It seems like so many elite runners are coming out with books lately and each one has their own unique story. This book by elite runner Kara Goucher is a page-turner filled with her personal running journey but also the scandal that happened when she was running with the Oregon Project. But first some background on the authors.
Kara Goucher is a three-time NCAA champion, two-time Olympian, silver medalist in the 10,000 meters at the 2007 World Championship, and podium finisher at the Boston and New York marathons. She currently is a running analyst for NBC Sports and cohost of two podcasts, the Clean Sport Collective which promotes fair play in sports and Nobody Asked Us with Des & Kara, with elite runner Des Linden.
Mary Pilon is a New York Times bestselling author of The Monopolists and The Kevin Show. She cowrote and cohosted the audio series Twisted: The Story of Larry Nassar and the Women Who Took Him Down. She previously covered sports at The New York Times and business at The Wall Street Journal. She is a story producer on BS High, HBO’s documentary about the Bishop Sycamore High School football scandal.
The Longest Race is written in chronological order of Goucher’s life and goes back to when she won her first race at the age of 6, a one-mile race her grandfather took her to. After that race, she was hooked on running. She briefly lived in New York and New Jersey until her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was three years old. Her mom moved back to Duluth, Minnesota along with Kara and her two sisters to be with family.
Goucher tells of her many wins on the cross country and track teams but also her difficulty to be recruited by a college after struggling with slowing times her senior year of high school. She ended up running at the University of Colorado where she met Adam Goucher, who she would end up marrying. Adam was an accomplished runner as well, with many track and cross country titles and an Olympian.
During her fifth year of college, Kara was the women’s NCAA cross country champion in the fall but didn’t do as well at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the spring due to a knee injury and feared no one would offer her a sponsorship to go pro. However, John Capriotti from Nike offered her a four-year contract, which she excitedly took.
Despite struggling with injuries, both Kara and Adam were offered the chance to move to Portland, Oregon to be a part of the newly formed Oregon Project coached by Alberto Salazar, a legend in the running world. He had earned many running titles including Olympian in 1980 and 1984 but his most famous race was the “Duel in the Sun” showdown where he out kicked Dick Beardsley in the last 50 yards of the 1982 Boston Marathon and set a new Boston record just before he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital for an IV drip of six liters of saline solution.
Goucher tells the story how Salazar treated the runners on the Oregon Project as family and was a father figure to herself and Adam, and seemingly the other runners as well. But little by little, Salazar’s shady side surfaced. Goucher mentions sexually charged comments made by her coach and other men working for Nike, her coach’s excessive drinking, and even massages given by Salazar himself, despite the fact that he was not a trained massage therapist and Nike had no shortage of those on staff.
Those massages did indeed turn completely inappropriate on two separate occasions, according to Goucher, when she and her coach flew to races in other countries, basically when his fingers traveled a bit too far. She was so shocked she thought it must have been a mistake and neither said nor did anything at the time to anyone. It was only years later that she admitted to others what had happened.
In addition to inappropriate comments and behavior mentioned in the book, there were several times when Salazar did some questionable at best things when it came to athletes on the Oregon Project and certain medications not sanctioned by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It wasn’t until 2014, after the Gouchers had left the Oregon Project that a reporter with ProPublica reached out to Adam with suspicions about the Oregon Project and doping. What followed turned out to be an enormous scandal covering athletes from all over the world.
Many runners were stripped of former medals due to doping, while others, like Kara were being upgraded. Although Kara had been awarded the bronze medal at the 2007 World Championship in Osaka, the silver medalist was found guilty of unauthorized drug use, meaning Kara was then the silver medalist. An anonymous whistleblower from within the International Association of Athletics Federations provided British and German journalists with files on 12,000 blood samples from 5,000 athletes who had competed between 2001 and 2012. It went deeper than doping. IAAF president Lamine Diack, along with other IAAF officials, were charged with money laundering and corruption.
There are many more details covered in the book, too many for me to discuss here. In fact, I found the book so accurately detailed at first I thought it was unusual, until I remembered the intense interviews the Gouchers underwent when they were interviewed by the FBI and other groups before the doping scandal with Salazar and others broke. It was obvious Kara kept careful notes of everything, no doubt in her running journals but also private journals, as she mentions in the book.
In the end, this book just made me sad for the sport and how tarnished it became in the 2000’s when the scandal broke. It also made me sad that Kara suffered in silence for so many years and how she had to endure the inappropriate comments not only from Salazar but other male executives at Nike, and her poor treatment by the company especially during her pregnancy, which she details in the book. I should note that both Kara and Adam Goucher were not found guilty of any inappropriate use of performance-enhancing drugs or any other wrongdoing during any investigation. Alberto Salazar, on the other hand, was suspended for doping allegations then barred for life from coaching by SafeSport for sexually assaulting an athlete (Kara, although she was not personally named in the report).
That being said, I did find the book intriguing and found the pages flying by as I read them. Kara Goucher’s story is a unique one, and one that I would like to say didn’t happen to other runners, but two other female runners from the Oregon Project were also effected negatively by Salazar. Mary Cain came forward and said that Salazar shamed her for her weight in front of other Oregon Project team members and Amy Yoder Begley said Salazar told her he was kicking her off the team because she had “the biggest butt on the starting line.”
I can only hope that because of the courage of these women to come forward, do the hard thing, and speak up, things can only get better in the sport. Unfortunately this kind of thing probably happens more than anyone realizes. When the runners are pros and their career and salary are at stake, it’s difficult if not seemingly impossible to speak up against their coaches, especially ones with male-dominated companies like Nike.
Kara Goucher says she received death threats and endured negative comments when she came forward about Salazar. Despite all of the heartache running has brought her, she says she still is in love with running and is hopeful things will get better as long as people refuse to remain quiet when it comes to doping or sexual abuse. I would like to be hopeful as well and think this book sets a precedent for the ability to be more open and be able to speak up.
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? Is it on your list of books to read?