Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and its Revolutionary Coach by Marc Bloom

When a little-known high school cross-country team inexplicably explodes into national domination, a journalist asks why, and uncovers a coach and kids both amazing and remarkably ordinary.

Marc Bloom (Run with the Champions) was as astounded as anyone when the boys’ cross-country team from Fayetteville-Manlius High School, in upstate Manlius, N.Y., demolished the competition, including the far-and-away favorites, at a major regional race in 2004. Bloom followed F-M for more than a decade as it continued to dominate their sport. Like coaches, runners and fans everywhere, Bloom wondered: What are they doing up there in Manlius? In Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and Its Revolutionary Coach, he examines the student athletes and their coach, Bill Aris, offering an answer to that question, if not a prescription to follow in their very fast footsteps.

A dogged marathoner and cross-country coach, Aris studied the methods of New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, as well as philosophies from the ancient Greeks and classic rock-and-roll. But it was iconoclastic Australian coach Percy Cerutty who gave Aris his guiding philosophy: a lifestyle Cerutty dubbed Stotan, from a blending of stoic and Spartan. Stotan training is the surprisingly straightforward key to F-M’s astonishing success: clean eating, good sleep, hard work; an emphasis on teamwork, humility, harmony with nature and mind-body connection. F-M’s prodigies are “regular” kids, their accomplishments born not of technology or special talent but hard training, inspired by and devoted to their coach. In pep talks, Aris might make references to Jim Morrison or Churchill alongside Aristotle, Cerutty or the brilliant Australian miler Herb Elliott. His athletes sometimes tease him, sometimes compare him with God. And, indeed, Aris’s coaching style and super-close-knit team can feel a little cultish at times–at least to those of us on the outside.

Also exceptional is Aris’s approach to gender in sport: he ignores it. F-M’s girls undergo the exact same training, lifestyle expectations, radical honesty and tough love: “We’re not boys or girls. We’re athletes.” In 13 appearances at the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), F-M’s girls won 11 championships, rounded out by second- and fourth-place finishes. The boys won eight top-five finishes in the same 13 years. F-M is the only team in the country to qualify for NXN every year since the race began. Beyond their athletic performances, these high school students exude calm and maturity when discussing selfless race tactics and the importance of clean living.

Amazing Racers is an inspiring illumination of a sensational team. Bloom’s consistent and sincerely awestruck tone drives home just how special this story is, celebrating both the dedicated young athletes and their leader. His close reading of races, often called in heart-racing play-by-plays, is supplemented by research in sports physiology and psychology, and the history of cross-country racing. This book is thorough in its studies as well as its praise. While readers looking for the secret to victory may be disappointed–the prescription is, basically, just hard work–there is much to inspire everyone from the armchair racer to the elite athlete in this heartfelt biography of running royalty.

This review originally ran in the July 15, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the book! – and the fine summary above. I loved it; I really doubted that Bloom’s story would survive a 320 page telling, but it was worth all of that, for a lifelong runner. For others, I’m still not so sure; but a tightly-edited version would be less rewarding for me.

    You have recommended four ‘running books’ to me, by my count. Besides this one: The Longest Race, Running the Rift, and Pretty Good for a Girl. Of my full shelves of running books, these remain four that also bridge the gap to fine literature & social commentary, speaking to important gaps between our modern human condition & our better selves. Thanks for that.

    I loved this one too, but the capacity for a full accounting of that eludes me just now. Instead, I will offer a few more observations.

    I have read Bloom’s columns over the decades and 3 of his books (2 co-written biographies.) For me, Bloom as role-player in this book was noteworthy, contributing his experienced insight and artful voice. Bloom obviously made a personal commitment in writing this, as the values & proclivities promoted by coach Aris match his own.

    They share a scholarly interest in their runner-centric world as they comfortably blend psychology, sociology, philosophy and the arts. Bloom’s dense 4-page bibliography is not typical for those who write of the sport. And although he includes his own role in outline, Bloom personally deserves more credit for developing the contemporary version of the sport he describes; no one else was in a better position to tell this story.

    I deeply appreciate that Bloom highlights the fraught social, physical & developmental milieu facing teens today. Still, one must note they could go have gone further; a white, semi-affluent small town in upstate NY is hardly fully representative. Nevertheless, Bloom’s answer to the ‘secret’ of Aris teams’ primacy is important, and life-changing: healthy eating, hard effort, passion for nature, commitment to your tribe above self.

    In his appreciation of the Aris Stotan ethic, Bloom is harkening to elements of 1970s US running culture that help describe a generation. And it’s the dedication to such values, in raw & sensual effort, when well-told, that also informs my collection of ‘running books’ over five decades & now running to nearly 90 copies.

    I loved the many moving & heartfelt stories of HS runners over 11 seasons (2004-14, plus 4 bonus seasons.) The compelling depiction of the team element in cross-country running was superb. It is very difficult to appreciate the many challenges of this event, including: staying motivated to run your best effort, only to claim a spot buried in the pack; and the spirit-sapping loneliness of running a team event where you may only rarely, or never, see your teammates. Overcoming many such obstacles, as Bloom & Aris show, is what makes for cross-country ‘success’ – whatever your placing.

    • Fifty years and 90 books makes you an authoritative source for these comments; thank you so much for sharing! You could keep very busy just annotating your library of running books. A blog all its own??

      I still think this is some of the best sports writing, in terms of play-by-play calling, that I’ve read.

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