Book Review: Running For Their Lives by Mark Whitaker

Running for their lives coverThis is a bio which doesn’t read like a biography. This is a true story which seems a bit far fetched due to the lack of real publicity for the extraordinary events. This is a book about a couple of men of differing class, background and motivations becoming lifelong friends due to one common love: running.

Running For Their Lives tells the story of Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi and does so in a style which leaves frills and fluff at the doorstep as Whitaker seeks to give a true and balanced account of two deeply complicated characters. In one hand we have Arthur Newton, a Brit living in South Africa who ran to prove a point to the country’s rulers over the harsh treatment he felt he had received. Remarkably, Newton was almost 40 by the time he started running but this didn’t stop him becoming a multiple Comrades marathon winner as well as setting world records at every distance from 40 to 100 miles. Oh, and smashing the 24-hour distance record as well, just for good measure.

Peter Gavuzzi was of Italian descent but more like Del Boy than Silvio and his route into running was motivated by the filthy lucre. Plain and simple.

These men ran in the 30s and 40s, at a time when professional sportsmen were persona non grata in the eyes of the always Draconian AAA (see John Tarrant for more details, and his case was much later than Newton’s especially). Whitaker does an exemplary job of bringing out the implications of such a vocation at this time in athletics history.

By no means does he paint the duo as some sort of heroes and romantic role models for the runner today. Instead, Whitaker gives an excellent account of their importance within the history of ultra distance running, with brilliant vignettes and stories about the Trans Continental, ultra running in Canada and the birth of the Comrades.

He also paints Newton as a idiosyncratic character, dogmatic in his beliefs but with the heart of a lion and willing to embrace the professional running community with great gusto. Gavuzzi – whose story is less impressive in my eyes, his 2nd place when cheated out of 1st in the Trans Continental notwithstanding – is shown to be selfish, driven and above all, intensely insecure. Gavuzzi gives the impression of always wanting to somewhere else, anywhere. Except where he ends up.

Running For Their Lives is an important book. It recognises the contribution of two of Britain’s ultra running pioneers, as well as professionals. It shows the lamentable attitude of the AAA and the class snobbery which prevailed at the time, and it reminds us that history is littered with great stories and people who deserve to have their story told.

This is well written, methodically researched and bridges the gap between bio and historical reference excellently. Runners, especially those of the ultra persuasion, will enjoy this book. It is not likely to hold much interest outside of that particular demographic, but if you are a long distance runner I heartily recommend this finds its way in to your reading pile.


(With thanks to Alison & Gordon Hutton for the Xmas present)


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