Duel In the Sun: The Story of Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America’s Greatest Marathon – John Brant
In the twilight years of amateur running in the Boston Marathon before prize packages were introduced to incentivize big names and bigger turnouts, elite runners duked it out on 26.2 miles of pavement from Hopkinton to Boston for nothing other than bragging rights. Perhaps the greatest battle of all was the famed “duel in the sun” in 1982 between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. Beardsley had been favored to win the marathon until Salazar, the runner that confidently proclaimed improbable goals before his races only to demolish them, entered two months prior to the marathon. In a fierce contest of mental stamina and physical endurance, Beardsley and Salazar ran shoulder to shoulder for the last 9 miles of the race with no other competitors in sight. Although both men spent years dreaming about Boston and 2:09 minutes engaged in intense battle, the aftermath of the marathon was perhaps the most pivotal part of each man’s life. Salazar slowly descended from a promising career to one plagued by nagging and indeterminate maladies. Beardsley’s professional running career was cut short by ACL surgery shortly after the marathon, but his life was much more significantly impacted by addiction. In retrospect, each of the runners traces the change in their life trajectory back to the duel in the sun.
“Duel in the Sun” by John Brant chronicles much more than the famed race of ’82. Featuring two competitors, Brant spends time exploring the backgrounds of each runner, how they found their way to elite running, and the unexpected paths their lives branch out on after the culmination of the race. A thorough historian, Brant traces Cuban-American Salazar’s family history back to the days when his father was a resistor-in-arms with Castro before fleeing to the United States when he no longer felt safe under Castro’s communist Cuba. Similarly, Brant explores Beardsley’s country childhood and farming work ethic, as well as how the alcoholism of both his parents contributed to his genetic predisposition and later addiction to painkillers. As a sports writer, Brant focuses in on relevant details of training, racing, and everything else related to running without going into the weeds with nuance. At the same time, he offers a holistic picture of each runner and their experience by including how their childhoods shaped not only everything leading up to the duel in the sun, but also everything that came after. The result is a gripping retelling of an amazing race that considers all the factors at stake.
I love this book! The chapters alternate between runners, focusing on experiences before the marathon that influenced their running as well as significant moments after the marathon as the runners struggled to make meaning of the difficulties in their lives. Throughout the dueling narratives runs the theme of the ’82 Boston Marathon, which unites the multiple storylines. I was also pleased with the respectful tone Brant takes toward each of the runners’ struggles, rather than exploiting individual difficulty for consumption and comparison. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in running.