There is perhaps no high school sport less celebrated than cross country running.
Several factors impede the sport’s popularity. To start, it is not a spectator sport, or at least not a convenient one. Watching a cross country race requires onlookers to do a bit of exercise themselves, moving from spot to spot to catch a glimpse of the runners as they navigate the course.
A fall sport, cross country is also overshadowed by other sports that share its season, namely football.
I will admit to having never been to a cross country meet, but as soon as I became aware of “Running to Glory,” a book chronicling the 2017 Eisenhower High School cross country team, I raced — pardon the pun — to acquire a prerelease copy.
I’ll set aside any pretenses of objectivity here. I taught history classes at Ike in 2016-17 and know many of the people featured in this book personally. The coaches were my co-workers; some of the runners were my students. So naturally, I’m inclined to view this book quite favorably.
The easiest way to describe “Running to Glory” is to compare it to H.G. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” the now-classic story of the Permian High School football team in Odessa, Texas. Author Sam McManis spent the 2017 season embedded with the Ike cross country team. The book follows head coach Phil “Mister” English, his assistant coaches, Robert Price and Robin Bryson-Driver, and the varsity boys and girls teams as they make their way from preseason workouts in Yakima’s scorching summer heat to their final goal: the state championships.
McManis, who is a former Yakima Herald-Republic opinion page editor, profiles each of the runners in a heartfelt light, illuminating their often-challenging upbringings, personal struggles and motivations to participate in this most grueling of sports. He also pulls back the cover on the team’s interpersonal dynamics, providing an unflinching look at the relationships they have with each other and their coaches.
Perhaps it was because I know so many of these students personally, but I found at times that reading about this “teenage psychodrama,” as McManis puts it, was deeply uncomfortable. Not because of any personal squeamishness, but over concern for the privacy of the students. I had questions as to whether some details of the runners’ lives and interactions would have been better left out in the interest of their personal privacy, especially since the subjects were minors at the time, rather than preserved in perpetuity between the pages of a book.
But balancing between tactful discretion for the sake of privacy and unfiltered, raw truth has always been a point of ethical contention for journalists, and since I am not trained as one, nor know all the details of the arrangements McManis had with the team, I demur from passing judgment.
Beyond the 2017 season, the book explores the life of English, describing his days growing up in the impoverished Irish countryside, and chronicles how he has, for decades, methodically and purposefully built the Eisenhower cross country program into one of the most successful and influential programs in the state of Washington. It is also a book about Yakima, and the people who work hard to make a living in this blue collar agricultural town, far away from the development and wealth along the I-5 corridor.
So, how does it read? Well, McManis is an excellent writer, as one would expect from someone who spent three decades writing for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle. This easily could have been a very boring book, but McManis’ prose and structuring of his chapters is such that I found myself riveted — staying up far too late to read “just one more page.”
“Running for Glory” is probably one of the best books featuring Yakima to be written thus far, and it is a compelling sports book in its own right. It is simultaneously a celebration of our city and our kids — a letter of love to a sport and a town that receive little. It releases in bookstores on Friday. Don’t miss it.
• “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, a Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream” by Sam McManis was published by Lyons Press and will be in bookstores on Friday. It retails for $27.95.
• J.T. Menard works for Inklings Bookshop. He and other Inklings staffers review books in this space every week.