The Longform Guide to Running

Champions, record-breakers, frauds and underdogs: a reading marathon.

Steve Prefontaine (254) leads the field during the a race at the AAU Championships in 1971 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

Feel that? It’s almost-kinda warm outside! Hey there, spring! In honor of it not being totally freezing, and as inspiration to myself (and maybe you?) to get out and go for a jog, here’s a collection of stories about running. (Note: OK, fine, so some of these stories may not make you want to run at all. Particularly up mountains or around Queens.)


The Freshman and the Great Guru
Pat Putnam • Sports Illustrated • June 1970


A profile of a young Steve Prefontaine.

“The mile run wouldn’t start until 8:30 p.m., or not for another three hours, which meant, of course, that it was time for the good people of Eugene, Ore. to start gathering at the track. They filed by the thousands into the two creaking old wooden stands that flank the University of Oregon’s new yellow $125,000 jewel of a track, and while they waited they ate their dinners from picnic baskets and talked of the university’s extensive list of sub-four-minute milers, eight in all, and they became excited with the prospect that the list surely would be increased before night fell across the fir forests. In Eugene, babies are teethed on stopwatches, and at most any hour from dawn until well past dusk the streets are jammed with joggers, their wheezing in tune with the rumble of passing log trucks, each perhaps pretending for a moment that he is one of Bill Bowerman’s track stars, say a Steve Prefontaine. Ah, Prefontaine! Only a freshman, but the best prospect in the world at two miles, three miles and 5,000 meters, and in Eugene, where track is what football is in South Bend, that makes him taller than the tallest Douglas fir.”

Debbie Heald Set an Important Record
Steve Friedman • Runner’s World • December 2012

A 16-year-old runner, her coach and the lasting memory of an improbable race.


“They are sitting together at a round oak table in a sun-soaked living room on a mountain ridge in Ukiah, California, surrounded by fir trees and hiking trails. It’s late spring, and they are an hour from the Pacific Ocean, 45 minutes from Mendocino National Forest, and nearly 500 miles from the place where they first changed each other’s lives. Forty years ago, when she was just 16 and sometimes running 10 or 12 miles a day, he helped her accomplish something no female high school runner had ever done before, and none has done since.

“He’s 73 now, retired. She’s 57, living on psychiatric disability.”

Marathon Man
Mark Singer • The New Yorker • August 2012


The strange case of Kip Litton, road race fraud.

“The debunkers zeroed in on the West Wyoming Marathon, the one race that Litton had supposedly won outright. One of them came across a Web cache of the race’s defunct home page, which included this caveat: ‘With a low entry fee, there will be no goodie bags, no shirts, no photographer and no finishers medals.’

“On January 11, 2011, a poster called Liptodakip wrote, ‘Still curious about the west Wyoming marathon. 29 runners total. And he won it. Anyone know anything about it? Is it a real race? The main page is down and now the results are gone. (was up last week). did he make up an entire race? That would be bold!’


“Yes, it would. And, yes, he did. LetsRun exploded: West Wyoming was Litton’s pièce de résistance, and even his most indignant accusers had to concede their perverse admiration. In this race, the key to winning was ingeniously uncomplicated: Make the whole thing up! For his fabricated marathon, Litton had assembled not only a Web site but also a list of finishers and their times (plus name, age, gender, and home town), and created a phantom race director, who responded to e-mail queries. It occurred to Kyle Strode that six months earlier, when he had raised questions about Litton to ‘Richard Rodriguez,’ the reply (‘Wow, that’s quite a scenario!’) had omitted a crucial detail. When Richard Rodriguez looked in the mirror, Litton looked back.”


Run Like Fire Once More
Sam Shaw • Harper’s • August 2007

On the world’s longest foot race, which takes place entirely within Queens.

“Such were the hazards last summer in Jamaica, Queens, at the tenth running of the Self-Transcendence 3,100. The fifteen participants—all but two of them disciples of the Bengali Guru Sri Chinmoy, who has resided in the neighborhood for forty years—hailed from ten countries on three continents. They ran in all weather, seven days a week, from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, or until their bodies compelled them to rest. If they logged fewer than fifty miles on a given day, they risked disqualification. By their own reckoning, the runners climbed eight meters per lap, mounting and descending a spectral Everest every week and a half. They toiled in this fashion for six to eight weeks, however long it took them to complete 5,649 circuits—3,100 miles—around a single city block.”


The Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru
Anna Clark Grantland • October 2011

He rose from poverty to fame as a marathon champion at only 23. But was his fall from a balcony outside of Nairobi murder, accident, or suicide?

“Here is what we know about the death of Sammy Wanjiru: It happened late in the early hours of May 15 at his posh home in Nyahururu, a Rift Valley town about 100 miles from Nairobi. Sammy fell from a second-story balcony — a drop of about 16 feet — and landed on the pavement outside. He lost consciousness. Hospital doctors could not revive him.

