘central governor’. Within weeks he suffered a career-ending injury, continuing a terrible chain of events that would result in years as a pain-killer addict and prescription-fraud felon. I have rarely read a better description of addiction as an illness that the sufferer simply cannot control.

Both men would eventually find redemption. Salazar found a cure of sorts in – of all things – Prozac, which re-set his cortical-enzyme levels, and allowed him to compete in – and win – his final race, the Comrades ultramarathon. Interestingly, thyroid medication – the subject of many of the allegations against him as a coach – was something he tried but which did not help his condition. Taking Prozac exposed him to accusations of using a performance-enhancing drug, although he was public about it, and it was not on the banned list. Perhaps the most significant thing about his Prozac years is that it forced him to admit that he also suffered from depression. For the machismo-ridden “man of valour”, in an era when athletes did not discuss mental health issues, this was a turning point in making him more humble.

Beardsley found a path back to normal life by simply getting caught, which he had craved for years. The legal and rehab processes that followed allowed him to slowly, painfully rebuild his life. He set up an annual half-marathon in Detroit Lakes, and in 2003 he even had a special guest runner: Salazar. The two men who had barely spoken in 1982 had become friends over the years, each recognising something of themselves in the other’s suffering.

This is an enthralling story of the consequences of pushing the human body and mind to its very limits, and what it means to truly race. For all of us runners, it is a cautionary tale that extreme exercise can be seriously damaging to your health, and maybe – just maybe – there are other things in life worth keeping in balance.

Nonsense. I have of course chosen to ignore that message entirely, and have signed up for the Liverpool Marathon in the course of writing this review. What’s the loss of a little lung function in the pursuit of a sub-3?

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