Book review: The Way Of The Runner by Adharanand Finn

At the end of last year the team behind Like the Wind magazine along with some wonderful friends opened a Pop-Up for a week. We had film screenings, talks, workshops and hundreds and hundreds of runners coming in. It was actually a bit of an overwhelming experience and there were too many amazing experiences for there to be highlights – it was all one massive highlight.

In the middle of the week, on a rare quiet moment, a man walked in through the doors. I instantly recognised him as the author of one of the books that I love and that we were selling in the Pop-Up: Adharanand Finn. Author of Running With The Kenyans.

It was great to meet Adharanand and I was really excited when he told me that he was writing a new book. He had decided to travel with his family again to experience another hot-bed of distance running – Japan.

A week ago his latest book – The Way Of The Runner – dropped on my doormat and I immediately started looking for opportunities to dive into the pages.

The Way Of The Writer

IMG_3089One of the fantastic things about Finn’s first book was the way that he threw himself into running with the Kenyans who were his neighbours in the village where he and his family lived for a year (hence the book’s title). This was not a dispassionate look at the way that east Africans train, live, eat and race. Adharanand was out there with them trying to understand why they are the best marathoners on earth whilst also trying to improve his own running.

And so it is with this latest book. Finn wants to get inside Japanese running and especially the Ekiden – wildly popular road relays that have millions hooked on the TV as they take place.

Whilst Finn’s brilliant way with words, self-deprecating humour, intensity about his running and journalistic rigour are as much in evidence in The Way Of The Runner as they are in Running With The Kenyans, it is clear that Adharanand wasn’t as welcome in Japan as he was in Kenya. Actually that doesn’t make the book any less interesting, but I was left feeling frustrated for Finn that he didn’t get as involved in the Japanese running scene as he seemed to be in Africa.

Points of comparison

It isn’t just the access issue that allows Finn’s two books to be compared. Adharanand refers regularly to the differences between east African and Japanese runners. Sometimes favourably, sometimes not. There is clearly a question that gnaws at Adharanand, which is why, when looking at the Ekiden in particular, Japanese runners are clearly capable of taking on the Ethiopians and Kenyans at their own game, and yet they don’t? Runners who cover 20km legs in the Ekiden at a pace equivalent to a low-60 minute half marathon never graduate to the global marathon scene.

It also seems to me that Finn’s young family also had a harder time integrating themselves into Japanese society than they did in Kenya. They clearly have the ability to land in a very foreign land and really get on with people there, but again I got the feeling from reading the book, that they didn’t really settle and I wonder if that made it harder for Adharanand to spend as much time with the runners that he did meet as he would have wanted to?

A great insight

Despite the fact that Adharanand appeared to have a harder time getting into the running scene in Japan than he did in Africa, the book is still utterly fascinating. I could spend much, much longer telling you about all of my favourite bits from this book, but I won’t. Because I really want you to buy it. In fact I want you to buy two and give one away. I believe that there is not enough good storytelling about running (there could probably never be enough for me!) so I want people like Adharanand Finn to keep doing what they do.

As you would expect from such an accomplished writer and journalist, the stories flow and it is a really lovely book to read. It is also satisfyingly long, not just a brief synopsis of the Ekiden phenomenon and a few personal observations. No, for as long as it takes you to read this book, you will be immersed in the scene. It has certainly made me want to go to Japan even more and take my running shoes. It is as though Adharanand is fast becoming my personal fantasy-travel agent. I wonder where will be next…

Book & talk about ‘Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists’ by Michael Hutchinson

Running is such a simple sport. The common wisdom is that all you need is a pair of shoes and enough functional clothing for the weather / legal requirements of the place you are running in. Some even argue that you don’t need shoes. Or clothes.

But that is also, perhaps, one of the downsides of running. I don’t think there is much that science can do to help runners go faster. Certainly the footwear and apparel brands are doing their best with shoes that give more return or weigh less and clothes that are designed to wick sweat and support muscles. And nutrition brands undoubtedly create products that are scientifically superior to the beer and butties that our running forefathers trained and raced on. And of course there are GPS devices and heart rate monitors that mean that training can be more and more specific and controlled. And yet…

Despite all the technological advances, runners in the UK and Europe are – on average and at every level – getting slower. Not only slower than the runners coming from the distance-running powerhouses in east Africa but also slower than the aforementioned beer-and-butty fuelled runners of the past.

