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.

guest review and more: Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, from Pops

About three years ago, I reviewed Strong Inside. My father just got around to reading the galley copy I gave him when I was done with it, and he left the following as a comment on that post. I thought it deserved better billing, here.

I am so glad you left me this book so I would eventually read it, now three years later.

I was in high school becoming obsessed with basketball around the time Wallace became the first black athlete in the SEC. He played basketball for Vanderbilt, a university that would later accept my application although I attended elsewhere. I was entirely unaware of Wallace at the time, but I knew most of the prominent players and teams that comprised Wallace’s sports world. I was also ignorant of the more significant social struggle that defined his life, which despite other proximities I learned largely in retrospect; that’s an education that continues today with the help of narratives like this one.

His story is iconic in so many ways, and it is a gift that Maraniss discerned this and spent eight years preparing to tell it: Wallace was a boy raised amidst Nashville’s version of the civil rights movement, with maturity enough to see beyond his social place, and beyond just sports, to recognize potential both in higher education and his prospect as a pioneer during a nation’s essential historical moment.

The result is singular insight into the civil rights movement, from the intimate perspective of a special person at very specific time and place. As such, this book reminds us how capricious history can be as it consists of stories we choose to preserve and honor. Thousands of people contributed to this era’s history; few are as compelling and admirable as Perry Wallace, from start to finish–or as thoughtfully captured as Maraniss has done here. One must wonder, how many other such strands of history go missing?

That’s perhaps the saddest part of this tale, how many important stories go overlooked.

One more bit, on that very last thought, a quote from the book describing Wallace’s thoughts upon finally being fully accepted at Vanderbilt 40 years later:

Here he stood, achieving closure in a joyful setting, when in so many cases throughout history, African Americans who had accomplished significant things had ultimately been cut down in tragic ways.

In an email to me, Pops offered a more personal series of reflections, and permission to share here.

During the summer of 1968 my parents arranged for me and a friend to drive a Jeep wagon from Houston to New England for a relocating family. At a very immature 17, I found it an amazing and daunting challenge of independence at the time, and still. We chose a route through the deep south with no clue as to events or risks; I have no idea why, or why no one counseled us about this. So we passed south of Perry Wallace, but – more significant and relevant – the chasm between our paths was immense.

We passed through DC in late June soon after the Poor People’s Campaign had been forcefully evicted from their Resurrection City shanty town (3000 people) on the National Mall after more than a month, a time that included heavy rainstorms that resulted in a muddy morass. MLK had been killed in April during preparations; RFK was killed during the occupation and his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City en route to Arlington Cemetery. When we drove through, we marveled at the filthy desolation on the Mall, and kept on going.

A particularly nostalgic and tragic anecdote (of so many!) was the page-long excerpt in Strong Inside from RFK’s speech at VU, less than 3 months before he was killed. One never hears such hopeful and ambitious expressions of American idealism today, from anyone; but I remember that naive 1960s legacy, which we were trying to build on in the early 70s.

Sports references – so many! I wonder if you recognized the name Harry Edwards, the radical sports leader described in the book; he was very influential amongst prominent athletes like Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and later Bill Walton, well into the 70s.

I remember the 1966 story when the all-black team from tiny Texas Western (now UTEP) beat Kentucky to be national champs in El Paso (!!) – such a stunning sign of things to come.

A major star from my Houston Memorial HS was Jerry Kroll, who from 1967 helped lead (with Mike Maloy) the Davidson teams mentioned in the book, so I knew of Davidson and followed their success at the time, as did Wallace. I knew most of the prominent player names Wallace crossed paths with: Rick Mount, Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy (you know that one!). Wallace was mentored later by famous 76ers coach Jack Ramsey.

The University of Houston had strong teams then, especially with Elvin Hayes; in January 1968 the “Game of the Century” had UH facing Alcindor’s UCLA team (both undefeated) in the first ever college basketball game on national TV, and the first basketball in the Astrodome. It held up to the hype, I followed it closely, and UH won by 2 in a great game. I wished I had gone, but imagine trying to watch a game way out there in the center of the Dome!

A larger iconic moment was the Mexico City Olympics later that year, with Smith and Carlos raising black-fisted gloves in the awards ceremony; a very powerful moment with the whole world watching, and again I was paying attention because of the confluence of sports and cultural political events.

He couldn’t stop, sending more links and notes, but I couldn’t help but pass these on as well. It’s a fine example of how reading can open up into contemplations of all the parts of life. He says, “you know how these things accumulate when you nuzzle into a subject.”

I’m sending on this essay about the Poor People’s Campaign only because it overlaps with my recalled 1968 history (see photo below) – a history in focus now with a year’s worth of 50-year anniversaries.

photo credit – click to enlarge

Also: The Atlantic has a whole series on King, including this essay from Jesmyn Ward about her family’s legacy of poverty and why she is raising her own kids back home in Mississippi.

David J. & Janice L. Frent / Corbis / Getty, from here

Also, another in that series: Rev Barber (of North Carolina Moral Mondays fame) reminds us that King’s ‘three evils’ (racism, poverty and war) are still very immediate, and are now four (environmental decline.)

