Sunday, January 3, 2010
Why I wish I was 50 years old: Duel in the Sun
What defines a spectacular race? Is it the course? The events leading up to it? The competition? The outcome? Or is it the perfect mixture of all of this that makes you wish you were standing at the heart of it?
Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon by John Brant is a vivid, compelling book about the events and people surrounding the 1982 Boston Marathon. Brant artfully tells the tales of the lives of these two great men and how this was the the race that changed them both, for better and for worse.
Beardsley, a midwest dairy farmer, had worked assiduously for this race, vowing, "My whole life boiled down to this. One way or another, this race would change everything." Running in the snowy winter before milking the cows, Dick Beardsley had ran over 15 marathons in his preparation for this race.
Salazar, born in Cuba but raised in Boston, was a machine. He continuously set records in the distance events, and trained so hard for 1982 that he even ran an aggressive 10k race one week before Boston. Most people would call that foolish, but Salazar wanted a challenge. Relentless and thirsty for any victory, he took on the 10k before he took to the streets of Hopkinton. Salazar did not view Beardsley as a threat.
Both had prepared and toed the line in Hopkinton that April morning as equals. The gun went off, and they were part of the lead pack, as expected. One by one, the others dropped off, unable to keep up with this blistering pace as the sun continued to rise high in the sky. The spectators, who were not confined by barricades, crowded their path in eagerness to watch this "duel in the sun." The police motorcade proved to be troublesome, pedestrians were in the way, but neither runner would be stopped. Boston loomed ahead and was Dick and Alberto's reach. But only one could reap the laurel wreath and the glory associated winning this nearly-sacred race. Alberto pushed in the final moments and won by 2 seconds. But victory came at a price. His temperature soared to 107 degrees and he was administered last rites.
It was the race that changed both Salazar and Beardsley. After this race, which was followed with such anticipation across the country, neither man was ever the same again. Neither man ever ran the same again. Each went into a downward spiral, both in their professional and personal lives. They fought for years to find answers to their unending questions, unceasing in their search.
Brant does an excellent job with this book. The title seduces the reader into the story, eager to hear the minute details of this famous race. But Brant does much more. He provides incredible background on both men, teaching the reader what motivated each runner to run in 1982. His description of the race was fantastic, and I felt like I was in the pace car in front of them, watching their every move. Moreover, Brant describes the aftermath, and what each man experienced in the years following the marathon. If the title is the hook, it is the aftermath that keeps you turning the pages. There is just a sheer fascination with trying to understand how one race so dramatically changed their lives that you can't put the book down. Brant uses flashbacks and foreshadowing, so this is not just a continual linear story. That is great writing, for it keeps you on edge.
This book made me wish I was around to see that race. That's how I feel about a lot of big races: Kathrine Switzer's 1967 debut in Boston, Joan Samuelson winning the first Women's Olympics in 1984, and many others. They just all seem so incredible, and descriptions of them (or videos, which I'm including) are so inspiring. I'm sure part of that has to do with the fact that I'm a historian and I work very hard to understand events that happened before I was around. But another part has to do with the fact that, having run myself, I understand their experiences (to a degree) and just long to be a part of those momentous occasions. It would be amazing to actually see those events transpire, but I know I have many years of running and racing to come, and I am sure I will witness some historical moments myself.