Thursday, 30 August 2012

Book review: Why we run

The next running book I read in my recent spree was this one below. It was one of two books recommended to me by an old school friend. Thank you Jason.

Why we run: A story of obssession by Robin Harvie
This book is a bit of a mixed bag as there are a few themes that are explored and that run through the book. I'll list them as follows:

  • Flashbacks to a run in Denmark in 2002 when he went out for a run, got lost, had no food and water with him and it was baking hot... This is where he spent time as a child (some childhood/family flashbacks too)
  • 'Name dropping' 
  • Various histories of running
  • The author's preparations to run the Spartathalon
  • Very, very good comments / thoughts from the author that were worth highlighting
Mmmm... I'm a bit straightline when it comes to reading and writing. If there are going to be flashbacks I like them to be separate chapters and to have at least the year at the start of the chapter so I know what I'm dealing with. These got a bit too much for me because they'd just pop in regularly as I was getting into the current training issues. Very disruptive.

'Name dropping'
This isn't the best term for this but throughout the book there are a lot of references to various people and quotes. A lot of this ties in with references to the history of running . Overall it felt like a speech with quotes from famous people in every second sentence purely because of the volume of them. I was primarily interested in the author's training and experiences - the rest was like extras on a DVD; except they dominated the main movie.

Histories of running
Percentage wise there's probably more on the history of running and Olympics and other events and people than the author's personal story. And most of it is really, really interesting and you'll learn a lot from reading it. It must be about a month since I read the book and I can barely remember a thing. But that's also me where I read, enjoy and then forget (I'm the same with movies!).

Because there was so much of it - not separated into chapters - I felt like this flooded the author's story. In fact, this stuff could be worth a book on its won.

I'd heard of Spartathlon before reading this book but had never given it much thought other than thinking, "Cool race". It's a 152-mile (243-kilometre) run, non-stop, from Athens to Sparta and you've got to run it in 36 hours for an official finish. That's 6.8km/hr.

Yiannis Kouros still holds the record, which he set in 1990 of 20h29. That's averaging almost 12km/hr. Scott Jurek's fastest time was 22h20 in 2008.

I must just state upfront that having been in AR and ultra running for over a decade - and mingling with many people who run long stuff well - I'm a little jaded in that I don't think that running through the night and being awake and on your feet and such big distances are 'crazy' or 'impossible'. They just are. Distances are there to be covered. And they are doable. But yes, the better prepared you are the more you'll enjoy the challenge and the better you'll feel and do.

(A book or two after this one I read Scott Jurek's new book, Eat and Run (I'll get to a review of it too). He has won it three times.)

This is kinda the foundation behind this book. The author decides to run Spartathlon and so we follow his encounters and preparations throughout the book until the last chapter where he runs Spartathlon.

First, the one thing that stood out for me is just how much Harvie put in. Really quite incredible. Lots of hours, lots of mileage. Just before the race he ran a 3:12 marathon so he is a very decent runner.

I seem to have gotten the idea - probably from the history accounts and mention of mountains - that this was a rugged, off-road event. It isn't. It's a road run, which I picked up from Scott Jurek's book. It is hot out there though. Very hot (hottest part of the day during the race peaked at 42C).

Throughout the book when referring to the race he makes statements here and there like, "Deep within me I knew I had no earthly business thinking I could take on the 152 miles...". To me, you've stopped before you've even started. A 3:12 marathon! And, he had to do a 100-kilometre race in 10.5 hours to qualify. Come on - you're more than able!

So, at night, after halfway, the author is already questioning whether he can go on. That's just over 120km into the race and considering that he's run 100-kilometres before (in under 10.5 hours!) I found this very surprising. By 17hrs and 85 miles (136km) into the race he was in a bad, bad way and throwing up. He says he'd been drinking too much water ("out of inexperience"), even in the cooler temperatures - and I presume he probably wasn't balancing this with eating? Anyway, that was his race finished.

Author's comments/thoughts
I read this on my Kindle and thank goodness for the facility that allows you to highlight bits that you like and save them to look at again. I don't think I've ever wanted to highlight as many passages / thoughts as I did with this book. There were so many comments that I could relate to and that stood out as I was reading. I must have highlighted many more than a dozen of his comments and other quotes/thoughts from people that he references.

Harvie questions a lot throughout the book about why we run, what we get out of it, why we do ultra distance races and such so many of the comments are in this light.

Here's just one of the many that I related to. He's been taking about Scott Jurek in this section.
"The transformation [we undergo in becoming ultra distance runners] is in the act of running itself, which turns running from a mode of transport - in its most limited form, of getting across the finish line - to a mode of being."
And another:
"...what we seek in running is the enrichment that comes with every hard mile covered. We run to bring depth to our everyday lives, not the other way around."
And another:
"All runners feel a sense of pride when they return to the map plotting a recently covered route, their fingers travelling along roads, over fields and following paths that only those on foot can take. 'I did that. On my own.' No matter that the distance covered or the time on the road, the pleasure of empowerment that comes with the accomplishment of a challenge is always profound and rewarding."
And another:
"Although mountains are beautiful and Arctic landscapes dramatic, there really is no need for them. Just close the front door behind you and be off in any direction, since all you need is your two feet and the open road. The beauty of motion, the ecstasy of freedom from a hurried, over-sophisticated world, requiring little financial cost and limited innate skill: this is the privilege of the running experience."

Overall impression
A lot of information in this book and most of it is very interesting and informative. I read fast but I made slow work of this book, even though I did find the content interesting. I also found the 'format' of the book frustrating because I thought the content should have been better organised. But that's probably my writer side showing itself.

That the author only made 85 miles was a bit of a damp squib; then again, not everyone finishes every race and that is a lesson in itself. But after all that training and preparation he did and how well he can run I just can't figure out how he could have blown the race. Probably too fast from the start.

Despite my frustrations I would definitely recommend this book as an interesting and informative read.

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