“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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“Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters” by Rob Hadgraft

As an athletics fan, I always find it frustrating when people talk about Paula Radcliffe as if the most significant thing she ever achieved was to do a gingerbread man halfway round the London Marathon. Or they talk about her as a failure because she never won an Olympic medal. Her world record is extraordinary, but life can be very cruel to remarkable people. We only like to remember the times when people messed up. Just ask Michael Fish.

Hypocrite that I am, my knowledge of mid-20th century British marathon champ Jim Peters extended purely to one incident; he was the guy in the 1952 Olympic marathon whom Emil Zatopek (see review) asked “is the pace a bit too slow?”. When Peters jokingly said yes, Zatopek responded “oh, right” and zoomed off into Olympic history. Peters himself dropped out of the race.

What a shame. As I learnt from Rob Hadgraft’s definitive biography (see my reviews of his other books about Alf Shrubb and Deerfoot), Jim Peters was arguably Britain’s greatest athletics star of the immediate post-war era. A world record holder, he was a man who transformed how people trained for the marathon. He was a contemporary of Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, but unlike those university men, he was a working class lad from East London who saved up his money in Depression-era Britain to buy his first plimsolls from Woolworths, and balanced his training regime with full-time work as an optician.

Peters’ story illustrates how some athletes take time to find their true distance. Prior to the Second World War, he showed promise but didn’t set the running scene alight. Following the war he won a major 6 mile race, but what struck me reading Plimsolls On was that Peters was not a Steve Prefontaine (see related review), winning every race in sight. In the 1947 National Cross-Country he only placed 62nd. He did make it to the 1948 Olympics, but finished 8th in the 10,000m final, well behind emerging star Zatopek. The book makes you wonder how much of his shorter-distance talent was wasted by the 6-year lay-off caused by the war, as well as how many potential stars of the sport never had the opportunity to shine.

His failure in 1948 led Peters to retire from the sport, much to the delight of his wife, who wanted him to focus on being an optician and raising their son. Yet the temptation to return was always there, and his former coach, Jonny Johnston persuaded him to give the marathon a shot. He never looked back. On his debut at the Polytechnic Marathon in 1951 Peters hadn’t bothered to taper, and shocked the onlookers and “expert commentators” by surging at break-neck pace throughout the race, just as 2008 Olympic winner Sammy Wanjiru would do more than 50 years later to much acclaim about how the Kenyan had changed the sport. Peters broke the British record in his first race and the world record (which was then 2hrs 25mins) a year later, ending a period of dominance by Japanese and Korean runners.

Peters would go on to race several marathons a year and set 4 further records, taking his marathon to 2hrs 17mins. He became the most talked-about athlete in Britain, capable of generating headlines in the News of the World. His weekly mileage of 100miles+ was frankly insane for a man doing a full time job, and he did it all in flimsy plimsolls. His training methods represented a sea-change in thinking, moving away from the opinions of early 20th century ultra-runner Arthur Newton, who advocated lots of long, slow running to build stamina. Instead Peters never did what he called a “jog trot” in training. He only ran fast. His standard 10mile training run in Epping Forest was usually completed in around 55minutes, about 8 minutes faster than my own race PB!

The 1952 Olympics went wrong for Peters. He had a horrendous journey, which included illness, a howling draught in the plane, and the same plane being struck by lightning during the flight. However he went on to win several more races and come second in the Boston marathon in 1954. His goal though became to take gold for Britain at the Empire Games in Vancouver later that year.

The Empire Games was the predecessor of today’s Commonwealth Games, and was an opportunity for athletes from Canada, Britain, New Zealand and others connected by a common British heritage to compete. Peters was favourite to win the marathon. In classic “I don’t taper style” he ran in the 6 mile race the week beforehand, just as Galen Rupp ran in the 10,000m before taking Bronze in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The day of the marathon was swelteringly hot, but this was a time when races had few water stops, and in Vancouver they didn’t even have the wet sponges that Peters usually expected. The British team were also suspicious that the course was too long, although their concerns was overruled.

Peters took a comfortable lead. At 25 miles he was 3 miles ahead of the nearest competitor. Then tragedy set in. As he entered the stadium he collapsed with just 380 yards to go. He got up, then collapsed again. Repeatedly. All carried out in front of a horrified crowd that included the Duke of Edinburgh. He finally crossed what he thought was the finishing line and then was pulled away to get help. In a cruel twist, the finishing line for the marathon was actually 200 yards further on, and he was disqualified from the race, which was eventually won by Scotsman Joe McGhee, who arrived in the stadium 15 minutes later, rather surprised to hear that he was the winner.

Team-mate Chris Brasher would later tell the media that Peters’ brain temperature was recorded at 107 degrees, meaning that his brain was literally close to cooking. Another medically trained team-mate stayed behind to watch over Peters, and so it came to pass that about a week later Jim Peters and Dr Roger Bannister stepped off a plane in London to tell their deeply contrasting stories to reporters. Bannister had won the “mile of the century” against Australian John Landy; Peters had narrowly survived death, and retired instantly from competitive running.

