There’s nothing I like more than curling up with a good running book, especially after a hard run. In fact, I’m such a running book nerd, I’ve forced myself to alternate between running books and novels – just to retain a sense of balance.
So here are my and fellow co-founder Bill’s favourite running biographies and autobiographies, in no particular order. We hope they might become some of your favourites too!
1. Today we die a little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zatopek - By Richard Askwith
Richard Askwith, author of Feet in the Clouds uncovers the true story of one of the greatest runners ever, Emil Zatopek. Based on extensive research in the Czech Republic and access to Zatopek’s widow, we hear the real story as never told before. Although I knew about Zatopek’s appetite for crazy hardcore interval sessions - 40 x 400m or more at near race pace was not uncommon - I really loved the insights into his marriage with Olympic javelin thrower Dana. There’s a great tale of how they used to play long distance catch with Dana’s javelin...I just hope they carried out a full risk assessment!
2. Paula: My Story so Far - By Paula Radcliffe
The great thing about this book is how honest it is - there is no holding back unlike many autobiographies, which rewrite history. Paula takes you all the way from her childhood to the Athens Olympics. Her turning point in 2002 is all the more interesting because she was an underdog for so long, missing out on medals at the 1999 World Championships and the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The book ends with Paula’s Athens 2004 Olympics. You are left feeling a mixture of admiration and sorrow that she didn’t get the gold medal she deserved. I’ve actually read it twice it was so compelling and keep hoping there will be a sequel.
3. Twin Ambitions - By Mo Farah
Like Paula’s autobiography, this is one of the best because of its sheer candor. Having been separated from his twin brother and brought to the UK, barely speaking English, Mo was brought up by his aunt in Hounslow and then spotted and supported by his PE teacher. It’s incredible to think that Mo didn’t make the Olympics final in Beijing in 2008 but won double gold in London 2012 and again in Rio in 2016. What a fantastic read!
4. Twin Tracks - By Roger Bannister
Twin Tracks refers to the two main themes in the book, Bannister’s contributions to athletics (both as a competitor and administrator) and medicine. Many of us will be familiar with how Bannister, and his partners Brasher and Chataway, were locked in a frantic battle to break the four minute mile. Twin Tracks, his second autobiography, also provides a great insight into life in postwar Britain and the great privilege Bannister and his contemporaries felt to be competing when so many, just a few years their senior, had lost their lives.
5. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running - Haruki Murakami
Although this is not technically an autobiography, Haruki Murakami captures the struggles of an ageing runner in such a beautifully written, self-deprecating and funny way – so it had to be on our list. Murakami took up running to stay fit when he became a writer and it’s fascinating how he draws the parallel between the process of writing and running. Both require stamina, hard work and dedication. His observation that “pain is inevitable, suffering is not,” sums up perfectly how running relies so much on our state of mind. This is none the more evident than when Murakami undertakes an ultra and after a very bad patch around mile forty seven, manages to “pass through” the mental barrier.
6. The Greatest: The Haile Gebrselassie Story – By Jim Denison
“Be in no doubt Haile is the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen.” says Dave Bedford, former 10,000m world record holder. This book helps explain how Gebrselassie went from poverty to a world class superstar. But it also tells of his generosity towards and love for his fellow people in poverty stricken Ethiopia. Only then do you understand why Gebrselassie is so much more than just a great runner.
What are your favourite running books?
Written by: Claire Kent and Bill Byrne, founders of Iffley Road and running addicts.