If you want to learn how to use a perioditzed table to improve your running, or about the physiology of VO2 Max, then buy a text book. But if you prefer to read a running book to be entertained and inspired, read “Chasing the Runner’s High” by Ray Charbonneau; a running story with a meaningful message told by an experienced marathoner and ultra-marathoner. The author is a commoner who squeezes every ounce of effort from his ordinary talent to achieve extraordinary things. He is the Everyman runner, the guy sitting next to you in the pub, or the guy at a twelve-step program—except his addiction is running.
The author is brutally honest and at ease exposing his own flaws, which quickly establishes that he is human. He lays it all out on the pages of his book, something writers, memoirist in particular, struggle to achieve. He pulls it off by holding nothing back, a trait required by a marathoner, which is synonymous with survivor.
Most of the setting for the book is in New England. The author grew up in Vermont, lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and is a member of the Somerville Road Runners (SRR). The races are centered around the Boston area, but spread out onto trails all over New England, and as the story progresses he enters races across the country.
If you ever wanted to peek into the mind of a runner, this book won’t leave your disappointed. Charbonneau’s story covers every conceivable detail of long-distance running—hydration, carb loading, nipple protection, refueling, running shoes, blisters, bonking, intervals, preparation—it’s all there. He covers the entire spectrum of emotions; from the solitary nature of the sport, to the challenge of running the Hills of Newton along the storied Boston Marathon course, to the ignorance of elitist runners who disregard recreational runners who pound the trails just as hard. His observations are told with the authority of an experienced runner who’d logged tens of thousands of miles underfoot. There are insightful references to the running guru George Sheehan, and many of his own. The author says, “There is no need to be elite to be passionate about running,” a theme that come across and invites the reader along for the ride, and then welcomes him to stop for a beer when the run is over.
A topic that is often avoided mainstream running books is hashing—a running subculture created by the international organization Hash House Harriers, whose motto is, “A drinking club with a running problem.” His accounts of hashing in the New England region are hysterical, like the time he was stung by bees and had an allergic reaction, is rushed to the hospital, but still makes it back to the beer bash after the race. Such antics will likely have curious readers Googling HHH to find a local chapter to join.
Charbonneau’s running addiction grows stronger, and after years of dedicated training he is rewarded with the sweet taste of success, placing and winning races, and is even the subject of a promotional poster by Saucony at the Boston Marathon. But his thirst for success becomes unquenchable and the marathon no longer satisfies his taste, so he enters the Vermont 50—a fifty-mile race though the mountains of Vermont. Attempting a fifty-mile race is a feat that most people would consider outlandish, and his account will confirm their suspicion. While he spends more and more time training, his marriage falls apart and, rather than taking time to fix his life, he turns up the tempo and trains for an even longer race—the Vermont 100.
Reading his description of 2004 Vermont 100 will be as painful for some to read as it was for Charbonneau to run. It is a blow-by-blow account of physical agony and the punishment an athlete will subject themselves to for the satisfaction of completing a race that most people can’t even imagine. Charbonneau uses “shorter” races—the Martha Vineyard 20-Miler, Boston Marathon and Potomac Heritage Trail Run 50K—as training runs. While training for the one hundred-mile race, he still has the presence to raise $1,200 for the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, the charity that the race benefits. Only a caring runner would do such a thing.
A one hundred-mile race requires incredible perseverance to overcome psychological torment, hallucinations and the temptation to drop out, especially during the pitch black hours of the night. Three weigh stations are set up along the course to check runners for dehydration and hyponatremia. Charbonneau finishes in 27:29:24, but is not satisfied because he didn’t break the twenty-four hour barrier. Shortly after the race is over he begins planning how to cut more than three hours from his finishing time to make another attempt in 2005. The following year he runs the race overconfident, suffers an injury and drops out before reaching the halfway point, which is the beginning of a downfall.
Charbonneau’s candor describing his downfall is one of the strengths of the story. He openly writes about his increased drinking and the decline in his finishing times, nagging injuries and dwindling weekly mileage. His drinking eventually causes two DUIs (Driving Under the Influence) and the loss of a job he didn’t particularly care for to begin with. At this point, a lesser man would lick his wounds and go home, but he is a marathoner and marathoners never give up.
This is where the author is most honorable. Charbonneau assesses what had gone wrong with his life, quits drinking and turns a negative into a positive, sharing hard-earned lessons with readers. He warns about the pitfalls of compulsive behavior and demonstrates courage facing the brutal reality that he’d lost control over his addiction—addictions in more than one form. He also cautions against chasing goals for the wrong reasons—like checking off boxes on an itinerary—that could be a sign of a void that exist in some other area of life. Goals are not a bad thing unless they are for the wrong purposes.
Ray turns his life around, marries another runner, Ruth, and finds happiness in her success when she completes her first marathon. Now he says, “Sometimes, when I least expect it there is joy. My body glides down the road effortlessly with my mind riding atop in harmony… Sometimes when I’m relaxed and appreciative of the simple pleasures of running, I get a little glimpse of transcendence,” —the insightful words of an experienced runner. These days, the author’s goal is to be running for sheer enjoyment when he is in his seventies and eighties, and winning races by attrition. He ends by saying, “Sometimes I stumble across a moment of fulfillment, sometimes I get lost on the road, but if I keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I know I’ll find the path that takes me home.”
“Chasing the Runner’s High,” is an honest account about the compulsion to run written by an everyday runner who’d achieved success—in running and in life. Read more about Ray Charbonneau at his Y42K blog and pick up “Chasing the Runner’s High” directly at his “Chasing the Runner’s High” website or Amazon.com.