Review: Running Dangerously

I’m ending what seems to have become a year-end reading binge.  This post will be my last review of a book about long-distance running.

My Year of Running Dangerously, by Tom Foreman, describes the author’s journey as a middle-aged father and television reporter to becoming a long-distance runner.  The premise is set at the beginning of the book.  “My descent into the madness of ultrarunning began with a Thanksgiving conversation.  The dishes had long been cleared, we’d watched some TV, and I had returned to the kitchen when my eighteen-year-old daughter, Ronnie, asked that question that every father dreads.  ‘How would you feel about running a marathon with me?’  My heart jumped.  My pulse raced.  A bit of leftover stuffing fell from my fork.”

Tom describes his efforts to train for the marathon while simultaneously maintaining his responsibilities to his family and his job.  He builds his endurance, competes in the event, and is ultimately successful in reaching the finish line with his daughter.  “I lifted the ribbon from my neck, the glittering medal swinging.  She did the same, but immediately reached up to put her medal over my head, presenting it to me.  ‘I’m giving you my medal’, she said, ‘because without you on my team, I never would have accomplished this.'”

At this point in the book, seventeen chapters remain after what seems to be the logical ending.  The author then tells his story of trying to deal with his brother’s question.  ‘So’, Robert asked, ‘you’ve done all this work.  What’s next?'”  And the rest of the book tells what’s next.

For me, the best part of the book is when Tom tries to explain to his other daughter why he went onward from the marathon to train for, and compete in, an ultramarathon.  I like what he said, because it has echos of the reasons that I ran the Monumental Marathon two months ago.  “As people get older, life becomes all about playing it safe.  We protect our jobs and our money.  We guard our houses, and we try to make the world as risk-free as we can for our kids, because that is important.  But along the way, you can lose yourself.  You start thinking that the great adventures are all gone and that you’ve reached all the limits.”  He implies, and I agree, that when you get older, you have to take some risks again, push into the unknown, and break through those limits.


Review: Run, 26.2 Stories

In a few weeks, I’ll need to hit the road a bit more seriously and start training for my next race, but for now I’m adding another great book to my post-marathon recovery-break reading list.

Run: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss, by Dean Karnazes, is the follow-up to the super-popular autobiography that made Dean rich and famous.  Many of the stories are about the subsequent changes in his life.  “My life has become something of a contradiction.  Above all, I am a runner.  I run – a solitary pursuit – and it is the activity I most treasure.  I have also become somewhat of a public figure, at least in certain circles, which doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with a solitary pursuit.  Like many people, I’d always wanted to write a book.  … The book landed on the New York Times bestseller list.  Next thing I knew, my story was out in the open, my insulated private life all but blown to smithereens.  I guess in writing about doing the things I love, about following my heart and setting my own course in life, I somehow gave others permission to do the same.  Runners and non-runners alike flocked to my story, and my once very solitary life suddenly became a little less so.”

The stories in the book are somewhat independent of each other, but many of the stories involve a series of four ultramarathons across four of the most inhospitable deserts on the planet – Atacama, Gobi, Sahara, and Antarctic.  A few of the stories were written by friends and family.

Dean explains in one of the later stories that when he wrote the previous book, he had to fit running into his career.  By the writing of this book, he was able to quit his day job and make running his career.  “What the heck, I figured, why not try to develop this?  If not now, when?  I enjoyed running much more than I enjoyed running a company, so I stepped away from the corporate world to pursue my passion.  I could always go back to the business world, but how often does an opportunity come along to do what you actually love?  One today is better than ten tomorrows.  Things went well and I started to make a go of it.  The irony, however, was that I now found myself busier than I had been in the corporate world.  Happier, but busier.”

Review: Ultramarathon Man

My running off-season continues, and I’m spending more time reading about running and less time actually running.

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, by Dean Karnazes, is an autobiography of Dean’s career as an obsessed and addicted runner.  In the book, Dean writes about the event that changed his life.  “Something snapped on the morning of my thirtieth birthday.  It began pleasantly with Julie bringing me breakfast in bed.  ‘Happy birthday, darling’, she smiled, pouring my coffee.  ‘Can you believe you’re thirty years old?’  That simple question, which slid so innocently from her mouth, sent me into an absolute tailspin. … At that moment I realized that my life was being wasted.”  He goes on to describe the remainder of his birthday – being bored at work, getting drunk at a bar, contemplating an extramarital affair – and then desperately running away from everything, literally, until he found himself several towns away on the following day.  “And that’s how I became a runner once again.  In the course of a single night I had been transformed from a drunken yuppie fool into a reborn athlete.  During a period of great emptiness in my life, I turned to running for strength, I heard the calling, and I went to the light.”

