Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Twenty-four Years to Boston (2013)

By Jim Brennan

Books about running come in the usual categories for the most part. There are the usual histories and biographies about great men and women participating in the sport. There are instructional volumes, telling everyday people how to get faster if they follow a specific training program. There are a few philosophical books as well.

My guess, though, is that there are more inspirational books in the running section of the bookstore than in many other areas, especially in sports. After all, a kick in the pants, so to speak, is sometimes necessary to get people out the door and on to the streets.

Jim Brennan's book, "Twenty-four Years to Boston," falls in that latter category. The Philadelphia-area runner decided to take a second kick at the can at running during the course of middle age, and thus is something of an example to others in that sense.

This is a rather straightforward story. Brennan ran the 1981 Philadelphia Marathon - one for the proverbial bucket list - and didn't give the sport a great deal of thought for close to decades. But as 2001 approached and his life had gone through changes, Brennan became caught up in the idea that running the same race again - hopefully with a similar time to the first time around - could show that he had kept Father Time at arm's length. That's in spite of the fact that he vowed after the first one that he was done with marathons.

There were some bumps in the proverbial road, but Brennan worked himself into good condition, took part in several training runs and races, and made it to the finish line in the Philadelphia Marathon. That's a pretty good accomplishment (it takes up the first half of the book), but one that left him feeling "what's next?" It took a while to set a goal, but he found one: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Brennan obviously made it, as you could guess from the title of the book. The story continues through the next four years, as he qualifies for Boston through a race in Scranton and then turns up for the fabled race in Massachusetts.

Brennan deserves plenty of credit for this accomplishment. For our purposes, though, there's another question that has to be answered: How is the book? The answer comes back - all right.

Brennan is a pretty good writer for someone who doesn't do it regularly or for a living. He joined a local writing workshop, and has a friendly style that comes across pretty well. There's not a great deal of drama in the story, since we know he'll be in Boston ... and know he probably wouldn't be writing the book if he collapsed on Heartbreak Hill. This checks in at 164 pages or so, and goes by quickly.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. There are plenty of details about training runs, apparently taken from his journal along the way. It's difficult to make them too interesting to the outsider; better runners/writers than Brennan have tried and failed in that task in other books. I was at a disadvantage in one sense, because Brennan did most of his running in Philadelphia - and I'm not from Philadelphia. Therefore, the landmarks mentioned along the way will resonate mostly with those living in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

There's also the matter of timing. Brennan's running story mostly goes from 1981 to 2005 (there is an epilogue; nice to see he kept at it after Boston). Therefore, we are reading this almost nine years after the fact. While the story is somewhat timeless, it obviously throws up a bit of a red flag when there's a gap of so many years between the story's end and the book's publication. I'll bet a book or two will be coming out soon about a similar story that ends in Boston in 2013 - now remembered for the terrorist attack on the finish line. That book will obviously have more dramatics than this one, and there's nothing the author could do about that. You get the ending that you get in a effort like this.

Still, I'm not one to say that possible inspiration should be discredited under any circumstances. "Twenty-four Years to Boston" is for a very narrow niche - middle-aged runners in the Philadelphia area who need a little push to put on their running shoes. Most won't qualify. But for those that do, and if leads them to an active and more healthy lifestyle, then the book will have served its purpose. Brennan no doubt learned that writing a book requires the patience of a marathoner, and he can be very proud of both accomplishments.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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