Category Archives: Memoirs

“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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“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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“Don’t Stop Me Now: 26.2 Tales of a Runner’s Obsession” by Vassos Alexander

Running – it’s just brilliant isn’t it? And marathons? They’re pretty brilliant too. And running through the night? It’s a bit tough, but ultimately brilliant. Okay, I’m being a bit facetious but that’s basically the gist of this memoir-cum-celebration of running by the BBC Radio 2 sports reporter and all-round nice guy, Vassos Alexander.

Don’t Stop Me Now is structured around the 26.2 miles of the particularly gruelling marathon that Vassos ran at the end of an Ironman. Each chapter opens with a section revealing what was going on in his mind and body during a particular mile. Vassos then talks about a different aspect of running, such as his favourite races, going barefoot or nutrition, before finishing each chapter with a short contribution by a different guest writer.

And what a cast of guest writers it is! It’s a Who’s Who of celebrity British running, including Paula Radcliffe, the blokes who present Marathon Talk, Alistair Brownlee and Helen Skelton from Blue Peter. My favourite contribution was from former US 100m world record holder Donovan Bailey, who says “I decided to go for a 22-mile run, which as a sprinter, is just the worst thing in the history of the world”. This can only be a reference to him taking on the Man vs Horse race in 2015, where one of my clubmates said by the end he looked (and I’m paraphrasing here) “rough as a cow pat”.

So yes, it’s impossible not to smile at this book – Vassos is so relentlessly positive and chirpy. That being said, I did find his reference to a horrible-sounding long-term injury sustained in the Ironman somewhat at odds with the tone of the rest of the book: “my calf took weeks to recover and my knee never has…that left knee still hurts most days, appallingly so if I twist or jar it”.

But then he lets us know that he used the downtime from running to do other sports, such as open water swimming “which was (and is) completely ace”. Order is restored.

I think what this review boils down to is that I’m not the right audience for this book. I suffer from the critic’s curse of having read too many running books, so I find it hard to get excited about something as lightweight as this. However, I don’t think it’s just me – I doubt that long-time runners will find much in here that’s new or particularly revelatory. There are other memoirs that I would argue are more inspiring for the experienced runner (e.g. Feet in the Clouds).

For the right audience though, this will be a cheery, get-your-trainers on, read. For those who are relatively new to running or thinking about getting into it, hearing Vassos’ assorted tales should provide a lot of positive encouragement, and reassure you that you are not going mad. He might even make you try new things, such as parkrun, trail running, joining a running club, and yes, even a marathon. If the book helps people get more joy out of their new-found sport, then all I can say is, well…brilliant.

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“Chasing Lost Times: A father and son reconciled through running” by Geoffrey Beattie and Ben Beattie

In recent years I have been afflicted by the condition known as AALS. For those of you unfamiliar with Wittertainment, Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome causes me to cry uncontrollably at almost any film on planes. Prior to becoming a dad, I had all the emotional response of a carbonised herring. Schindler’s List; Hotel Rwanda; Bambi – all of these are great films, but I watched them without shedding even a solitary tear. With the birth of my son, I have turbo-blubbed at Finding Dory, hyper-sobbed at Captain Fantastic, and even managed to uber-weep at Eddie the Eagle. The slightest reference to parent-child relationships makes my lips wobble like Mick Jagger channelling his inner octopus.

I am therefore the prime audience for Geoffrey Beattie’s memoir. A world expert in ‘micro expressions’, the tell-tale immediate responses that reveal our true feelings, Beattie is perhaps best known in the UK as the resident psychiatrist on Big Brother and Ghosthunting with the Only Way is Essex. Make of that what you will. He is also an obsessive runner, having run most days since his early teens. However, his relationship with his family, and his eldest son Ben in particular, has been less successful, with long periods of estrangement. In recent years Ben has become a serious runner himself, and Chasing Lost Times aims to show how a shared love of racing and training has brought father and son back together.

To trigger the book equivalent of AALS, you do need to care about the main character. The problem here is that Geoffrey Beattie portrays himself – remember, he is writing this – as a man with the charisma of a flatulent turnip. He is unquestionably vain, obsessed with his face being ‘tight’. He makes weird and thoroughly unnecessary asides about dwarves, beggars and overweight people. He is also a distasteful show-off, making repeated references to travelling business class and staying in luxury hotels.

And then there is his treatment of his family, the main reason for his estrangement from his son. By day, he was a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, but he moonlighted as a reporter on the city’s underworld for The Guardian, spending nights in bars and other hives of scum and villainy until 4am. He was rarely at home, and even when he was, the family schedule was constantly put on hold because dad had to go out for his run.

That last bit hit a little close to home, as I have constant guilt about whether I am getting the balance right between running and family (almost certainly not). But I was pleasurably reassured that whatever my faults, I am nowhere near as rubbish a father as Beattie. On one occasion when Ben was a child, Geoffrey abandoned him in the dark so that he could complete his run, because Ben got a stitch and couldn’t keep up. For more than half an hour he left a young boy alone and frightened on the Sheffield moors. Brave of Beattie to admit this story publicly, but hard to empathise with him.

Perhaps the worst of it though was that he found the time to father a secret second family, having two children by a younger girlfriend, on top of the three children with his long-suffering wife. His own children only learnt about their half-siblings when they overheard schoolmates gossiping. It put me in mind of Steve Coogan’s character Tony Ferrino: “Bigamy at Christmas / What am I to do? / Spend it with the Family? / I can’t I have two.”

