Running For Their Lives, by Mark Whitaker

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The Independent Culture

As they stand facing the camera, sporting white running strips and neatly clipped moustaches, Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi could be the grandfathers of the 118 118 men in the TV adverts. But there was nothing humorous about the endeavour they both undertook in 1928 – a 3,500-mile road race from Los Angeles to New York.

They arrived at the starting line from very different backgrounds: the resolutely middle-class Newton had, bizarrely, taken up long-distance running to publicise his land dispute with the South African government, while the working-class ship's steward Gavuzzi just thought "it would be a good way to see the country". The story of that race alone would provide more than enough material for a book but Mark Whitaker focuses on the unlikely friendship forged between the two rootless Englishmen. Both failed to complete the course but tried again the following year, when Gavuzzi was conned out of first place and was bilked out of the $10,000 runners-up prize by the promoter.

Undaunted, the pair teamed up and continued to run for money, against men, horses and even in snowshoes across Canada. Newton set an astonishing number of world records, including beating his own 100-mile time by 15 minutes in 1934 at the age of 51.

But riches and enduring fame eluded them; as Whitaker says, "they lived the frustration of having a rare and extraordinary skill for which there was no longer a market". The author has done an excellent job in bringing them triumphantly alive from dusty archives with a narrative pace his subjects would surely have admired.

Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey, £17.99