Friday, June 8, 2012

"14 Minutes": Life, Death, and Faith

Here is my column that appears in this weekend's print Catholic Post.  I write in my review how I liked it because I'm a runner, but this isn't just a book for runners--it's a book for people who like good books! 


Pop quiz:  Who created the following prayer?

Please, Mother, when I die, don’t let me be afraid.  Bring me straight to heaven to your son Jesus.

When I first read it, I thought, is that St. Therese, the Little Flower?  I’m pretty sure it’s not St. Francis, but it does sound a bit like him.  Maybe one of the obscure early child martyrs?

Wrong on all counts. It was a spontaneous prayer--repeated throughout his life-- by a child who had just witnessed something terrible-rescuers unsuccessfully try to revive a drowned boy.

That child grew up to be a regular person.  Okay, maybe not so regular—he’s Alberto Salazar, one of the finest distance runners ever, three-time winner of the New York Marathon and part of America’s glory days of running in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Salazar, with help from gifted sportswriter John Brant, writes about this prayer—and a whole lot more---in 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life.  The “14 minutes” refers to how long Salazar was without a heartbeat after experiencing a massive heart attack in 2007.  14 Minutes chronicles that (and another) near-death experience, as well as his youth growing up as a Cuban-American immigrant, his dramatic running career, and current life as coach of the Nike Oregon Project, a training program for top distance runners.

14 Minutes isn’t by any stretch a “Catholic” book, and it isn’t an “America’s running glory days” book either, thought it has a lot about both.   Salazar is especially wary of being held up as a Catholic role model, but wants to share honestly his life experience and how much faith has been a part of his journey. 

Mid-book, he writes, “I am not trying to portray myself as a religious expert here, any more than I tried to make a political point when describing my father’s relationship with Castro; I’m simply relating my own experiences and interpretations.”

Instead, 14 Minutes is the memoir of someone who has lived through much, including: the excesses inherent in becoming a world-class athlete; the heartbreak of injuries and illness that cut his career short; family dysfunction and healing; depression and mental health issues; and a reflective Catholic faith. 

Salazar sees the hand of God in every part of his life, but writes, “You have to look hard and long for it and accept that most of the time the touch will remain ineffable.”

14 Minutes reveals a spiritually and emotionally mature Salazar, who looks back on his achievements and his mistakes with equal measure of humility and compassion.

My disclaimer here is that I am a runner, but that isn’t why I liked 14 Minutes so much.    Even though I’ve finished a marathon, all I wanted to do was finish, unlike Salazar, who confides to a close friend in college that he plans to set a world record in the marathon (and then does just that).   It’s clear from the earliest chapters that Salazar is in a different category than the rest of us, when it comes to running.

So while there aren’t training tips to be gleaned from 14 Minutes, readers will learn much about persistence, maturity and faith, all wrapped up in a great sports story.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m decidedly not a fan of the current trend of irreverent semi-fictional memoirs, often written by people far too young to be reflecting on their life “so far.”

But as Sir Walter Scott wrote, “There is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”  A well-told memoir like 14 Minutes is a testimony to the heroic in one man’s life, and offers each reader a chance to reflect on the heroic is every person.


  1. This book sounds great! Thanks for the review. I live in Santa Rosa, CA now, but grew up in the Peoria diocese (St. Mary's in Kickapoo). As a Catholic and a "bookworm," I'm so happy to have discovered your blog.

    1. Carey, glad to be connected! There's a lot of good books out there. I hope you enjoy 14 Minutes and do share what you think of it.