Is this a sports related blog? The last 18 posts have been anything but. That’s mostly because I’ve hit kind of a lull in training and rather than craft a melancholy, woe is me, dissertation to garner sympathy, I just stop posting or post about happier things, i.e. family. Never fear, this post is about books. WHAT?? More specifically, it’s a book review. “Books? I don’t need know book learnin’…my brain done hurt from readin’ this here blog.”
I recently read 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life by Alberto Salazar and John Brant. The book is structured as Salazar’s memoir bookended by his account of 14 minutes of clinical death and is essentially a dramatic account of the risks and rewards of top-level long-distance running.
At just under 270 pages, the book takes you through Salazar’s brief but brilliant running career at a fairly brisk clip. Salazar describes his upbringing under a stern Cuban father who was previously one of Castro’s inner circle before losing respect for Castro and the cause. The effect this and his religious upbringing on his life and running is quite interesting. He also recounts a terrible incident where the 9 yr old Alberto experiences another childs’ death.
The book then takes the reader through Salazar’s days as a world -class runner through high school and college. He discusses his awkward social nature and the camaraderie brought to his life through running. Throughout, Salazar gives us glimpses into the mind of an elite athlete. Nearly every setback in his early running career serves as a sign of Salazar’s destiny to become the best runner in the world. He is seemingly undeterred from his goal after nearly dying in a 1977 Falmouth race. It’s fascinating to read his relationship with Bill Rodgers and the infamous Duel in the Sun with Dick Beardsley. He manages to make individual long-distance races distinct by showing us how he put his preparation and strategy into practice against the world’s top runners. Salazar’s prime arrived right as I was being born in 1982 so I missed the live performances and the feel of that era. I also knew little about Salazar before reading the book so I had very little bias for or against the man. He consistently defends his perceived “arrogance” stating several times that he was just being honest about his expectations. From reading other sources, I gather he came across or at least the media portrayed him as cocky/arrogant. Here are my thoughts on that. Elite athletes in any sport have to have an ego. They have to believe in themselves to a degree most of us will never understand. Salazar nearly dies and takes it as a sign that he’s going to become the greatest runner in the world. Lance Armstrong has three different kinds of cancer and decides he’s going to be the greatest cyclist we’ve ever seen. I have zero qualms with that. I have even fewer qualms with an athlete being honest and upfront about his mindset. I weary of the standard athlete soundbites. Macca comes across as arrogant, but I don’t mind hearing what he’s thinking about his own expectations. “I’m here to win.” Glad to hear it.
A large part of the book focuses on Salazar’s religion and how he has managed to mingle science and faith within his running. He describes taking a pilgrimage in 1987 to Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia, where six children claimed to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary. There he experiences a minor miracle when, he says, his silver rosary beads turn to gold. While he acknowledges the implausibility of this event, the reader can’t help feeling that the journey—along with his spiritual quest over the past couple of decades—is an attempt to find meaning for an athletic life cut short. It’s fascinating to read, from my perspective, because I have a strong faith, but find myself turning to science too often for answers for mental stagnation and psychological depression. Again, I find it refreshing that he’s so straightforward regarding his religion in a running culture, especially back then, that was not too open to it. I often find myself praying during long runs and sometimes think the only reason I finished my first marathon was because God decided he didn’t want to hear my silent prayers anymore. Even distracted prayer is better than no prayer, he says and then gives a dissertation on how Nike and his Oregon Running Project use the latest in sports technology to train their athletes.
Speaking of Nike, Salazar’s relationship with Phil Knight and Nike is another theme rampant throughout the book. His undying loyalty to Nike, Knight and the brand make you want to believe in Nike again.
More compelling though is Mr. Salazar’s acknowledgment of his struggles with depression, which led him in 1993 to try the antidepressant Prozac. Again, he’s brutally honest about his experience and not ashamed of where he’s been and how he got there. Prozac allows him to return to serious training where he decides to enter his first and only ultramarathon and, oh, just fucking wins the thing. That said, I think it’s fascinating that he acknowledges the mistakes of his youth and how training too hard shortened his career, but then upon returning to competition, even just for this one race, resumes his self-depriving ways and hardly takes in any calories during the hourslong race.
Per the above, Salazar and Brand bookend his story with Salazar’s brush with death in 2007 where he collapsed and was clinically dead for 14 minutes. I’ve read many reviews of this book and all describe his account of THAT specific event as mundane. I couldn’t disagree more. I suppose for many people once they’ve heard a near death experience, they’ve heard them all. I always find it fascinating the number of random events that fall into place for these near death experiences to be NEAR death. His account of the 14 minutes I thought was fairly gripping.
I can relate to Salazar’s love of running and how he defines himself through his sport. I can relate to his struggle and balance among religion, science, and family. I can admire his dedication to a fledgling sport and be inspired by his struggles.
Though a fairly quick read, the book is meditative and affecting. If you’re a runner or have any history with Salazar, it’s worth the day or two of reading.