In essence, endurance running is a solitary activity that requires a runner to spend many hours on the trails alone. However, most running books overlook the introspection that occurs in a runners mind during hours in seclusion and instead concentrate on the technical aspects of the sport. Perhaps I focus on the psychological aspects of running because I am a writer and typically prone to the intuitive nature of things. It makes sense to me that artist, musicians and academics, who are also runners, credit running for the creativity and free-flowing thought it stimulates.
So it is no surprise that some of my favorite running books are not on the top of the usual list recommended by the running community. My top three running books are neither replete with technical data nor information about how to run faster and longer. They don’t contain tables, graphs or detailed formulas. Rather my favorites revolve around the intuitive, motivational and inspirational aspects of endurance running. In fact, my number one running book is written by a novelist who also happens to be a marathoner, ultra-marathoner and triathlete; his memoir does not appear on any top running book list. My number two book is written by a respected running guru, however it geared toward the psychology of running, and I would describe my third selection as a counterculture book about ultra-marathon running.
So if you are an endurance runner interested in the intuitive aspects of why you do what you do, I recommend the following three books:
#1 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
The author’s name will likely send most elite runners, coaches and trainers to their laptops and smart phones to Google for information. Don’t bother. Haruki is a Japanese author in his sixties who has written no less than a dozen novels. He is also a marathoner, ultra-marathoner and triathlete. His memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running resonated with me more than any other book I’d read about running. Mr. Murakami didn’t start running until he was thirty-three and has powerful insights about self-awareness, acceptance and the advantages of being a loner. As a seasoned marathoner he draws parallels between the running life and writing life that are fascinating and revealing. He describes endurance running as a metaphor for life, which spoke directly to the runner and writer in me; I suspect it will talk to the introspective runner in you as well. In his final analysis Haruki says, “Long distance running has molded me into the person I am today, and I’m hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible. I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together.” On his gravestone he’d like it to say this, “Writer (and Runner); At Least He Never Walked”
#2 Running & Being by Dr. John Sheehan
In my June 23, 2011 blog The Thinking Man’s Runner, I wrote about several of Dr. George Sheehan’s inspiring observations about distance running. In that blog I cited one of Dr. Sheehan’s memorable quotes, “But then my fitness program was never a fitness program. It was a campaign, a revolution, a conversion. I was determined to find myself. And, in the process, found my body and the soul that went with it.” It is one of many astute observations in his book, but one that resonated with the runner in me.
Running & Being analyzes living, discovery, playing, suffering, meditating and growing, not typical topics in a running book. He says, “Fitness is my life; it is indispensable. I have no alternative, no choice but to act out this inner drive that seems entirely right for me.” There is no doubt that running was right for him when he claimed, “Like most distance runners, I am still a child. And never more so than when I run. I take that play more seriously than anything else I do. And in that play I retire into the fantasy land of my imagination anytime I please.” Such a profound statement is motivation enough to get any runner to lace up and hit the trail.
#3 Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
The most endearing quality of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run is its brutal honesty. He is unapologetic about the unorthodox nature of ultra-marathoning and the fanatical athletes who compete in the endurance races. Born to Run breaks ranks with other running books on the market that typically profess fundamental technical details and adulate the running establishment, and then ignore the counterculture of ultra-marathoning. He goes beyond conventional running wisdom to unearth the “it” that compels this unique bread of athlete to subject themselves to brutish challenges under inhumane conditions and always come back for more.
I wrote a review of McDougall’s book last year summarizing his departure from convention to research and provide a realistic account of an endurance sport that gets little attention. While famous events such as the Boston Marathon and Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii get a good deal of media attention, few people ever heard of the Leadville 100 or the Badwater Ultramarathon, yet athletes who compete in Leadville and Badwater subject themselves to conditions neither Boston nor The Ironman come close to.
There are other great running books on the market, but many are “how to” books full of technical advice, data and training programs written by elite athletes, trainers and coaches. A close fourth place book worth mentioning is Pre. Pre is about Steve Prefountaine who died when he was just twenty-four, an abbreviated life cut short by a car accident. Steve was considered the greatest middle distance runner in American in the 1970’s, who always went all out in a race, from the starting gun to the finish line. He placed fourth in the 1972 Olympics 5,000 meter race. Perhaps the reason the story about Steve Prefountaine strikes so deeply is the impact he left after dying at such a young age in the 1970’s, similar to Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin and Jim Morrison. Ironically, Pre once said about his running, “Some people create with words or with music or with brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s a style. It’s doing something better than anyone else. It’s being creative.”
Everybody has distinctive stimulus that ignites their senses. One book or movie might inspire someone to lace up a pair of running shoes and begin training while another person may never quite get the meaning. Some may read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and think, “What was that all about?” while I consider it the best running book I’ve ever read. We are all different. Who knows, perhaps someday Twenty-four Years To Boston will be included on some top of the running book list.