Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: 14 Minutes (2012)

By Alberto Salazar and John Brant

There aren't a great many magical names when it comes to marathon running among Americans. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers come to mind, and so does Alberto Salazar. The latter had a rather odd career, leaving a variety of questions behind.

Here, then, are some answers. Salazar's autobiography, "14 Minutes," covers the high and low points in his life, and it's all relatively dynamic.

For our purposes, let's start with the title. Ask a runner about 14 minutes, and the response probably will be along the lines that it's a really, really good time for the 5,000 meters on a track. As of this writing, the world record is 12:37 for men and 14:11 for women. So 14 minutes is a quite good time for the men, and a goal for women.

But that's not what Salazar means by the title, even though he ran the distance well in his career. It refers to how long his heart was stopped during a heart attack in 2007. If you are thinking that 14 minutes is a long time for a heart to stop, you are exactly right - most never revive from such a stoppage. Yet Salazar had few after-effects of the incident, and has continued his coaching career.

As you'd expect, the heart attack makes for dramatic reading. But there's other drama along the way. Salazar was born in Cuba and moved to the United States at a very early age. His father knew Fidel Castro during the Revolution, and suffered a falling out with the Cuban leader over Castro's rejection of religion - specifically, cancelling the construction of a new church - shortly after the change in government leadership. Salazar's father, a fiery personality and then some according to his son, remained angry at Castro and was part of anti-Castro groups for years to come.

Alberto, though, pushed his passion into other areas - mostly running. He ran in high school and college. It's tough to know how much pure talent was involved - certainly some - but Salazar's blessing and curse at the same time was his fanatic drive for success. No one outworked him, and no one outtrained him. Eventually, that translated to a world record although the course was shown to be short. Salazar won three straight New York City marathons, and one Boston marathon; the latter was the famous "Duel in the Sun," beating Dick Beardsley in one of the great marathons in history.

Then, the winning essentially stopped. No more wins in New York, no Olympic medals. As Salazar recounts his time here, it seems pretty obvious that he wasn't too good at listening to his body and was a little too willing to ignore pain when it popped up. Salazar was never the same, although he did climax his career with an ultra-marathon win in South Africa. He also had a religious awakening along the way, which he discusses here in a sincere manner.

After leaving competitive running, Salazar moved on to coaching. He took on a job with Nike and has tried to help runners. Salazar has had some successes, although Americans still aren't catching up to the East Africans very often in the distance events.

Salazar moves the story along pretty quickly. Credit probably should go to John Brant for some of that. It's only 260 pages of text, and there's enough drama to hold your interest.

It's tough to look at Salazar and wonder about what might have been. Still, it's interesting to know that the same qualities that made him such a good runner probably contributed to his somewhat sudden downfall. It's an interesting story, particularly to runners, and that makes "14 Minutes" a worthwhile effort.

Four stars

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