Also, my anecdote: as MLK’s multi-racial poverty campaign was ramping up, he was referencing in part The Other America, a classic still on my shelf authored by an American ‘democratic socialist’ in 1962.

Plenty of reading there for today, friends.

Thanks, Pops.

Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook

In this love letter to professional cycling, a fashion luminary expresses his passion with visual pop.

cycling-scrapbook

British fashion designer Paul Smith once aspired to be a professional cyclist, and his love for the sport has persisted over the decades. Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook presents assorted ephemera accompanied by Smith’s casual commentary, with a brief foreword by Scottish cyclist David Millar.

Smith has an impressive collection of cycling jerseys, pennants, advertisements and publications specific to professional road and track racing. Chapter headings present themes and artifacts, including racing personalities, events like grand tours and one-day classics, Smith’s own bicycles and what he refers to as “the look.” He admires the individual histories of heroes like Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, and Smith’s friends among contemporary racing stars, including Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins. Throughout, Smith’s tone is conversational and self-effacing, even as he is honored to design the 2013 Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa (leader’s jersey).

Visually stunning and wide-ranging, Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook elegantly marries Smith’s admiration for the heroes of road and track cycling with his passion for design.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 polka dots.

Gamechangers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History by Molly Schiot

This photographic survey of trailblazing female athletes through history celebrates a diverse range of inspirational talents.

gamechangers

Molly Schiot created the Instagram account @theunsungheroines to celebrate pioneering female athletes the world has scarcely heard of. Game Changers expands that concept: a collection of historic photos Schiot found in libraries and archives, paired with short narratives of a page or less, tell the stories of groundbreaking and little-known female athletes.

The women featured here include some better-known names like Kathrine Switzer, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King and Nadia Comăneci. These are joined by early mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, powerboat racer Betty Cook, judo champion (and mother to Ronda Rousey) AnnMaria De Mars, the “Sea Women” of the Korean island of Jeju and many more: boxers, billiard players, swimmers, skateboarders, players of team sports, Olympians, referees and umpires, sports journalists, coaches and policy makers (for example, the legislators behind Title IX). While women from the United States dominate these pages, every continent is represented except Antarctica. Women of color and those of non-binary genders are given special consideration as well. Among the strange and wonderful, don’t miss the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail’s entire length in one season: she was 67 years old at the time.

These stories are brief but breathtaking. Not only athletes, these women were often activists and advocates as well as accomplished in business and the arts. Their photographs, naturally, speak volumes on their own. To be read in small pieces or cover-to-cover, Game Changers is an obviously indispensable choice for athletes, fans, parents or anyone else stirred by courage, talent and determination.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 balls.

book beginnings on Friday: Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

cycling-scrapbook

For one of Shelf Awareness’s upcoming gift editions, I am reading a big, hefty coffee-table book on one of my favorite topics.

Cycling has always been the sport for me. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was attracted by its sense of style: things like Fausto Coppi’s sunglasses, Jacques Anquetil’s jerseys and the beautiful graphics on a piece of Campagnolo kit have provided a regular source of inspiration in my work.

But there’s much more to it than that.

I am initially a little amused that Smith finds it obvious that he’d be attracted by cycling’s style, because I don’t think that’s a terribly common reaction today to Lycra-clad roadies on the streets of U.S. cities and towns. I know what he means, of course. And I think his tastes are more understandable in the era he’s referring to, and the more so because he’s British.

I like the way this beginning finishes up with a teaser, too. Aren’t we all anxious to hear what ‘more’ there is to come?


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots on goal.

Magnum Cycling by Guy Andrews

Stunning photographs of bike racing across disciplines and decades, succinctly narrated, provide a compelling historical perspective.

magnum cycling

From Magnum Photos, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious photo agencies, comes a collection of historic and iconic images of bike racing. Arranged and with accompanying text by Guy Andrews, Magnum Cycling is visually stunning and insightful.

Chapters are organized by themes, times and places, and photographers. The photographs of Robert Capa and Harry Gruyaert each fill a whole chapter, focusing on the 1939 and 1982 Tours de France, respectively. Guy le Querrec’s work covers “winter and spring,” including cyclocross racing in Belgium and France, and the Renault-Elf pro team’s winter training program in 1985. Chapters also address the velodrome, including six-day racing and the Paralympics, and the spectacle of the spectators. Henri Cartier-Bresson and John Vink join an impressive list of featured photographers. Along the way, Andrews explores the history of the Tour de France, national differences in spectator traditions and the legacy of figures like Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Lance Armstrong. His tone combines awe with humor when he calls cyclocross “simply bonkers… akin, perhaps, to bull-running in Pamplona or cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire.”

The balance of text to photographs is perfect: Andrews’s narrative and captions inform and elucidate, and then get out of the way of the extraordinary images that are the heart of this beautiful book. More than 200 gorgeous, intimate photographs in black-and-white and vibrant color present a view of a sport that is adrenaline-filled, fast-paced and deeply, tenderly human. Magnum Cycling is a superior collection of art, history and emotion.


This review originally ran in the June 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 moments.
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