Many sports autobiographies feature a religious or spiritual element, but long-distance runner Alberto Salazar’s 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life (Rodale 2012), has the rather unique hook that its author was clinically dead for 14 minutes, but lived to tell the tale.
In 2007, at age 48, Salazar collapsed while walking across the Nike campus in Oregon. That’s ten minutes longer than expected of someone suffering such a severe cardiac event.
This modern day resurrection, albeit aided as it was by medical science, is altogether different stuff than we may be accustomed to from American sports stars, well-known for their prayerful public personas and thanking Jesus for their victories (think NFL star Tim Tebow).
Coupled with Salazar’s other near-death experience, when a priest administered to him the last rites after the Falmouth Road Race in 1978, two brushes with death involving a bow-and-arrow and a handgun when he was a boy, and his previous trips to Medjugorje (where he attests that his silver rosary beads turned to gold), Salazar’s 14 Minutes raises timeless questions about how we think about God’s role in our lives.
For those not familiar with Salazar’s biography, he is a former world record holder in the marathon, a three-time winner of the New York Marathon, a former winner of the Boston Marathon (his legendary 1982 victory has been chronicled in an earlier and equally fascinating book by the co-author of 14 Minutes, John Brant, called Duel in the Sun), and a winner of the Comrades ultra-marathon, a 56-mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa.
Salazar is currently coach of Nike’s Oregon project, where he works with British Olympic gold hopeful Mo Farah, as well as Irish 1500 metre runner Ciaran O’Lionaird. Salazar is famous, some would say notorious, for his scientific approach to his coaching, including the use of altitude chambers, underwater treadmills, and other gadgets. This makes his refusal to accept the juxtaposition between faith and science, so common in the West today, all the more intriguing.
Although I am a Christian and a marathon runner (at least in my spare time), I sometimes cringe at the way certain sports stars discuss their faith.
Indeed, it can seem to me at times trivial, arrogant, or presumptuous when they claim that God intervenes to help them in sport when there are so many other things – poverty, world peace, to name the obvious – that I would hope would be higher up on His agenda!
So I was relieved that Salazar resists that simple-minded presentation of his faith. His perspective is, to me, a much more mature reflection on the relationship between spirituality and sport – and the book is an engrossing tale of how he learned that the hard way.
(Incidentally, Salazar complains at various points in the book that the media have misrepresented his faith, portraying him as a religious zealot or implying that taking Prozac to deal with his depression somehow made him less of a Christian.)
But even without the touches of the miraculous in Salazar’s life, his life story would be an interesting one. Born in Cuba in 1958, his father was a comrade of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The family fled Cuba after the elder Salazar, a civil engineer and devout Catholic, rebuked Castro for not allowing him to include plans for the construction of churches in the new Cuba.
So Salazar had a rather tumultuous upbringing in Massachusetts, where his father’s high expectations for his children and hopes for a ‘next year in Havana’ counter-revolution created a certain amount of tension in the family. Reading about Salazar’s early years, it is easy to see how he was driven to excel in a sport as physically and psychologically demanding as long-distance running, where the person who can endure the most pain is often the winner.
Salazar admits that he once interpreted his success as a runner, particularly early in his career, as fulfilling God’s destiny. That’s what made his (at the time) inexplicable decline as a runner, including his failure to win an expected gold in the 1984 Olympics and a decade of sub-par performances, all the more difficult for him to cope with.
Salazar’s reflections on this period of his life, and how he was eventually able to find meaning in those dark periods, are to me among the most valuable in the book.
Salazar confesses that he grappled with the seeming meaningless of his running career, describes the chilling extent of his depression when his body let him down, and explains how the renewal of his faith was confirmed by his victory in the 1994 Comrades Ultra Marathon. This is a feat which he seems to believe is more miraculous than his return from 14 minutes of clinical death, due to his ability to run the last 25 miles of the race without being able to take any nourishment from the aid stations (p. 196).
In an interview about the book with Runner’s World, Salazar spoke about why he delved so deeply into the darker parts of his life, saying:
Most [in my family] have liked it [the book], but some—especially on my wife’s side—think I revealed too much personal stuff, maybe too much of the dark stuff. They thought I could have prettied things up a little, the way some celebrities do in their biographies. I don’t agree with that. I told them it would be false to cover up the warts and tough times. That wouldn’t be honest. Besides, if you pretend that you’ve led a perfect life with no problems, why would anyone be interested in your story? They wouldn’t find anything they could relate to.
The book has been reviewed favourably in the Wall Street Journal, although reviewer Cameron Stracher rather disdainfully sums up Salazar’s reflections on his darkest period like this:
While he acknowledges the implausibility of this event [the rosary beads turning to gold], the reader can’t help feeling that the journey—along with his spiritual quest over the past couple of decades—is an attempt to find meaning for an athletic life cut short.
The Wall Street Journal reviewer has both understood and missed Salazar’s point. Of course Salazar’s spiritual journey has been bound up with his struggles to ‘find meaning for an athletic life cut short.’ As one of the premier athletes of his generation – one unafraid, after Falmouth, to push his body even to the point of death – his running has been so bound up with who he is as a person that it had been the primary source of meaning in his life.
Therefore it is to be expected that Salazar would strive to understand why the activity that he saw as a gift from God had been so cruelly taken from him. The spiritual life is nothing if it is not a quest to understand ourselves more fully. Part of this quest is finding meaning in the events of our lives, in the talents we’ve been entrusted with, in the directions our lives have taken.
Salazar’s search for meaning is not a shortcoming; rather it is a long-standing practice among the saints throughout the ages of the Christian church.
So I think Salazar was absolutely right to include these reflections, for without them his account of his 14 Minutes, including the impressively coincidental series of events that conspired to produce the scientifically-boosted miracle of his survival, would seem almost abstract or context-less.
For me, it is Salazar’s insights into everyday faith – that it is often mundane, repetitive, frustrating and punctuated by highs and lows (a lot like training for a marathon, actually) – that are the most impressive aspects of the book.
Salazar believes it is faithfulness in the everyday struggles of life that are the real substance of faith – rather than spectacular experiences of the miraculous. Amen to that.