Review: Alberto Salazar’s 14 Minutes

14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life

I’ve been meaning to write something up about Alberto Salazar’s memoir for sometime, but now, with Salazar in the news, it seems like the right time.

Salazar was the most dominant marathon runner of his time — winning New York in 1980,81 and 82 and the Boston Marathon in 1982.  Salazar was legendarily driven, pushing himself into dangerously unhealthy territory in both his training and racing, most famously, in the legendary Duel in the Sun with Dick Beardsley at the 1982 Boston Marathon.  Salazar won that duel, but he was never the same. Afterwards, he battled depression and a compromised immune system. He finished a disappointing 15th in the 1984 Olympics, and spent years afterwards racing to disappointing finishes. Eventually, he was able to figure out his health issues*and, at 34, win South Africa’s legendary Comrades marathon.

Salazar in his running prime.

After Comrades, Salazar retired from competitive running and eventually founded the Oregon Distance Project, with which many great distance runners have been associated, including Galen Rupp, Mo Farah and Kara Goucher. If you follow the sport, you know it is also now embroiled in allegations of doping which may forever  tarnish Salazar’s reputation.

All of this (well, all of it but the doping) is covered in his memoir. As is his contentious relationship with his difficult and demanding father, his insane training regimes (including 200 mile weeks) his brush with death in 2007 (giving the book its title; allegedly Salazar’s heart stopped for 17 minutes), his relationship with athletes, (most notably his father-son like relationship with Rupp) and his deepening Catholicism, including his interest in the Marian phenomenon at Medjugorje.

If you’re interested in the history of distance running, the book is a must read. Salazar addresses how his troubled relationship with his father led to his running obsession, and how that running obsession perhaps ruined his health. He speaks openly about his deepening faith and his story of discovering Rupp is fascinating.

But Salazar is also a bit of a nut. The Medjugorje phenomenon is pretty far out, even for ultra-devote Catholics and his constant tinkering with his runners nutrition, gait, and training is all a bit mad scientist, (and perhaps also against the rules).

Salazar today

It can make for amusing, and occasionally bizarre reading. However, just because it is amusing, doesn’t mean it’s good.  As anyone who reads sport memoirs knows, much is always left out, and the writing is often workman like. Such is the case with 14 Minutes.  The point of this book is to cement Salazar’s reputation as one of the great men in U.S. distance running, so you’re not going to see anything about doping, or about the athletes who left the Oregon Distance Project broken. Still, it’s a fascinating story, made more interesting, perhaps, with the latest accusations that the Salazar presented in these pages may not be the full story of this slightly mad legend.

A side note about the copy of this book I read – I took 14 minutes out of the Brooklyn Public Library. Whoever had read it before me had carefully corrected numerous statement in the book with a pencil, correcting points of running history Salazar got wrong, or mile splits that didn’t add up. This was all well before the doping allegations, but someone in Brooklyn was already suspicious.  

*Or, as some whisper, find performance enhancing drugs.

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