Is The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time the single greatest book about marathoning of all time?

I am a self-confessed marathon addict. Sure I have dabbled with shorter distances and indeed I am a big fan of the half marathon distance. I have even tried cycling and triathlons (please forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing). But at the core of my being, sits a love of the marathon that is unshakable. And it is everything about the marathon that I love: I love training for them. I love running them. I love reading about the training and racing and mental approach required for a marathon. And I love the history of the marathon.

A book worm

On my bookshelf at home I have started to build up a collection of dog-eared books that I have read and re-read and annotated and lent (and thankfully always recovered!). From coaching books like Advanced Marathoning by Pfitzinger and Douglas and Road Racing for Serious Runners by Rogers, Pfitzinger and Douglas to autobiographies like From Last to First (Charlie Spedding) and Gold Rush (Michael Johnson) or Running With Joy (Ryan Hall) and biographies like The Greatest (about Haile Gebrselassie). But possibly my favourite types of books, because they appeal to the inner-geek in me, are those about the history of running such as The London Marathon by John Bryant or Running With The Legends by Michael Sandrock.

These books about the history of marathoning are a window into the world of running, which have the benefit of hindsight. There is no doubt that an interview with a current super-star of running or a recent review of a great race can be interesting, but it is not until a runner’s career has ended or a race’s epoch has passed that all the pieces in the puzzle can be seen and arranged and their contribution to the universe of running can be celebrated.

The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time

And then I discovered William Cockerill’s massive and wonderful tome The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time. Actually I read about the book. I discovered second-hand what a brilliantly well researched book it is. How in-depth and well written each race report is. How every true fanatic of the marathon should have a copy. And how difficult it is to get a copy.

But as we all know, the marathon is at least in part about persistence and I was not going to be defeated. I considered second hand copies, or a new copy sent all the way from the US for an extortionate cost, but in the end the simplest solution proved to be Amazon, where the author himself was selling copies which, if you are lucky, will be signed and even dedicated. You can get your copy here (pick the copy available from William Cockerell).

Getting hold of my copy

When my copy arrived, I had just moved into a new flat and emptying boxes and shifting furniture was the order of the day. The book taunted me. I would snatch a few pages during those moments when I knew I was allowed – over breakfast or before my weary eyes slid shut in bed at night. Every page was filled with wonderful details of the 50 races that Will has chosen as well as back stories, descriptions of the protagonists and evocative pictures. There is everything in there.

In the foreword, by David Bedford, former 10,000m world record holder and race director of the London marathon, he writes that when it comes to the marathon “what I really crave when I assemble my elite field is a battle, a saga, and a mystery” and that is what Will manages to get across in every one of the races he has written about. Bedford goes on to say of the author and the book

“What William has done in this remarkable and fascinating book is to comb through 109 years of marathon races and skillfully select the races that have captured the imagination of the public, provided thrilling entertainment, and yes, sometimes a healthy dose of controversy”

I couldn’t agree more with David Bedford’s analysis of the way in which the book details 50 amazing races. As William himself wrote to me

“I’m a freelance sportswriter by trade, and had studied the history of the marathon very closely for many years. It struck me that something like this [his book] hadn’t been done before. There were books on the marathon, but they were either crude summaries, or in “The Olympic Marathon” or “Boston Marathon” incredibly in depth analysis on just very specific races. My book attempted to fall somewhere in between.”

A great amongst marathon books

Well I think that Will has done far, far more than ‘fall somewhere in between’ – in marathoning terms, I believe that The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time has, through sheer strength and determination, hours of dedication and no small amount of raw talent honed over many years, ripped the field to pieces and emerged as one of the greatest books ever written about the marathon. As The Times wrote,

“At last the marathon has found a book worthy of its long and epic journey”

And as William himself wrote in the book when he dedicated it to me “I hope you find some snippets of motivation in here” – undoubtedly, Will, undoubtedly!

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