The best books on running history

The Books I Picked & Why

Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time

By Richard Askwith

Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek, the Greatest Olympic Runner of All Time

Why this book?

There has never been (nor will there likely be) a runner like Emil Zatopek. His crowning achievement, a gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and the marathon in a single Olympics, has never been equaled, before or since. Yet the “greatest runner of all time” was more than just medals. Besides his Rocky Balboa-esque training regimen, Zapotek stood up to Soviet tanks during the Prague Spring. For this action, the runner was punished for years with a string of humiliating and strenuous jobs, before finally having his image rehabilitated in 1989. Known for his pithy quotes, the title of the book comes from a line he is said to have expressed to his fellow competitors before a race. 


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Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon

By John Brant

Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon

Why this book?

Few races match the majesty of the Boston Marathon, often called the “People’s Olympics” for giving everyone who can qualify the chance to compete alongside the sport’s best. Few runnings of the Boston Marathon can compare to the 1982 race, which concluded with a down-to-the-wire finish that separated the first and second finishers by only two seconds. The book profiles both of those runners, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, their build-up to the race, the back-and-forth of race day, and how the careers of each of those runners fell apart after the race. Dual in the Sun is one of the rare books that makes a two-hour race feel like an edge-of-your-seat sprint.


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Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

By Jeremy Schaap

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

Why this book?

In one of the indelible images from the 20th Olympic Games is the grainy footage of American sprinter Jesse Owens racing down a dirt-running track to victory during the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Adolf Hitler sought to exploit as a propaganda opportunity. Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals during those Games, a stark defiance to the Nazi’s racist ideology. Triumph tells the story of those Olympics, along with Owens humble origins as a talented black athlete in Jim Crow America, his unlikely friendship with a German long jumper, and his inglorious return to the U.S. that prohibited him from profiting from his success on the track because of draconian amateur rules of the time. 


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Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports

By Kathrine Switzer

Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports

Why this book?

For much of the 20th century, women were banned from taking part in some of running’s biggest races, because of misogynistic beliefs about supposed female fragility. A few women were brave enough to challenge this sexist idea by competing in the same arena as men. By 1967, some women had managed to sneak in to run the Boston Marathon, then all-male, but Kathrine Switzer was the first to officially receive a race number by registering with only her initials. Yet her run wasn’t without drama, as Switzer explains firsthand in her book. A race official noticed Switzer running and attempted to force her off the course. Press photographers captured the whole confrontation. When the resulting photos ran in newspapers, it pushed forward the movement for women’s equality in sport.


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The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

By Neal Bascomb

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

Why this book?

The four-minute mile was the sound barrier of running. No one thought it could ever be broken… until an English medical student proved otherwise. Though Roger Bannister’s dash in 1954 was the one to make the history books, The Perfect Mile explores the little-known story behind the effort to break that mark, not only by Bannister, but two equally talented runners, one American, one Australian. The book expertly interweaves the stories of those three runners and their quest for a record few thought they could beat. You might know the outcome, but the backstory is just as fascinating. 


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