Unbroken – finding inspiration in other runners

I recently finished Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The book tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII POW.

When I’m in training for a goal race I think it’s really motivational to mix an occasional book or movie about running into my leisure time. My wife had borrowed Unbroken for me from a friend a few months ago and it sat on a dresser collecting dust. I had a vague idea that it was a riveting true story about a POW. I didn’t realize it was about Louis Zamperini or running. I had heard of Zamperini before but didn’t realize this book was about him. Then I happened to notice an athlete profile in RW last month where it was listed as a favorite book of the athlete.

Once I realized that I had immediate access to the book, I couldn’t read it fast enough. The book is basically in three acts – pre-war childhood and racing; the war; and post-war. Zamperini was a middle distance runner with huge potential. He qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5000 meters at age 19. He didn’t medal, but ran an incredible bell lap. Many think he would have been the first to break the 4:00 mile had his rise not been interrupted by the war. This is vividly illustrated by a blistering timed run he made while at one of his island stations in the Pacific, witnessed only by a friend pacing him in a Jeep.

The war not only interrupted his racing career, it ended it. After his bomber was shot down in the Pacific he survived in a raft for a month and half, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. His mistreatment at the hands of his captors was a brutal combination of beatings, subhuman living conditions, and inadequate food.

After being liberated by American forces at the end of the war, Zamperini briefly attempted to train to race again, but an ankle injury suffered in captivity soon reared its ugly head and put an end to any ideas of returning to competition. He suffered from PTSD and nearly drank himself to death. However, his wife stood by him, eventually bringing him to a Billy Graham revival, which catalyzed a change in his behavior and outlook on life. He has since traveled extensively as a motivational speaker and has been a torch runner at several Olympics.

Despite horrible adversity, physical pain, and the emotional pain of unrealized potential, Zamperini continues to lead a life that inspires his sport and anyone that comes into contact with him.

The book is the second work by the author of Seabiscuit. Zamperini’s true story is meticulously researched and attributed. The bulk of it is set in wartime, but Zamperini’s status as a world-class athlete followed him into captivity and throughout his life.

I was left with with a deep sense of admiration for a man with the drive to succeed at the highest level, the endurance to survive horrific conditions, and the will to overcome assaults to his psyche and reclaim his life. He is truly “Unbroken.”

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