tl;dr version: Read this.
I forget how I first heard about this book. If I had to guess, it came up on Amazon as a “Related to items you’ve viewed” selection. I then added it to my neverending wishlist and found it again a few weeks ago on my phone while choosing books at the library.
It’s a little hard to say what the book is about. As the cover suggests, it’s about long distance female runners (primarily in the 1970s-80s) but there isn’t much of a common thread between all of the book beyond some significant chapters on Stephanie Herbst. This is Amazon’s description:
The Silence of Great Distance is the story of the developing world of women’s athletics, focused on long-distance running. With significant chapters on Doris Brown Heritage, the women of the Soviet Union, and Mary Decker Slaney, the primary narrative is carried by Stephanie Herbst, a nine-time all-American who competed for the University of Wisconsin between 1984 and 1988.
So, there’s a lot going on. Everything is more or less in chronological order. Sometimes I felt like certain topics or athletes merited more pages but I suppose I have the Internet and my public library available for more in depth reading on athletics behind the Iron Curtain or Suzy Favor Hamilton.
I was born in the mid-80s, so I don’t have any recollection of any of the events in the book. Reading about Title IX and some of the first women who ran long distance really made me appreciate how women running long is a relatively recent development. (I finished the book this weekend while my mom was visiting. She started casually running in the 70s while in grad school but never more than 3 miles– “it just wasn’t really something we did”, to use her words.)
The most poignant and resonant part of the book for me was the point at which Stephanie Herbst quits the track team. To be clear, I was not a collegiate athlete or a top high school athlete or elite anything. As I mentioned a bit in this post, I was a decent runner for someone at a very tiny prep school. Sophomore year I was the first or second runner on JV cross-country, junior year I was seventh on varsity (sometimes), and senior year I quit running all together and didn’t start again in earnest until several years after college.
During my junior year of high school most of the varsity runners were a year ahead of me, which meant that I would have been a scoring runner after they graduated. (Here is a brief summary of scoring in cross-country for anyone who isn’t familiar with it). We were a pretty good team in our league of tiny prep schools and our coach wanted the team to win meets and the league title. In general and with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think these were outrageous demands but they obviously created certain pressures to perform. Some of my teammates really thrived under that pressure but it made me crumble. I quit before my senior year so I wouldn’t have to deal with being a scoring runner. My brief tenure on cross-country and track teams was nothing compared to the accomplishments and challenges faced by the elite runners in The Silence of Great Distance but I think feeling stuck trying to meet higher and higher standards and eventually realizing you have nothing left to give is something that can happen to anyone.
This was the first running book I’ve read in quite awhile. I’ve received a few others as gifts over the past several years but they’ve gone unread because I keep getting distracted by other books. I’m planning on changing that…as soon as I finish the other three library books on my nightstand.