Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Duel in the Sun

In honor of the recent Boston Marathon, I read Duel in the Sun, by John Brant. It’s a story of the 1982 Boston Marathon in which Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley battle side by side for the entire 26.2 miles. I had shied away from reading it in the past because I know the story of the race and despite being only 200 pages long, that seemed like a lot to dedicate to one two hour race. But of course, the book is about much more than the race itself. Any marathoner worth his salt packet knows what happens. (If you don’t know what happens, then you definitely need to read the book.) It doesn’t really matter who wins. As the book emphasizes, they both come out winners. But it takes a long time to realize that—many years, in fact, before the characters have picked up the pieces of their lives that their epic duel took away. For the vast majority of the book it seems they both came out losers. After the race, neither runs well again. They struggle with depression and drug addiction. In the end (spoiler alert!) they turn out just fine; they turn into Alberto Salazar, the famous coach who leads the Oregon Project, and the Dick Beardsley, the motivational speaker who makes appearances at expos and turns up in running movies. 

The book oscillates between chapters about the characters’ lives before and after the race with chapters describing the race. You finish one chapter and think “They’re in Kenmore Square, they are so close! It’s down to the wire!” and hate that you’ll have to wait until after the next chapter about Beardsley’s struggle with drugs. But by the end of that chapter, you’re thinking “Hey wait, I need to hear how he gets out of this!” before starting a new chapter about Salazar’s stint in Yugoslavia. It’s basically three parallel stories (the race, Beardsley’s life, and Salazar’s life) but all of them are engaging. It also seems to cram a lot into its few pages.

Appropriately, I read this book a few days after my marathon. As a cautionary tale of people who didn’t rest enough or recover well, it gives the post-marathon reader another excuse to skip the gym in the morning, sleep in, and eat that huge bowl of ice cream.* It will probably be hard to find a book about running I don’t like, so I’ll warn you now my recommendations may be worthless. But I would recommend this book, particularly if you only know who wins the race and not much about the aftermath. If you’ve already read it but can’t get enough of Alberto Salazar, he has again teamed up with John Brant for a new book, 14 Minutes, his memoir named for the time he spent unconscious after a heart attack (not covered in Duel in the Sun.)

On a slightly different note, below are some of my thoughts on this year’s Boston, which turned out to be an epic duel between all the participants and the sweltering sun.
  • First, I’d like to say congrats to all the finishers. All the people who struggled through the heat, ignored their watch, drank more water than they ever had, and finished happily despite a slow time. If it was me, I would not have handled the heat as well as the runners this year did. I ran Chicago 2010, which wasn’t as bad as Boston, and still was (literally) a crybaby about it. It seemed like people heeded the advice of the organizers, and hopefully enjoyed a historic run on a historic course as much as possible on such a steamy day. Although a lot of people were treated by medical staff, no major tragedies occurred. Even the elites slowed down by nine minutes each in the women’s and men’s races, which shows it was an incredibly tough day. I take inspiration from the maturity of the people who ran so smartly and I hope that the next marathon you all run will be on a beautiful, clear, and cool day. I know you’ll all get the PRs you deserve. In the meantime, be proud you ran that race; we'll be talking about it for years to come.
  • I have to ask about a reference a NY Times article made to both Korir and Hartmann taking in a lot of “water and fruit.” I watched a lot of Boston videos and interviews, and I didn’t hear any talk of fruit. Was this an error?  I’ve just never heard or seen an elite runner taking fruit in the middle of a race, but clearly Boston's conditions were special circumstances.
  • Lastly,  I want to say that while I’m sorry Geoffrey Mutai dropped out (please, let the Kenyan Olympic selectors pick him!), I can’t get over how cool Wesley Korir is. He was singing the whole way. He buys two Subway sandwiches before a race and gives one to a homeless person. He had typhoid a few months ago and didn't let it slow him. (Can Emmanuel Mutai do the same with less time?) He’s such a character and an inspiration, I hope we see a lot more of him.

*If you read the entire book just to figure out how ice cream helps recovery, you’ll be disappointed, because I made that up. But I can make up a reason why too, and it’s calcium.

Dream big,


  1. Runners live in their own world, in many ways. My son's Freshman Poli Sci class was discussing Ethiopia the other day, and the professor asked them to name what they think of first when someone says "Ethiopia." Tom was shocked that not a single person said "runners," and when he said it his class members stared at him blankly. Runners? What does that have to do with Ethiopia?

  2. Is this where the blog goes?Yes many ethiopians run without sneakers and excell.Sometimes sliced up oranges are handed out to athletes prehaps for quick energy or hydration.Maybe Beantown was combating dehydration with fruit.Wouldn't ice cream cones have been funnier.Keep up reading and running. Is the large t on Rusty's shirt glow in the dark and is that a chicago cheeses pizza or italian.Some runners write comments on their own hands to read while they run.

    1. Tamar,

      Thanks for reading! Ironically, Ethiopians race with shoes on these days, but many Americans have stopped and now run barefoot. They do give out oranges at races to us "normals" I've just never known elite runners to take them. The shirt isn't glow in the dark but might as well be!!