Ryan Hendrickson

As many recent studies point to an increasingly secular world, it is striking to see the open presence and recognition of Christianity among some of the world’s elite men’s marathon runners. Perhaps the most famous current Christian evangelist is Ryan Hall, who placed second at the U.S. Olympic trials in Houston this past January. While Hall is considerably more active in promulgating his faith than others, it is noticeable how willing other elite male runners are to thank God. After finishing ahead of Hall at the Olympic trials, Meb Keflegzhigi crossed the finish line and immediately made the Sign of the Cross. Similarly, Wesley Korir, after winning this year’s Boston Marathon in April, also made the Sign of the Cross. Alberto Salazar’s new memoir, 14 Minutes, co-authored with John Brant, adds to the record of elite runners who see God playing a central role in their lives and running.

During his prime running years in the early to mid-1980s, Salazar helped advance marathon running to unprecedented levels in the United States. Salazar confidently predicted that he could win his marathon races and then did so convincingly. Among his running accomplishments, he won three New York City Marathons, as well as an epic battle against Dick Beardsley in the 1982 “Duel in the Sun” Boston Marathon. In his book, Salazar talks about his life in running and now coaching; but equally important, he discusses how Catholicism guides his life.

Salazar’s life is shaped by a number of rather intense, formative events, including an invitation to join the Greater Boston Track Club as a young teen runner. His membership in this group helped advance his running and also introduced him to Bill Rodgers, who eventually became one of America’s top runners after winning the 1975 Boston Marathon. This event too had a great influence on Salazar, as he watched Rodgers, his friend, win the race. In the years that followed, he focused on becoming the world’s best marathoner.

Salazar also discusses his near-death experience at the Falmouth Road Race in 1978, when he essentially blacked out during the race, yet managed to complete the run and collapse at the finish line, as his internal body temperature soared to 108 degrees. At the time, Salazar interpreted his survival as a sign that he was tougher than all other runners and that his body could withstand and survive unfathomable pain levels.

Apart from revealing a great deal about elite men’s marathon running, Salazar also discusses the development and maturation of his faith. Growing up with a strong Catholic presence in his family, Salazar remains devoted to many of the prayers he learned in his youth. With his father’s encouragement, Salazar visited Medjugorje, where six children in 1981 were allegedly visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary. These apparitions continue to be reported today. For Salazar, the trip was transforming, and he reports that he personally witnessed a “miracle”—a word he uses frequently. Much of his life after that involved his increased devotion to the Catholic Church and his own surrender to what he feels is God’s will. Salazar finds great value in saying the Rosary and reciting prayer mantras, which he compares to marathon training. As in multiple training runs, the more one prays, the more one benefits from praying.

The final section is devoted to the 14 minutes in 2007 when Salazar’s heart stopped beating and to the medical steps that were taken to revive him. He describes at length his seemingly perfect physical health prior to the cardiac event, his own confusion and despair that followed and the life changes he implemented upon his return home from the hospital. The book concludes with a discussion of his life as a coach of elite men and women distance runners and again how he sees God working in his life.

Salazar’s story is nothing short of captivating. Readers interested in faith development, the challenges of overcoming physical and emotional ailments and, of course, long-distance running will find this book compelling. Many viewed Salazar as brash during his running years; but this book provides much greater insight into his deep insecurities about running, his difficult family and social relationships and his battles with depression. Salazar’s intense life experiences will be difficult for some readers to relate to, yet their dramatic quality still makes for a fascinating story. Readers will also be struck by what appears to be deep sincerity and humility in a man known for destroying his competition.

Ryan Hendricks is a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a runner.