When I was a kid and an aspiring track star, I drew inspiration from the autobiographies of the greats. My dad had three autobiographies which I read over and over to glean what I could, and to immerse myself into their world. In many ways I suppose that was my first foray into ‘visualization’ and setting what I hoped might be a future state outcome for myself.
The first two autobiographies I read were Halberg’s (A Clean Pair of Heels) and Snell’s (No Bugles No Drums) written by the great Norman Harris. Harris wrote a lot of athletics books in the mid 1960’s including a third autobiography, an equally inspiring story about himself called Champion of Nothing, the story of an average runner working as a journalist who ran with Lydiard’s athletes to know what it was like, for the purposes of his writing, but without reaching any level of success. It was a story pitched at the majority of us who would never reach the elite level of the champions we aspired to become, and contained wonderful insights and thoughts that run through every runners head. Perhaps Champion of Nothing was the template for Wannbe Distance God, another memoir in a similar vein.
Sometime later, I read Steve Ovett’s brilliant autobiography, Ovett. In it, he paid homage to his training partner, Matt Paterson who ran with him constantly throughout his career. Running the same mileage as Steve did (up to 20-weeks of 100+ miles a week), Paterson built stamina doing the same workouts that Steve did, and honed his speed doing the same track sessions, yet for the immense commitment and workload he put in, Paterson never reached the same level of competitive success as Ovett. Ovett was lavish in his praise for his training partner to whom he attributed much of his success to.
Alas, like most books, all three autobiographies are now out of print, and are unavailable digitally. Fortunately in having these well-worn hardbacks, they’ve become precious treasures.
When I retired from competitive running I didn’t read any more autobiographies about middle distance track stars as my focus shifted onto other interests, that is, until this year.
I selected three autobiographies to read. The first thing I noticed was how autobiographies had changed, perhaps that was more a reflection of what I chose, but you be the judge of that. The bios were Mo (Mo Farah), My Life outside the Oval Office (Nick Symonds) and Fast Girl (Suzie Favor-Hamilton). There was certainly a lot more candidness than from a more reserved period insofar as kiss and tell was concerned.
All three bios were distinctly different, but equally compelling reads for different reasons. I found Mo Farah’s story fascinating, because Mo’s African immigration and divided family circumstances was altogether different and inspirational. Nick Symmonds’ story was as also fascinating in that it provided me with an insight to the modern commercial professional runner, and I found that insight useful, and if I’m honest, a more enjoyable read because Nick resonated more with me as being a guy who likes a beer, a party, an adventure, and well… you can read his book for yourself for the rest, suffice to say he’d have fitted right into being a great Kapiti Harrier at a time when I was. Fast Girl, on the other hand, was – for me – more of a curiosity read, but again, compelling with some revealing insights spanning being a female athlete and someone with mental illness who became an escort.
Aside from those autobiographies, during the past year I discovered a series of blog entries posted by an old running mate of mine. He recounted by way of photographs, the story behind the images, and in doing so essentially documented his own running memoirs. His motivation for doing so was to share and preserve the stories so they would not die or be forgotten, something I’m grateful to him for doing. I found reading his blog entries, in many ways to be more delightful than the bios of the famous. Perhaps because they were more relatable to me in the same way that Champion of Nothing and the efforts of Matt Paterson struck a chord as also rans. It’s a shame he hasn’t compiled the blogs into a book. It would be one I’d buy.
The thing that struck me when reading the blogs, and with the understanding of his motivation for publishing them on the internet was that we are in real danger of losing stories published only as digital files.
While the blog and social media forums are perfect for sharing, digital only content feels temporary to me and therefore at a high risk of being all too easily lost, forgotten or even uncompleted in the case of instalments. There are plenty of variables that come into play outside our immediate sphere of influence that can lead to content disappearing forever.
In the IT world there is already a growing unease that with our on-line electronic world, we are at risk of creating a substantial black hole of history.
Sure, old books go out of print, and I know libraries are collecting digital books these days, but if I look at my bookshelf, and the shelves of books in a library, I feel more reassured those out of print books will outlive stories, snippets and instalments created digitally on websites, this one included, or digital content shared on social media forums. It comes down to whether digital books will be able to be read agnostically on technology twenty years from now and that is something we don’t know.