New book explores the feats of the world’s most extraordinary runners

In the Running: Stories of Extraordinary Runners from Around the World by Phil Hewitt
In the Running: Stories of Extraordinary Runners from Around the World by Phil Hewitt

Researching and writing a new book about running has proved the way back to health for Sussex Newspapers’ group arts editor Phil Hewitt after a savage knife attack in South Africa.

Phil wrote the first draft of In the Running: Stories of Extraordinary Runners from Around the World before heading to Cape Town in February to watch England take on South Africa at the famous Newlands cricket ground.

Walking back after the match (which England lost), Phil strayed into an area he was unwise to be in – and paid the price, knifed twice in the leg and punched and kicked brutally before being left for dead by the roadside.

“I was convinced I’d had it and was fading away when a passing pizza delivery guy scooped me up and whizzed me to hospital – a fantastic guy to whom I have absolutely no doubt I owe my life.

“When I got back home and started recovering, I started to edit the book and found all sorts of inspiration in the runners I had described just a few weeks before, runners who had pushed their bodies to impossible lengths or who had overcome the most appalling conditions or run through the most horrible, ghastly trauma, injuries or illness – runners who had conquered much worse things than I needed to.

“But inevitably things did indeed get much worse. Two stabs, 15 stitches, severely-kicked guts and several broken ribs gave way to infection, hospital stays and in the end an abdominal operation… and also weeks of blackness. It was then I realised that I absolutely had to run again, despite the stabbed leg, however much it hurt. And so I did. It was horribly painful, probably medically unwise, a strange lurching/bobbing gait, a mix of Quasimodo and a duck… but something lifted mentally.

“When I ran the Berlin Marathon in 2008, I was privileged to run in the same race in which the incomparable Haile Gebrselassie broke his own world record. I will always remember that he said the most gracious, beautiful thing to the rest of us: ‘You were my tailwind and are all record-breaking runners, too!’

“It was a thought I’d always cherished – and when I ran/hobbled again, I realised that the remarkable runners I was writing about were actually my tailwind in my moment of need. They helped me through – and this book has become my tribute to them.

“I am going to be stuck on 30 marathons for a while and still feel fragile and wobbly, but I hope you will enjoy reading about some of my companions for the past few months, runners who have gone way beyond the limits of normal endurance. They have dragged me along with them.

“In the book, you will find the tale of the Canadian guy who attempted to run across Canada after losing a leg to cancer; the German guy who set a world record for running a marathon backwards; the New Zealand woman who set a world record, running three and a half days without sleep; the US guy who has run nearly 100 marathons since terminal diagnosis; the 100-year-old Sikh who ran a marathon; the American who ran every day for 45 years and two days; and the 61-year-old Aussie farmer in galoshes who beat the world’s elite in the 875-km Sydney-to-Melbourne ultramarathon: while they slept at night, he simply kept going all the way to the finishing line, a modern-day tortoise amid the hares.

“I have also looked at the modern greats of the sport, the big names including my personal favourite, Paula Radcliffe, an athlete whose achievements seem all the more staggering the more you think about them. The men keep chipping away at their marathon world record; but the women simply aren’t coming close to the record Radcliffe set in London in 2003 (and yes, I am proud to have been running that day, a fair few miles behind!)

“I also include the pioneers of long-distance running and in particular of women’s long-distance running, among them Kathrine Switzer, an athlete who really did change the face of the sport. In 1967 in Boston, she dared to wear a race number and run at a time when women were still banned from marathons. Race officials tried to drag her from the course – a photograph which still shocks. But she ran on – to increasing applause from crowd and fellow runners alike. Imagine the pressure. Imagine the damage done to women’s running if she had failed to complete. Thank goodness she did… and she has been kind enough to endorse this book with encouraging words.

“But inevitably, it is the runners who run in the face of physical adversity, which maybe touch us the most. My favourite is Hyvon Ngetich, the 29-year-old Kenyan runner who collapsed about a quarter of the mile from the finishing line in the 2015 Austin Marathon. Look up what happened next on YouTube, and I defy you to do so without a little tear in your eye. She completes the course on her hands and knees. With two metres to go, she is knocked into third place, but for me she achieved sporting greatness. Of course, you run against other people, but the noblest race is against yourself, and that’s the race she ran so beautifully. That piece of film and the stories in this book illustrate what sport actually means. And these are the people who have been in my mind as I have battered back to something approaching slightly-shaky health over the past six months.”

“In The Running is the successor to my 2012 book Keep On Running, which looked at why I run. In The Running looks at why other people run, and I hope their tales will resonate with you too. And I had better just offer thanks to our editorial director Gary Shipton. I had written the book and couldn’t think of a title. After a (pre-stabbing) game of badminton, I challenged him to come up with a title. ‘In The Running’, he said instantly… which probably explains why he is the editor… and I am not!”

In The Running is published in paperback by Summersdale on September 8, priced £9.99; ISBN: 978 1 84953 886 2.

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