Book Review — Kara Goucher’s “The Longest Race”

THE LEAD: Kara Goucher, talented distance runner who joined the Nike Oregon Project with hopes of becoming one of the world’s best.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Adam Goucher, Kara’s husband and a talented distance runner himself, also hopeful that training with the Nike Oregon Project will take him to Olympic glory.

THE ANTAGONIST: One Alberto Salazar, Hall of Fame marathoner, head of the Nike Oregon Project, a training group funded by the shoe/apparel company.

THE ANTAGONIST’S ENABLER: The shoe/apparel company.

ANTAGONIST’S MEDICAL ENABLER: Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a Houston-based endocrinologist.

ANOTHER ON THE ANTAGONIST’S TEAM: A person named Darren Treasure (is that his real name?) who Salazar brings on board as a sports psychologist, though he has no credential or training as such.

We all know the outlines of the plot. Blue-eyed [in the e e Cummings sense], attractive husband-wife team seek to optimize their fortunes in the sport of track & field by putting themselves in the hands of one of the country’s most prestigious figures in distance running/coaching, and all of it funded by the deep pockets of one of the most esteemed brands in sport — Nike, benefactor of USA Track & Field and financial sponsor of countless well-known athletes in various sports.

The story, written by the fine writer Mary Pilon, is told of course through the eyes of Kara Goucher. From 2001 to 2014, Kara was a Nike athlete (and Adam also, most of those years). They were steered toward the Oregon Project in 2004. At first Coach Salazar was welcoming, hospitable, collegial. According to this account, however, he became more controlling over the years, inserting his demands into virtually every aspect of her life — even to the point of seemingly trying to undermine her marriage (with the help of Doctor Treasure).

There were many successes. Kara won the 10,000 sliver medal (upgraded from bronze after a drug disqualification) at the Worlds in 2007. She made the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 in both the 5 and 10K. She had very commendable 3rd-place finishes at both the New York Marathon (2008) and Boston (2009). But nothing pleased Coach Salazar. He told her she was too fat, not fast enough. Injury, then pregnancy in 2010, were further impediments to Alberto’s plans for her.

As this is a family magazine, I’m not going to talk about Salazar’s other transgressions reported by Kara. They will make your blood boil. The fact that Kara did not react more assertively in these incidents was puzzling, but it’s an indication how strongly she felt that the Oregon Project was her best route to running reward, and rocking the boat would sink those aspirations.

In the last chapters everything unravels for Salazar. Kara frees herself from the Svengali-like relationship and turns to Coach Jerry Schumacher and later Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. At that point what she has observed at the Oregon Project piques her conscience and after considerable soul-searching she finally decides to tell USADA everything she has seen and suspected. The eventual result, from her testimony and others, is a lifetime ban for Alberto and Dr. Brown by USADA, confirmed later by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (denying Salazar’s appeal).

One might fault Kara Goucher for waiting until she’d left the Oregon Project to speak up. She’d looked the other way in order to keep training with the group that gave her the best chance for running success. But it took considerable courage, even later, to spill the beans, and for her trouble there were death threats and serious social media vilification. No good deed goes unpunished.

This is a book for our times. The temptation is clear. Just win, baby. Otherwise, the sacrifice is for naught. The fame, the financial rewards, the prestigious job — they are not there for losers. Even governing bodies can sweep things under the rug. So why not cheat? Others have done it and emerged unscathed. Salazar may have thought that he was pushing the legality envelope as far as possible, but those who counted determined he had definitely crossed the line. And any sympathy you might have for him will vanish when you read about the rest of the abuse.

The Longest Race by Kara Goucher with Mary Pilon, is published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, NY. The list price is $28.00, and it’s available in bookstores and from online retailers including Amazon.