It would later transpire that the Vancouver course was indeed too long, and when re-measured it was found to be close to 27 miles. Peters had already completed the marathon distance before his collapse in the stadium. Some speculate that if he’d known that he had a 3-mile lead, he would have slowed down and not over-exerted himself in the heat. Others disagree, saying that Peters’ flaw was that he only knew one way to race: eyeballs out.

Peters died in 1999, but today he is remembered in other ways. The first Briton to cross the line of the London Marathon wins the Jim Peters Trophy. The most notable winner of the trophy? Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s most remarkable marathoner since Peters. But yes, it is hard to forget she did a poo mid-race.

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“The End of the World Running Club” by Adrian J Walker

I blame Danny Boyle. Ever since he rebooted horror cinema with 28 Days Later, pop culture has been wall-to-wall zombies. Now I like a good “zombocalypse” scenario as much as anyone, but I do think the genre is getting a little stale. What about all the other cracking apocalypses out there? Killer robots. Monstrous megaworms. Demonic mushrooms. Hell, even good ol’ fashioned psychotic aliens don’t get the screentime they used to.

The apocalypse at the heart of The End of the World Running Club is asteroids, so if nothing else, we should give Adrian J Walker some credit for not resorting to the obvious.The ‘apocalypse novel’ is a genre in its own right, with a number of exceptional books that are worth anyone’s time. I Am Legend (forget the Will Smith film) by Richard Matheson is a stunning piece of stripped-down writing with a truly haunting ending. World War Z (forget the Brad Pitt film) by Max Brooks is a smart and witty take on how different countries would respond to a zombie pandemic. Day of the Triffids (haven’t seen the film) by John Wyndham is the grandfather of all of these, showing how a good storyteller can make even a shrubbery seem terrifying.

The End of the World Running Club is not a patch on any of these. It is pure beach-read trash. However, accepting it on those terms, it certainly keeps you entertained.  Neglectful dad Edgar gets separated from his family following a series of sudden asteroid strikes that devastate Britain. He has 3 weeks to get from Edinburgh to Cornwall, where he hopes his wife and children will be waiting for him along with the rescue boats. When it becomes obvious that travel by car will be impossible, he realises that his best hope lies in running the length of the country. Along the way he teams up with some larger-than-life characters and encounters villains, eccentric survivors and people building new ways of life amid the ruins.

The book it reminded me of the most was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another dystopian nightmare which unfolds in a series of episodic and disturbing encounters. Despite its credentials as a Serious Work of Literature, I’m not a fan of The Road – I found it too unremittingly bleak – so by comparison The End of the World Running Club is a lot more fun.

That being said, I can’t say I cared much for any of the characters, and Edgar is such a cartoonishly rubbish dad at the outset that I felt his family were probably better off without him. And while I’m not a prude, I could also have done without the constant swearing, which becomes tiresome and loses its impact if everyone says “we’re f—ed” every third page.

In short, this is fluff, but an easy read, and there is something pleasingly British about the goal of the story being about getting to Cornwall. However, I’m still waiting to read a truly good novel about running. Maybe I should write it myself. Hmmm, wait a minute, in their modern incarnation, zombies can run…

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The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory” by Richard Moore

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man cannot be both academically bright and good at sports. This is why my student dorm-mate Dan Dan the Ladies’ Man was so infuriating. Not only did he play for multiple teams across several sports, but he was a straight-A student with aftershave-advert good looks to boot. As his nickname suggests, he had an easy manner with the opposite sex and was rarely without a girlfriend. He was charming too, and a genuinely nice man to be around. Bastard.

One day, my friend John and I hit upon what we called “The Deductive Method”. Following a marathon session of Championship Manager, we had the revelation that all men must be born with 100 points, which are then allocated to brainpower, looks, athleticism etc. In Dan’s case we realised that he had spent his points so highly in virtually all areas that there was only one inescapable conclusion. Below the waist, he had to be built like a Ken-doll.

In the case of Jamaican sprinting, the Deductive Method would suggest that being very fast is a trade-off for the disadvantages of poverty and violence that plague the island. However, others who are less familiar with my personal brand of pseudo-science believe that there may be another explanation for all those medals: drugs. In The Bolt Supremacy, Richard Moore (see review of his earlier book “The Dirtiest Race in History”) visits Jamaica to explore the running culture for himself and see if he can find evidence of cheating. He sets out with some understandable reservations about Jamaica’s success. The 10 fastest 100m times in history are held by 5 men – Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Johan Blake, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin. 3 of these are Jamaicans (Bolt, Blake and Johan), and of the 5 men only Bolt has never tested positive for banned substances. Some think that he has simply been better at beating the testers.