Beattie is up-front about these failings. At the same time he reveals details of his tough Belfast upbringing. He lost his own father at a young age. His brother died in a climbing accident. Some of his school friends were killed in the Troubles. Others committed murders and ended up in prison. He ran with a bad crowd, but forged a different destiny for himself because of his love of study. All of which admittedly sounds far tougher than my own cushy upbringing, but I couldn’t help feeling that he wants to persuade the reader that these are  mitigating circumstances for his bad behaviour, externalising his guilt instead of taking personal responsibility.

Chasing Lost Times is a truly peculiar book. For a story about reconciliation and his son, there is remarkably little of either. The majority of the narrative is a bizarre travelogue of Geoff on various exotic business trips – California, Australia, New Zealand – in 2011, with descriptions of his boozing and racing. His son Ben writes the occasional chapter, mostly very serious thoughts on running (he is a 72min half-marathoner) or his focus on reaching elite status. You do learn why Ben hated his dad, and that what inspired him to take running seriously was the goal of crushing his dad’s PBs. However, you don’t learn why and how they were actually reconciled.

Based solely on the book, I’m not even sure they have reconciled. Running gives the two men a shared language, but Ben always sides with his mum (also a runner) in any situation. When she takes a hard fall in a race (she has one arm) he rushes to be with her. When Geoff suffers a show-stopping achilles injury that leads to a first-ever DNF, Ben couldn’t give a monkeys. And to be honest, neither could I.

Right, I’m off to have a good bawl at the latest Michael Bay film.

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“Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession” by Richard Askwith

The fastest mile ever recorded by a human is not Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3mins 43secs, set in 1999. It is actually 3mins 24secs, ran by Craig Wheeler at the Meltham Maniac Mile in 1993. It’s not a world record because the race is entirely downhill on a steep descent in the Pennines, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. If El Guerrouj had tripped and fallen during his record attempt, he would have bruised his knee. If Wheeler had fallen, he would have left his knee, most of his leg, and probably also a bit of his head halfway up the mountainside. As Feet in the Clouds makes clear, ups are tough, but its the downs where fearless legends are made.

The book tells the history of fell-running, a sport that revolves around running up and down some of the hilliest terrain in Britain. The sport has its own version of climbing Everest: the Bob Graham Round. Beating this challenge involves covering 72 miles, 42 peaks and 27,000 feet of ascent and descent, all in under 24 hours. Most attempts fail. There is no prize money. Few people outside of running circles have heard of it. But the sheer masochism of the challenge gives it a romantic appeal. As one of the author’s friends says of someone who succeeded:

“Rob got there with five minutes to spare, but, God, you should have seen the state of him. He’d pissed himself, shat himself, puked all over himself. I thought he was going to die.” There wasn’t the slightest suggestion of disgust in [the friend’s] voice; just awe and respect, with perhaps a trace of envy.

Fell-running is a sport intimately bound up with the landscape of the north of England, particularly the Lake District. Arguably the most scenic part of the country, the Lake District’s beauty is matched only by its ability to absolutely piss on you for six days out of any week-long holiday. Many an English child of the 1980s can swap stories of being dragged to the Keswick Pencil Museum (slogan: “home of the world’s first pencil!”) on a rain-sodden day for the third time that week, because it’s the only dry attraction open.

Mere inclement weather wouldn’t bother the nutcases depicted in this book. At the sharp end, fell-running clearly attracts a certain kind of awe-inspiring psychopath. There is Tommy Sedgwick, a champion “who sprained his ankles so often they ended up twice as thick as those of a normal man”. Or Billy Bland, who holds the record for the Round at an absurd 13hours 57mins. But most of all, there is Joss Naylor.

Joss Naylor must rank as the most incredible athlete that hardly anyone has heard of. Naylor had two lumbar discs removed, all the cartilage drained from his right knee, and damaged his back so badly in a wrestling match that he had to wear a special brace for five years, all before he took up running in his 20s. He spent two decades in constant pain, yet managed to win virtually every fell race he entered. In his late 30s he had four more discs removed from his back, but at the age of 50 he ran and climbed all 214 Lake District peaks in a week, the equivalent of running 15 marathons and climbing four Everests. In my review of The Art of Running Faster, I referred to the ‘tough bastard’ era of British running in the 1980s. A whole new category of ‘iron bastard’ has to be created for these men.

The sad thing is that none of them made any money from it. For most of the years after the twentieth century, fell-running was mired in the acrimonious amateur vs professional dispute. Most fell-races were run for prize money, which meant participants faced a lifetime ban from amateur events, such as big city road races or the Olympics. Yet paradoxically, it was the amateurs who got rich from their sport, as sponsors and organisers found clever ways to circumvent the rules about not paying athletes. In 1981 the amateur Sebastian Coe became a millionaire; meanwhile the legendary fell-runner Kenny Stuart earned £687 in prize money, most of which he spent on petrol to get to races.

You get the impression that most of the fell runners don’t mind. Feet in the Clouds is a love letter to the landscape of the fells, and by interweaving the story of his own 5-year quest to achieve the Bob Graham Round, Askwith transports the reader to a world in which being harassed, humiliated and humbled by Mother Nature is the only thing that matters in life. It is simply an astonishing book, featuring the most captivating writing of any sports book I have ever read. For a while after reading it, you too will be inspired to drive up the M1, put on your spikes and take on Scafell Pike. Then you will come to your senses, realise that these people are quite, quite mad, consider getting a pint at a Keswick pub, and book tickets to see the world’s longest colour pencil instead.

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