Book review: “Running for their lives”

Walking around Dun Laoghaire before travelling to the Snowdon International race, I browsed a local bookshop and picked up hardcover book with an interesting looking sepia cover. Two runners were on the picture: Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi, perhaps the fathers of modern ultra running, and this was their story, written by debutante author Mark Whitaker.

The author takes no prisoners as he provides a perfectly balanced portrait of two men who were clearly deeply flawed in many ways, yet should have been celebrated in their own time. They were not, which this book seeks to redress. For those of us passionate about running, and ultra-running in particular, it takes us back to the roots of our sport.

A trans-continental adventure

The main narrative “Running for their lives” revolves around the meeting between Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi at the first of two of the ill-fated”Trans-Continental races”,  organised by C.C. Pyle. During the 1928 stage race starting in Los Angeles and finishing in New York, two of England’s greatest ever distance runners would form a bond, while lost in the Arizona wilderness, that would last for a life-time.

Whitaker does not attempt to write a biography of either Newton nor Gavuzzi but weaves a wider tale, giving rare insights into the history of South Africa and the birth of the Comrades Marathon, professional running in the US and Canada in the 1930s and the intransigent struggle between the Amateur Athletics Association and the emerging forces of professionalism. Once again, as in Richard Askwith’s “Feet in the Clouds“, the hypocrisy and stupendous stubbornness of Chancery Lane is exposed and we are left to regret the damage done to the careers of great athletes such as Newton and Gavuzzi.

This book partly seeks to redress this and re-establish the ultra-runners in their proper historical context: as pioneers of a sport that is now booming and whose leading athletes are celebrated as celebrities, having overcome a figment of the personal hardship of their predecessors.

The achievements of Newton and Gavuzzi have also not faded with time: the “Trans-Continental Race” in 1929 was won in an average time of 11.2kph over more than 525 hours of running. Conditions on the road were often grueling, nutrition and accommodation poor and several daily stages required runners to cover between 40 and 70 miles through hilly terrain.

Why we should care about Newton

Arthur Newton has, posthumously, gained much of the recognition he deserved in his life-time through Timothy Noakes’ “Lore of Running” who uses Newton’s training ideas as the basis for his “15 Laws of Running“. These same ideas were largely opposed, ignored or ridiculed in his own time.

For me Newton’s ideas were particularly interesting as they greatly influenced Percy Cerutty, one of the coaches’ who have shaped my own training approach. The two men, both scorned by mainstream athletics, met in the 1950s and many of Newton’s ideas survived to shape the training that produced the indomitable Herb Elliott.

Newton, like Lydiard, invented a heavily endurance-based programme for himself through self-experimentation that flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the time. Doing most of his running around the hilly trails and tracks of his farm in the obscure province of Natal, South Africa, Newton went on to shatter most of the standing ultra-running records comprehensively, and repeatedly.

There is a red thread from Newton to Cerutty and Lydiard and anyone interested in the development of athletics training, as well as history in general, should read this book.

Gavuzzi and the men of no fame

Peter Gavuzzi gained some fame late in life as interest in his trans-continental exploits grew. Bruce Tulloh, the famous athletics coach (who now work with Orbana), visited the aging Gavuzzi ahead of his own Trans-Continental run (recounted in “Four Million Footsteps”) but, like Newton, his story is one of a life of hardship, solitude and poverty.

And that is the greatest credit to the book and what makes it stand apart from books such as “Ultra-marathon man” by Dean Karnazes: it is a somber and serious read for the most part about men who knew true solitude and loneliness, rather than just the disconnectedness from each other characteristic of life today. Men who virtually risked their lives and livelihood to run across a continent, often received nothing but scorn and broken promises in return, when today, runners can be universally lauded for doing so much less. This book puts our achievements in their proper context and teaches a lesson of humility and perspective we should all take to heart. As the author puts it:

…elite athletes have become civil servants, paid by the state to break records and win medals for the good and glory of the nation. They are cosseted and monitored and tested; how they use their time is overseen and checked; what they eat and drink is carefully selected. They travel with entourages of physiotherapists, masseurs, podiatrists, psychiatrists and dietitians. Even those who have never been near and illegal performance-enhancing substance are somehow products of a system, not quite themselves in the raw. Men like Newton and Gavuzzi most were…

Conclusion

For a sweeping tale of adventure and pieces of history that you never knew you’d be interested in, this book is a superb read. Well-written and moving along with alacrity, this book is fated not to create the ripple or sales of “Born to Run” but it features an adventure of a greater scale and priceless ideas on how to harden your mind for the tests of ultra-running – perhaps Newton’s ultimate legacy as a coach.

The book is not a biography recounting most of Newton’s records and here the author recommends, we reference “Tea with Mr Newton” which was published in 2007 and which will make its way onto my wishlist.

[rating: 4.5/5] Affecting, engaging and authoritative tale of running, and ultra-running, history.

Next we continue our focus on ultra-running books as I have received a free preview copy of Andy Mouncey’s “Magic, Madness and Ultra-marathon running

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René

Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.
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