After I wrote No Wind, I read a reviewer commenting on another running novel I’d come across. The reviewer had a bee in his bonnet about the ridiculously fast times in running novels that he’d read previously. For him such crazy fast times were too unbelievable for those stories to have any credibility.
Reading the review, my two immediate thoughts were (1) where were all these other running novels? and (2), was I guilty of the same?
To the first thought then. As a teenager, with only the pocket money I got from my dad, I once came across a second hand novel for 20-cents about a miler. As an aspiring runner myself, naturally I handed over the coins.
The book was called The Olympian by Brian Glanville, and it remains one of only two running related novels I read prior to writing No Wind. I hardly remember anything about The Olympian, which is out of print now, which is such a shame. All I know is it was published in 1965, with the book set in the 1960’s. The Olympian followed the trials and tribulations of a British miler, Ike Low. I recall Ike got married to a hurdler and they had a baby, but the family responsibilities all became too much for Ike; what with all the training and commitments needed to be the best, so they split-up. I also recall the climax to the story ended with Ike racing at an Olympic Games. The Olympiad must have been Tokyo or Mexico, and the story ended with a Soprano-like ending that left it up to the reader to interpret the ending.
I didn’t find that at all satisfying.
The other athletics related novel I read was called Golden Girl about a genetically manufactured American Barbie doll who was ‘created’ to win the Moscow Olympics 100m, 200m and 400m. Of course with her blonde good looks and speed, she was the ultimate justification of one political system over another at the height of the cold war.
So those two novels were my diet of running novels growing up in a world where there wasn’t an internet or on-line shopping.
Onto my second thought.
From recollection, Ike was running a 3:37 1500m or a 3:58 mile, which, for the period, was completely realistic, although, as I recall, Brendan Foster set a British record for the 1500m at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games in 1974 running a similar 1500m time to Ike, a decade later.
All this prompted me to think about the times my characters in No Wind would charge around the track back in 1992-1995, which is when No Wind is set. By today’s standards, admittedly, the times still appear to be incredibly fast, but are they really?
Here are the hard facts.
Steve Cram ran 3:29.67 to become the first man under 3:30 for 1500m way back in 1985 – that’s 30 years ago. Interestingly enough, his world record time is now the 74th fastest time ever run. There have been 97 sub 3:30 1500m times recorded since.
When I wrote No Wind, I knew that in the real world, Saïd Aouita held the world record at 3:29.46, which he’d set in 1985. Aouita was succeeded by the great Algerian Nouredinne Morceli, who rewrote the record books in 1993 and 1994 with world record times of 3:28.86 for the 1500m, and a 1-mile record time of 3:44.39 set a year later.
In No Wind, I kept those world record times as my baseline of achievement, so if a character in No Wind was to become the best, was to challenge, or even break world records, those phenomenal times were the benchmark for doing that.
So, for me, the times in No Wind, while seemingly outrageously fast, mirror times that the very best runners in our real world were running some 20 years ago now.
While running a sub 4 minute mile remains a remarkable feat, 50-years after it was first achieved, a 3:59 mile is now a dozen seconds behind what it takes to win a loaded premier mile race held as part of a Diamond League meet in 2015.
The legendary champion John Walker, who at his best, was racing 3:32.2 for the 1500m, now has the 598th fastest time ever run over that distance.
In the professional age of running, middle distance racing has certainly moved on, but more so in terms of deeper performances.
Nick Willis ran his best ever time for finishing 5th in a 1500m race when he recorded 3:29.66. The world records for the 1500m (3:26.00) and the 1-mile (3:44.39) were set two decades ago, so if you were going to be the fastest ever 1500m/miler on the planet back in 1993 in No Wind, or even today, those times remain the benchmarks to better.
In that regard, while those world record times have remained outrageous over the last 20-years, having a character in No Wind, or in my follow up novel Clipped Heels, record a 3:27 1500m is not so outrageous.
Not when you really think about it.