Marathon tale long on suspense

Destination Mind Games

March 21, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America's Greatest Marathon

John Brant

Rodale Press/210 pages

Some of the best sports books lift the veil from events or athletes forgotten by modern generations.

Seabiscuit is a powerful example from recent years. Most people who would remember the age when that spunky horse was the nation's biggest sports star are dead. So the story seemed fresh and for many who read it; the twists and turns packed genuine surprise.

Marathoners Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran much more recently than Seabiscuit. I'm sure many hard-core running fans remember their showdown at the 1982 Boston Marathon. But the story of the race was entirely new to me. And that was part of what made John Brant's Duel in the Sun such a happy surprise.

Brant initially presented the tale of Salazar and Beardsley as a magazine piece in Runner's World. But this more padded version remains taut over 210 pages.

The author does a great service by not overstuffing his book with digressions on the history of long-distance running in the United States or dairy farming in Minnesota (Beardsley's occupation). He dives right into the race and weaves the biographies of each man throughout.

As a general rule, obsessive people make great subjects for writers. And few are more obsessed with a seemingly uncomfortable pursuit than elite distance runners. Their stories are windows into a world far from most of ours.

Salazar entered the marathon as the highly confident king of American distance running. Beardsley was plainly not as fast, but he brought far greater experience in marathons and was peaking at just that moment.

The men met at the exact time when their skills and Boston's brutal racing conditions could combine to produce a classic.

But the book is just as much about how Salazar and Beardsley coped with life after racing. Not always well, as it turns out. Physical deterioration mysteriously hit Salazar before his expected peak at the 1984 Olympics. Beardsley endured more dramatic tribulations that led him deep into pill addiction.

As the pages dwindled, I was truly hungry to find out who would win the race and if either man would turn out OK. It's a testament to Brant that he kept me in suspense for so long.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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