Most of the book describes a few of Dean’s more outrageous exploits after that birthday, particularly the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, the Western States Endurance Run 100-mile ultramarathon, and The Relay 199-mile team relay in which he was a team of one.

Near the end of the book, Dean attempts to explain to his readers why running eventually gained so much power over him.  “For in running, the muscles work a little harder, the blood flows a little faster, the heart beats a little stronger.  Life becomes a little more vibrant, a little more intense.  I like that.  I also like the solitude.  Long-distance running is a loner’s sport, and I’ve accepted the fact that I enjoy being alone a lot of the time.  It keeps me fresh, keeps me – oddly enough – from feeling isolated.  I guess a lot of people find it in church, but I turn to the open road for renewal.  Running great distances is my way of finding peace.  The solitude experienced while running helps me enjoy people more when I am around them.  The simple, primitive act of running has nurtured me.  I’ve become more tolerant, more patient, and more giving than I ever thought I could be.  Suddenly the commonplace is intriguing, and I’ve learned to dig the little things in life, like being squirted in the ear with a water bottle by a five-year old child.  This is what running has taught me, making me – I hope – a better man.”

Review: Born to Run

The following is the most popular of the books on my post-marathon recovery-break reading list.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, is a best-seller that not only continues to entertain runners and non-runners alike, it has inspired several running trends including minimalist and barefoot running and wider interest in ultramarathons.  The author has also introduced to the general public some fairly obscure but incredible runners, including the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who can run hundreds of miles without rest, the champion kick-boxer Micah True who gave up his successful career and American lifestyle to run alone in the Copper Canyon as the mysterious Caballo Blanco, and the very best ultramarathoners in the world including phenomenon Scott Jurek, surfer Jenn Shelton, and ‘Barefoot’ Ted McDonald.

All of the themes and plots in the book are brought together in the final chapters as Christopher tells stories about the scientific discoveries that explain how humans evolved to become the dominant animal species on planet earth.  “No one had ever figured out why early humans had separated themselves from all creation by taking their knuckles off the ground and standing up.  It was to breathe!  To open their throats, swell out their chests, and suck in air better than any other creature on the planet.  But that was just the beginning, because the better you are at breathing, the better you are at running.”  All other running mammals take one breath per stride.  “In the entire world, humans are the only exception.  We’re free to pant at different rates.  And we’re the only mammals that shed most of our heat by sweating.”

Christopher writes that we have all the mechanical parts that are uniquely practical for running.  We have Achilles tendons which connect calf muscles to heels – tendons that have no purpose when we aren’t running.  Our feet are arched and our toes are short and straight, which help maintain stability while running.  We’ve got big butts to prevent the momentum of our upper body from flipping us.  We have a nuchal ligament behind the head to stabilize our head when we are moving fast.

“Nearly every top killer in the Western world – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, hypertension, and a dozen forms of cancer – was unknown to our ancestors.  They didn’t have medicine, but they did have a magic bullet. … So simple.  Just move your legs.  Because if you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history.  You’re denying who you are.”

Review: The Loneliness…Runner

I continue to relax during the off-season by reading great books about running.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, is a classic of English literature; a collection of fictional stories about the working class in 1950s England that had rising living standards but absolutely no power or social mobility.  I studied the collection in high school, though I have no memory any more of the first time through.  The main character in the primary story, Smith, is an angry young man and a petty criminal with a dismal background and a hopeless future.  He is sentenced to a prison school, and long distance running is his emotional and physical escape.  “I  ran to a steady jog-trot rhythm, and soon it was so smooth that I forgot I was running, and I was hardly able to know that my legs were lifting and falling and my arms were going in and out, and my lungs didn’t seem to be working at all, and my heart stopped that wicked thumping I always get at the beginning of a run.  Because you see I never race at all, I just run, and somehow I know that if I forget I am racing and only jog-trot along until I don’t know I’m running I always win the race.”

The title of the collection comes from this passage.  “I passed the Gunthorpe runner whose shimmy was already black with sweat and I could just see the corner of the fenced-up copse in front where the only man I had to pass to win the race was going all out to gain the half-way mark.  Then he turned into a tongue of trees and bushes where I couldn’t see him anymore, and I couldn’t see anybody, and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across the country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned, this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world, and I knowing it would be no different ever, no matter what I felt at odd times, and no matter what anybody else tried to tell me.”