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What Is It About Running That Makes Great Books? A Talk With Author David Davis

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As Chris McDougall explains in Born to Run, the three great U.S. running booms have all coincided with economic downturns: the first came during the Great Depression, the second starting in the early 1970s, and the most recent started the year after September 11th. This third running boom has also brought us a bumper crop of first-rate books, including Born to Run and Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, with still more on the way.

David Davis, the former sports editor of the L.A. Weekly and a contributor to publications including the L.A. Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated, checks in this month with Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, a new running book timed to build interest in the upcoming Summer Olympics in London.

"Davis brings the dramatic Olympic marathon of 1908 to life in this detail-rich account," according to Booklist:

A classic underdog story, the epic race between Italian Dorando Pietri, Irish-American Johnny Hayes, and Onondaga-Canadian Tom Longboat transfixed the world and established the marathon as the marquee event it is today. Although the focus is on just one event at the 1908 Olympics, the text places the marathon in the context of the evolution of the Olympics and other major sporting competitions during this period.

We caught up with author David Davis recently to discuss the book and running books in general.

What prompted you to take on this subject for a book?

DD: A photograph, actually. The photograph of Dorando Pietri at the finish line. Long before I came up with the idea for the book, I was transfixed by the image. It was the first action photograph that captured the climactic moment of a major sporting event, and all I wanted to know was, Who is this guy and why are those men dressed in suits hovering around him?

When I began to research the event itself, I realized what a rich story it was. This was more than a marathon race because it was the dawn of the modern era in sports: everything that we talk about now in sports -- stadium deals, performance-enhancing drugs, celebrity athletes, rivalry, media coverage -- can be traced to the 1908 Olympics.

You know that you're onto something when all of the so-called minor characters involved are so compelling: Arthur Conan Doyle is in the stadium covering the marathon for the London Daily Mail newspaper. His game story about Dorando's collapse, which ran in newspapers around the world, is unbelievably gripping. Then there's President Teddy Roosevelt, who embraces Johnny Hayes and the entire U.S. Olympic team, and Irving Berlin, who wrote his first hit song, 'Dorando,' about Pietri. And on and on.

It had to be a challenge digging through the archives to do research on events from a century ago. What were some of major challenges and any happy discoveries you made?

DD: I thought that finding material about the race was going to be the most challenging part of doing the book. Turns out, in the first decade of the 20th century, newspapers were like blogs are today. Everyone had one. New York City had dozens of daily newspapers -- and those were the ones in English. Between all the libraries and research centers that I visited in London, Dublin and other parts of Ireland, Toronto, the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago, I found a ton of stuff. It was almost overwhelming, but I'd rather have the problem of having too much material than the other way around.

I was especially naïve about Tom Longboat. I had never heard of him before researching the book and figured that there wouldn't be too much about him. But he was the biggest star in Canadian sports at the time, and in the run-up to the Olympics he was written about every day. And, because he was at the center of controversy concerning his amateur status and, quite frankly, his race, he was written about in U.S. newspapers, English newspapers, Canadian newspapers, and Irish newspapers.

And then, you get lucky. It turned out that the son of Roy Welton, the fourth-place finisher in the 1908 marathon, lived about 40 minutes from me. He had two scrapbooks of articles about his father and the race and was generous in sharing them. When I was researching Tom Longboat at the Toronto Public Library, I wandered upstairs and boom -- there was a whole special collections room devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle.

Are you going to the Olympics? What in particular are you excited about watching?

DD: I'm an Olympics geek -- this will be the twelfth Olympics that I've attended -- and I'll watch anything and everything, from the Opening Ceremonies to table tennis to boxing. I'm most psyched for track and field because of all the story-lines: Will Usain Bolt be able to do it again? Will Allyson Felix finally win an individual gold medal? Who's the unknown athlete, male or female, who'll snatch victory from the favorite? And, of course, I'm readying for the marathon races. The key question is, will Paula Radcliffe, one of Britain's most decorated and beloved athletes, be able to compete for a medal on the streets of London? If she can, it'll be THE story of the Games.

In doing a major running book, you enter good company. What are some of your favorite books on running?

DD: The Perfect Mile, by Neal Bascomb, is a great book, impeccably reported, about Roger Bannister, John Landy, and Wes Santee and their chase to break the four-minute barrier for the mile. It's a story that we think we already know -- Bannister was the first runner to go under four minutes - but that's just the departure point for Bascomb. I tip my hat to him: I "stole" the format of following three competing runners from three different countries for "Showdown." On the fiction side of the mile, I vote for The Olympian, by Brian Glanville. An oldie but goodie.

For marathon-related books, I'm a huge fan of Duel in the Sun, by John Brant. It's about the 1982 Boston Marathon and the match-up between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. Riveting writing, intriguing characters, as Brant shows how one race transformed the lives of two elite runners. Recently, I enjoyed Benjamin Cheever's Strides. You get a little bit of everything -- history and literature, humor and memoir.

Anything that Kenny Moore writes I'll read. He knows so damn much about distance running -- and, especially, the way runners think -- because he competed at the highest levels. Best Efforts, which is his greatest-hits collection from when he was a staff writer at SI, is an excellent compilation. Amby Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston Marathon, is another one of the runners-turned-writers who I'll read anything by. I recommend The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life.

And Born to Run?

I'd put Born to Run in the pantheon -- and not just because it's sold a zillion copies. This is a great story told well. Chris McDougall takes the reader with him on this incredible, epic journey. You can't stop turning the pages until you're done -- and then you want to read it again.