“Here is the mystery: whether Sammy fell, jumped, or was pushed.

“Sammy had been drinking that night after a day of training. He brought a woman named Jane Nduta home with him. Triza Njeri, Sammy’s wife, returned to find Sammy in bed with her. The couple quarreled before she locked Sammy and Jane upstairs, leaving them with no way out, and then Triza left the house. Minutes later, Sammy dropped from the balcony. But why did he fall?”

The Runner
Jordan Conn • ESPN • Feb 2013


A profile of 101-year-old marathoner Fauja Singh.

“So Fauja ran in Toronto, arms swinging, yellow turban bobbing, chest-length Zeusian beard swaying in the wind. He was joined by other runners with roots in the Indian region of Punjab, their appearance in keeping with the traditions of their Sikh faith. Fauja trotted for the first three miles, until his coach encouraged him to slow to a jog. Speed was fleeting, the enemy of endurance. By mile 6, he’d downshifted to a toddle. After a break for a rubdown and some tea at mile 18, he settled into a walk.


“The exhaustion took hold sometime around mile 20, but Harmander kept Fauja upbeat with white lies about the remaining distance. He’d tell Fauja there were four miles left when there were actually six, then two miles left when there were actually three, making Fauja believe he’d covered more ground than he actually had, until finally Fauja saw the only mile-marker he understood: the finish line.”

The Power of One
Gary Smith • Sports Illustrated • September 2009

At age 17, Bonnie Richardson won the Texas state track team championship all by herself. Then she did it again.


“THE BEAST, he scribbled beneath the cartoons, and the nickname caught on with the boys at school. No matter how many times she’d conquered them on the playground since grade school, they’d never seemed threatened, because she’d never rubbed their faces in it. They became her pals, the strongest ones happy to hoist her and turn her upside down when she headlocked them in school or at the Sonic Drive-In, 10 miles away in Brady, a consequence far preferable to the drama and gossip of the girls. Bonnie boycotted their locker-room silliness before her basketball games, lying in her stall—one of six small shower and changing cubicles claimed by upperclassmen—with her big feet protruding, her earphones clamped and metal rock howling, readying herself for the challenge while teammates danced, chatted and squealed. If the girls got louder than Avenged Sevenfold at full blast, she’d let ‘em have it. Otherwise she remained an island, and they’d roll a ball at those big feet to rouse her when it was time to hit the court.


“It was one thing to go through that locker-room door and be called a monster by an opponent or a fan, another for a shy girl to have her best buddies begin calling her the Beast. Bonnie absorbed that, mulling her options … and then pulled out her markers. She wrote da beast in large letters on homemade capes to wear on her Homecoming float and on Class Color Day, and started signing her yearbook inscriptions that way. She took her other dubious nickname, Canoe Shoe—the one Lee laid on her in eighth grade—gave it a funky spelling and had it etched on the breast of her letter jacket: KANU SHU. In a place where folks tucked their differences away, she wore hers. She let the Beast off the leash, and everyone else could run for cover.”


The Men Who Live Forever
Christopher McDougall • Men’s Health • April 2008

In Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon, the Tarahumara Indians party hard, get by on a diet of carbs and beer, and can still run 100-mile races, even in their 60s.

“So how do they do it? How is it that we, in one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, can devote armies of scientists and terabytes of data to improving our lives, yet keep getting fatter, sicker, and sadder, while the Tarahumara, who haven’t changed a thing in 2,000 years, don’t just survive, but thrive? What have they remembered that we’ve forgotten


“That’s the mystery that brought me here, to the deep Mexican outback, for this impromptu sunset encounter with three ambassadors from the past. Salvador eases the truck to a stop, and we slowly slide out. The three men facing us are dressed in white toga skirts and bright, billowing blouses that look like pirate shirts. Their faces are hard and angular, and their jet black hair is chopped low over their eyes in bowl cuts. On their feet are thin sandals lashed high around their calves with leather thongs, the kind you’d wear to a Halloween party if you were playing Julius Caesar.

The Last Man Up
Christopher Solomon • Runner’s World • Feb 2013

It was a three-mile footrace. Thousands were in attendance. So how did Michael LeMaitre disappear?

“But the man wearing bib number 548 didn’t return in an hour and a half. Michael LeMaitre has never come down the mountain. Mountain rescue experts, firemen, state troopers, search dogs, helicopter pilots, volunteers, and LeMaitre’s family spent thousands of hours scouring the mountain for him. They have yet to find even a single clue to his fate.

“Think about that for a moment: 1.5 miles up. Roughly 1.6 miles down. Hundreds of runners within view of thousands of fans, and a man simply vanished. How the hell is that even possible?

“It is as if, one exasperated relative told me, ‘The mountain swallowed this man.’”

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