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Steveu's Review of . . .

Run with the Champions

The new book by Marc Bloom, Senior Writer, Runner's World Magazine

Bloom's 'Champions' Takes the First Gold of the New Millennium

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By Stephen (steveu) Underwood

The appeal of super veteran running writer Marc Bloom's new book, Run with the Champions, is as diverse as the superstars he profiles.

Are you a veteran adult runner wanting history's great American champions acknowledged? Then this is a must read for you.

Are you a stat nut who wants to see how this country's best stack up with each other over the years? Then this is a must read for you.

Are you a young runner looking for some great role models as you try and ascend the ladder of your varsity team or state and national rankings? Then this is a must read for you.

And best of all, are you someone who not only wants to read about the careers of our superstars, but also how their training and success can apply to you and your teammates, or the runners you coach?

Yeeaahh, buddy! Then Run with the Champions is definitely a must read for you!

As an up-and-coming running writer and editor, a runner and racer dating back to the '70s, and just a general nut about the sport, sure, I'll have my quibbles about some of Bloom's rankings of the country's top 30 men and top 20 women. So may you. But the first thing to notice about this book is its intent.

There have been books profiling champions - Michael Sandrock's book, Running with the Legends and the legendary Track's Greatest Champions by Cordner Nelson come to mind. And Lord knows, there have been nearly as many books about training over the last 30 years as there are runners at , say, Great American!

But rarely have the two been combined and never this well.

And the timing! It couldn't be better as Bloom's book hits the scene as a distance resurgence is taking place at all levels - whether it be the recent battle for the U.S. 10K track record (taken down by Meb Keflezighi) or the searing accomplishments of young guns like Alan Webb and Dathan Ritzenhein. Bloom rides the crest of the wave and doesn't hesitate to get to the state of the sport.

Setting the Stage

In the first part of the book, called "A Running Start," Bloom establishes this intent. He talks first in the introduction (don't you dare skip it!) about he discovered the sport and its heroes, the process of this project and the spirit of what he's setting out to do: Pay tribute to "our 50 greatest runners, and to the underlying, uniquely American spirit that moved them," and offer ideas to fix "the problem" of the downturn in U.S. distance running fortunes since the early '80s.

In "The Glory of our Times: U.S. Greatness Restored", Bloom gives due to the programs, coaches and athletes (yes, he even mentions Webb and Ritz) that have again instilled hope - even foreshadowing what we've seen this year since his words were written. But he also - briefly, but pointedly - discusses some of the reasons why we had slipped. And does so, I might add, while avoiding the tired rants we often get into on message boards and nearly everywhere else.

Most importantly, he proceeds to follow through with five "specific measures" to develop more potential stars in the sport and a "four-pronged campaign to start us off." You may have heard a few of them, but most are pretty original and, given the context and the possible examples and methods given, pretty effective-sounding.

The Rankings

Then it's on to the "Lifetime Honors Point System" and the rankings of those top 30 men and top 20 women.

The point system and the compilation of points for each athlete had to be an arduous process, even for Bloom. There's a dizzying list of point values for everything from the Olympic gold medal to NAIA track and CC titles and Yonkers Marathon wins. Bloom admits that it "should spark a vigorous debate."
I am rarely challenged statistically, but even I didn't want to figure out how Doris Heritage came up with over 35,000 points. It made my head hurt.
On the other hand, it inspired the longing for a plethora of comparative info and stats that could have been produced. I also wouldn't have minded some points for American and world rankings. But the former would have probably been overkill and the latter would vary in its relevance.

In the end, Bloom just uses the rankings as a guide anyway. That's why Billy Mills (6th-place, 8800 points) can be ranked ahead of Steve Scott (12th place, 20,050 points). He even gives you an e-mail address to mail him your comments.

The mini-profiles (though I would have them longer, as I'll mention later) are a real treat, though - especially since we are given to shorter and shorter attention spans. You get quite a bit in four neat pages.

Firstly, there's a sidebar with the athletes' career-best times, basic biographical info and career highlights, along with a small photo. The body of each profile gives you a snapshot of the athlete, often focusing on the defining race or races in his or her career. With athletes like Mills or Bob Schul, the focus is on that big gold medal effort. For many others, it's several years of greatness or several spectacular races.

Bloom covers his bases well; rarely could I nitpick about something essential being left out. He generally captures personalities and interesting tidbits - noting the latter often in the breakout quotes and mini-sidebars with each story.

The final page highlights the athletes' training. This, too, is in varied fashion. With the Mel Sheppards and Abe Kiviats, details are a little hard to come by. But extensive descriptions of training sessions are given for most, including weekly breakdowns for many.

The athletes and their coaches lend perspective to the training, often in retrospect. And in many cases, even if you're a jaded veteran observer like myself, you'll be shaking your head in wonder.

The best thing about the profiles is learning what you didn't already know. While that may be most of the book for some of you, a lot of us have been reading about Bob Kennedy, Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit for years.

But how many of you really know a lot about Jim Beatty, Horace Ashenfelter or or Dyrol Burleson? Or Doris Heritage, Nina Kuscick or Miki Gorman?

Indeed, the most fascinating thing for me was learning about some of the women before my time. There's some truly inspiring and jaw-dropping stuff in there about what these women had to go through just to compete. In many cases, you'll be shaking your head in wonder at what they would have been able to do if they had been racing today instead of 25-30 years ago.

The number of titles and records for Francie Larrieu-Smith, Lynn Jennings and some of the others are just amazing. And I thought I knew about them! Bloom really gives you the full picture of America's elite. It's also nice to see some underappreciated runners like Brian Diemer and Cindy Bremser get their due.

The Final Kick

Finally, you move to the "Train the Champion's Way" section. There, Bloom gives us a chance to really make some use of what we've just read. He takes some signature training elements of the stars - whether it be principles, methods or specific workouts - and tells us what it is, how you do it and how you benefit.

Not every method will work for everyone, but there are at least a few things for everyone. And Bloom does a good job scaling down things for those of us not (yet) in the elite class.

My biggest complaint about the book is probably a "good" complaint. It leaves you wanting more. I want to read 14 pages each about Lindgren, Young, Heritage and Plumer, not just four. I want training programs galore. I want yearly stats and rankings. (I know, "I want, I want, I want!").

But let's see, 14 pages times 50 athletes is … 700 pages! That might be a wee bit much. If I'm an average American high school kid, I'm probably not carrying around and reading a 700-page-plus book. It takes just about as much time to read a profile as it does to read a Web page, watch a video or lose a quick game on Playstation2. Just right.

No, Bloom's book is just right. If you wanted to cover 20 stars, you could give them 14 pages apiece, but then you wouldn't really have a really good history of American distance running. Fifty turns out to be on the money, taking us into the true superstars and partway through those who made significant contributions in some realm -- with more of those cited in the respective No. 31-100 and 21-50 at the end of those sections.

It should leave you wanting more. So go get it. After you finish Bloom's book, read the other books and find the old articles about some of these guys and gals; read the other training books.

But most of all, use this book and it's info to inspire and improve your running or coaching. After about a year, your book should look like it's been through a lifetime of races, with its pages dog-eared and worn from repeated readings and info checking.

Bloom has given us, in a neat, tidy, user-friendly package, the best of American distance running in the first millennium. It's up to us now to set the tone for the future.

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