But is this the whole story? Both Blake and Powell claim they tested positive for stimulants found in supplements they believed were legal. Americans have typically tested positive for steroids or testosterone, which have more proven performance-enhancing benefits. The Jamaican media typically takes great offense at doping allegations and the publicity surrounding failed tests – of course they do. They excuse their runners by saying they are guilty of negligence and carelessness rather than deliberate cheating. The argument goes that this small impoverished island lacks the infrastructure for systematic doping, and that the teams around their athletes lack sophisticated awareness of the contents of sports supplements.

Whether you agree or not, the strong sense of national pride in its runners displayed by the Jamaican media provides some insight into the island’s success. This is a country where the Prime Minister was personally involved in bringing a young Usain Bolt from his rural village to the capital, Kingston. A country where athletics is bigger than football. A country where the biggest event in the sporting calendar is a high-school track and field championship.

“Champs”, as it is known, is the centre of Jamaican athletics. Schools from across the island compete over several days, and winners become national heroes and media stars. One school in particular (Calabar) has an extraordinary roll-call of alumni, including multiple Olympians and world record holders. Track and field is the equivalent of American high-school football; it is at the heart of many communities, and the coaches are professionals, not teachers leading physical education classes in their spare time.

One explanation of Jamaica’s “sprint factory” is therefore that it is a culture that celebrates athletics to an unusual degree. In The Sports Gene (see review), David Epstein suggests that in another country Bolt would have been funnelled into a career as a basketball player, but as a Jamaican he aspired to be a runner. Are there physiological explanations as well? Genes may also play a part in Bolt’s success. Many Jamaicans are descended from slaves, and one theory suggests that because only the toughest slaves survived the brutal journey from Africa, today’s Jamaicans have been self-selected for strength. In addition, Bolt, Blake and many other stars are from an area of the island where slaves revolted against their masters and successfully fought for their freedom. Some argue there are therefore “warrior genes” in this region’s population of just 78,000 that explain their physical prowess. Finally, a statistically significant and curious number of top sprinters are the youngest of several brothers. No-one is quite sure why this makes a difference, but it does.

Genetics and family history may therefore be a factor. However, world-class sprinting is a sport about individuals, and it is individuals who have brought about the island’s success. As much as anything, Moore’s book is a series of meetings with remarkable Jamaicans. There is a chapter where he interviews Bolt’s dad, and we learn that he used to police Usain’s school attendance and make sure he wasn’t skipping class and training to play video games (“I would strap him”). We meet Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, whose humble nature means she lacks the world-dominating profile of Bolt. Fraser-Pryce’s story is a genuinely touching one of determination and using her talent to pull herself and her family out of the ghetto…and opening a hairdressing salon in the process.

We also encounter the man who is perhaps the architect of Jamaica’s success. Dennis Johnson returned from a US college scholarship in the early 1960s and decided that he was going to teach Jamaicans how to run fast. Bizarrely, he got sponsorship from a cigarette company and drove around the country in his Rothmans van on a one-man roadshow to educate a generation of runners and coaches about technique and sprinting mechanics. Today’s two top Jamaican coaches – Stephen Francis and Glenn Mills – were both attendees. We learn a lot about the rivalry between these two men, including their uncanny eye for talent. Asafa Powell was not a strong performer at Champs, but Francis spotted his raw potential.

Bolt is an entirely different story, as his talent was evident from an early age. For those who think he sprang out of nowhere in 2008, Moore shows how Jamaica had been waiting for Bolt to make his mark for some time. He set records at Champs and the newspapers tipped him for great things. He struggled initially to make the transition from junior to senior, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the 2004 Olympics, and was heavily criticised in the press. Bolt looks happy-go-lucky, but there is a ton of work behind his performances. Realising that he was physically weak and gangly, he spent considerable time in the gym to build up his muscle mass. He spent hours working on his technique and would regularly do sessions that made him vomit. Whether Bolt dopes or not, his work-rate is undeniable.

The Bolt Supremacy is fascinating, and if I had one criticism, it is that after a while I found the constant questions about doping a distraction. Clearly something unique is happening in Jamaica. The comments from various scientists that Moore consults are illuminating. “They may not be training very effectively at all” says Yannis Pitsiladis, director of the sub-2-hour marathon project. Imagine how dominant Jamaica could be if more scientific precision was brought to training methods. Dennis Johnson says that Jamaicans are not actually running much faster than the sprinters of the 1948; the faster times can be attributed to improved tracks and kit. Pitsiladis thinks that there is nothing inherently “black” about sprinting, and there is no reason why white sprinters cannot run this fast if they trained hard. Interestingly, he thinks that the Dutch may be a rich gene pool for sprinting, and the recent success of Daphne Schippers would appear to support this.

The nature of Jamaican dominance will evolve over time. Moore meets some of the stars of tomorrow, and they are not 100m specialists. They are hurdlers and 400m runners, suggesting we may be on the verge of a great era for events that have not been in the spotlight. After all, when Bolt retires, it may take a while before anyone truly comes close to taking his place.

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