by Margaret Buttner
Fans of running commentator and historian Roger Robinson will not be disappointed with his latest book, When Running Made History (Syracuse University Press, 2018). Part memoir, part chronicle of running events over the past 70 years, Robinson’s account of memorable events such as the 1960 Rome Olympics or the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon are brought to life in an extraordinary way.
Runners and non-runners alike will enjoy about Robinson’s first-person accounts as a participant, commentator or journalist. They’re told with passion, reverence and often sly humour, for example, writing about how his non-academic life as a runner enables him to “make friends from the entire cross-section of society, right down the social scale to lawyers and politicians.”
From the iconic 1990 Berlin Marathon, where runners could run in both East and West Berlin for the first time, to the tragedy and aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Robinson takes his readers behind the headlines, adding a human touch and perspective to races that have shaped the world. He shows how running has often helped whole communities recover from disasters like the 2001 terrorist attack on New York or the 2011 Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake. When he revisits the site of his former home, now a patch of quake-wrecked dirt, this is much more than a running book.
Robinson is an Emeritus professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, and skillfully enriches the narrative with occasional literary references. No slouch as a runner, he represented England and later New Zealand in international competitions, and is especially known for his masters’ achievements, including setting the over-40 record for Boston (2:20:15) and the over-50 record for New York (2:28:01). Now in his 70s, two knee replacements have only slowed his pace slightly, and he was recently honoured with a Media Excellence award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons for an article he wrote for Runner’s Worldabout his return to racing post-surgery.
Robinson holds a special affection for Canada and the many friends he has made over the years. Together with his wife Kathrine Switzer (of Boston Marathon fame), he is a frequent speaker at Canadian running events, including the Toronto Marathon and the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon. He fondly remembers the 1981 (BMO) Vancouver International Marathon where he finished third overall and set a masters’ record of 2:18:44 that stands to this day. His book credits John Stanton and Running Room for helping inspire the women’s running movement in Canada, and Alan Brookes of Canada Running Series for unharnessing the talent of elite seniors’ runner Ed Whitlock, whose marathon records (2:54:49 at age 73 and 3:15:54 at age 80) might never be broken.
Like a glass of fine single-malt scotch, Robinson’s work is to be savoured; pleasant memories will linger long after the last chapter is finished. But there’s nothing elitist about it. Like a great beer, When Running Made History fizzes with energy and love of the sport.