The dream of the sub-2:00 marathon has gotten a lot of attention in the media in the last few years as the marathon world record and “world best” have crept closer to that symbolic milestone than anybody could have anticipated just a decade ago. Several recent non-fiction books have explored the subject, and now an engaging and highly entertaining novel has joined them. “Million Dollar Marathon” by Philip Maffetone with Richard A. Lovett combines running, culture, history, sociology, politics, and a dash of intrigue and romance in a brisk and exciting story set in the not-too-distant future.
“Million Dollar Marathon” is the story of Xi, an expatriate Tibetan shepherd who grew up running in the high meadows of the Himalayas and his Indian coach, Mr. Singh. Xi (pronounced tshee) escapes Chinese controlled Tibet on foot and arrives in India, where he soon encounters a group of local runners and their coach. Mr. Singh takes him under his wing, and Xi is soon winning local races and discovering a world-class talent for the marathon. Eventually he will go head to head with a dozen of the world’s best runners on a mile-long track in Los Angeles in a heavily promoted shot at the world’s first two-hour marathon.
While Xi “is surprisingly sophisticated…in a charmingly naive manner” and quickly adapts to life outside Tibet, he never turns his back on his roots or his strongly-held rituals, including racing barefoot, singing while he runs, and drinking his native (and rare) Tara tea. Without giving too much away, the story also touches on the relationship between Tibet and China, a budding romance with Xi and a Chinese runner, and the ways in which sporting success is often exploited for political ends. On a personal and international level, “Million Dollar Marathon” does a great job of exploring what it means to be “independent” and “free”.
At times, the story seems simultaneously slightly Utopian and vaguely sinister, with the climactic marathon having elements of the best qualities of the Olympics as well as an uneasy “Hunger Games” vibe. There is no violence, or even threat of harm to anyone (in fact the authors nicely capture the supportive spirit of the running community in the interactions of the competitors), but the qualifying races, the limited field, and the world-wide hype all made me think of Xi as the Katniss Everdeen of marathon running.
The book is under 100 pages, but the story is very well-paced (pun intended). The narrative lopes along at a brisk and consistent rate, like Xi running a marathon, but there were times when I wished the story had slowed down, left the “race course”, and been allowed to wander and explore the “meadows and hills” of its characters’ thoughts and experiences, especially Xi’s.
Most of the story is seen through the eyes of Mr. Singh, not surprising, since co-author Lovett is a well-known Portland based running coach. There are a few passages where we get a window into Xi’s thoughts, but I wanted more, especially more insight into what goes through an elite runner’s mind during training sessions and races. (For example, training sessions at Big Bear in California are mentioned, but left undescribed). At one point during the Million Dollar Marathon, even Mr. Singh wonders “What was Xi thinking at the moment?” But then, “Xi himself was trying not to think. He was merely running.”
But minor quibbles aside, “Million Dollar Marathon” kept me riveted. It was hard to resist skipping ahead, especially during Xi’s races, and I found myself placing a hand over the next few paragraphs at times to avoid “accidental” spoilers about the outcome. The reader has to pace oneself, just like Xi.
As someone who likes music almost as much as running, I also enjoyed the way in which Xi used singing to motivate, energize, calm, and pace himself. While I don’t sing while I run, I do find that my best runs and races have come when the perfect song is playing in my head.
Flashes of humor also enliven the story, as when Xi’s new running friends ask him about his escape on foot from Tibet: “And you ran across Nepal in two days?” “Yes. Once I was out of Tibet, I was no longer in a hurry.” Or in the symbolism of Mr. Singh’s nervous striding during Xi’s races: “Xi looked calm, but Mr. Singh wasn’t. Pace, pace, pace, pace, turn. Pace, pace, pace, pace, turn. I should have gotten a larger hotel room, he thought.” The coach’s own “pacing” is a reflection of his runner’s.
Great bits of wisdom also abound, but I’ll let you discover them on your own. Ultimately, “Million Dollar Marathon” is about freedom, and the many ways that word is defined. Just as Steve Prefontaine said “I run best when I run free”, for Xi, “Freedom was also what he felt every time he ran.”
“Million Dollar Marathon” is published by Strange Wolf Press for $8.95 and is available on Amazon. It is also available on Kindle for only $2.99.