Who was Buddy Edelen? Only one of the greatest American runners that most people have never heard of, but should have for a variety of reasons. That’s author Frank Murphy’s thesis.
Edelen’s story and personality are interesting and engaging enough that it’s tempting to say that this is a book that practically writes itself. But that would be shortchanging Murphy’s skill and creativity as a biographer. Edelen was emerging as a middle-to-long distance runner in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when American distance running was in the toilet in terms of development and competitive standing. So he set off for England, living like a monk in Essex, and training like a fiend under the long-distance direction of his coach, Fred Wilt. There, he charted a steady course toward American- and world-record-breaking times in the 10K and marathon, recognized and respected in Europe (and even loved in his temporarily adopted host country), yet totally unknown in The States.
In telling Edelen’s story, Murphy presents his subject as an immensely appealing man who combined intense focus with geniality and modesty. You can’t help but like — and root for — the guy. Expertly researched, the book doesn’t just present a coherent picture of how Edelen fit into the marathoning scene during this time period, but also presents some real gems, such as this passage. In it, we learn how one clever race promoter got around the AAU’s (Amateur Athletic Union) requirement that in order to retain “amateur” status (and thus eligibility to compete in the Olympics), an athlete must not accept remuneration of any kind (even for assistance with travel and accommodations for participating in races) in an athletic competition:
“After the greeting, Billy [promoter Billy Morton] got to the point. “Buddy, me lad,” he said, “are ya a betting man?” Buddy said that he was, so Billy explained the way things were.
“Buddy,” he said, “I can’t pay you anything for this race because you’re an amateur. But seein’ as how you’re a betting man,” and he paused for effect before pointing to Buddy’s suitcase on the floor. “I bet you a hundred quid you can’t jump over that suitcase.”
As the meaning of Billy’s wager struck home, Buddy quickly hopped over the suitcase. Morton exclaimed loudly at such a thing, “My God, Tommy, look at that, Buddy just took me for 100 quid!” but being a man of his word, he paid and left. Buddy was 100 quid richer, but he was still an amateur.
Edelen also charmed his host country and managed to get away with behavior that would have labeled others lacking in his personal qualities as “ugly American.” One example is his greeting of Queen Elizabeth before the start of the 1962 Polytechnic Harriers Marathon: “Hi, Queen!”
As in another of his running-related histories, The Silence of Great Distance, Murphy takes considerable creative license when writing about his subject. In this case, he creates pages of speculative internal dialog during Edelen’s bid for a spot on the US men’s Olympic marathon team during a dreadfully hot and humid marathon in Yonkers, NY. This device — peppering non-fiction biography with what is most certainly a fictional stream of consciousness passage — will either work for readers or it won’t. For me, it worked. Murphy either has tremendous insight into and empathy for long distance runners, or he’s run a few awful, long races himself, because the mental crazy quilt that he constructs of what Edelen might have been thinking during that run is spot on: the jokes we tell ourselves, the pep talks, the moments of despair, the internal siren song to stop, the pure intake and recording of all sensory input…it’s all there.
I have no idea if this book would appeal to a non-runner. Probably not. But for students of the sport, it’s a wonderful read.
More about Edelen on Wikipedia.