Maybe in cycling it is different? Well Michael Hutchinson is certainly obsessed with finding out.

On 6 May, Michael will be at the Bloomsbury Institute to talk about his new book;

Faster_image001Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists

Hutchinson will explain why cyclists do what they do, what the riders, their coaches and the experts get up to in preparation and why the idea of going faster is such an appealing, universal instinct for all of us.

This examination of what it takes to get faster on two wheels has garnered high praise already from none other than the man who has made cycling fast a national obsession: Sir Dave Brailsfor. He says of Faster,

Fantastic. An intelligent and personal insight in to the world of elite cycling

There should be no surprise that Michael has written a good book on the subject of cycling fast. Hutchinson is a former professional cyclist and won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland, represented both countries internationally and rode for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in 2002, 2006 and 2010. He also has writing-form having already penned an award-winning book, The Hour: Sporting Immortality the Hard Way.

So I would say that this is going to be a very interesting read. And if you can get to the talk, then I think it will be a fascinating discussion around the subjects in the book. I went to the Bloomsbury Institute for a talk by Scott Jurek about his book Eat and Run as well as a talk by Graeme Obree for his book A Training Manual For Cyclists (I still need to post my review of that book… sorry!) – both were utterly brilliant! If you want to go to this latest talk click here and book a ticket (in case you need to copy and paste it: http://tinyurl.com/oqa9fgo) – it’ll be a very worthwhile £10 I assure you!

 

Book review: Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith

One of the things I love about running is that at it’s heart is a purity that doesn’t exist in many other sports. There is not much that is contrived about trying to get from one place to another as fast as you can. There are no balls, or rackets, or off-side regulations. There are hardly even any rules (except follow the prescribed route). Somehow running is about something that human beings have had to do to survive since the dawn of our species.

However under the broad umbrella of running as a sport, there are myriad different events – from track sprinting to ultra-distance trail races and from elite events such as the Olympics to mass participation events such as big city marathons and ParkRuns. When I started running, the easiest form of running – and the one that appealed to my sense of wanting to take control – was road running. But as my interest in running developed, I discovered other types of races and one book, above all, gave me the impetus to take my running off-road. That book was Feet In The Clouds: A Tale Of Fell Running And Obsession, by Richard Askwith.

FITC coverAskwith is an accomplished writer, currently employed as the Associate Editor of the Independent and this, along with his determination and dedication to become the best fell runner he can be, makes Feet In The Clouds a wonderful read.

Much like Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi, Askwith’s book opens with a chapter that simply grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. You are immediately sucked into a world where physical exertion, doubt, fear, ecstasy, history and camaradery are all an integral part of why its participants are involved. If, like me, you are interested in what you are capable of, Feet In The Clouds is a very direct challenge: could you? Would you? Should you try any of this at home (or on a hill near to home)?

What is also wonderful about Feet In The Clouds, is the way that Askwith tells of his considerable personal challenges and exertions within the context of a sport that has its fair share of heroes and heroics. This tends to do Richard the disservice of diminishing what he himself achieved. But it also paints a vivid picture of a minority sport within the wider sport of running, which has quietly and unassumingly carried on for generations (although sadly, more recently perhaps, waned more than waxed). Richard writes about and indeed meets many of the unsung heroes of fell running like Joss Naylor, Pete Bland and Angela Mudge who work tough jobs and race tougher races.

In that sense, the great fell runners that Richard describes are like many of my heroes from the golden age of road running like Bill Adcocks, Steve Jones, Mike McLeod and too many others to mention: men who worked five or six days as well as running 120 miles each week and completed marathons in times that should make today’s pampered professional runners blush.

If you need any more convincing that this is tough sport, how about this for a race course!

If there is any slight criticism of Feet In The Clouds, it is the forensic level of detail that Askwith brings to bear on his chosen sport. Every so often there is a  chapter which is a look at a month of fell running and that is perhaps too much detail for the casual reader.

But then again, fell running is not a sport that is for anyone casual in any sense. The epic races, reckless down-hill charges, hard lifestyles and deep community that makes up fell running is not for the faint-hearted and whilst some people might not understand the significance of a race up and down Scarfell Pike or Snowdon or the challenge that the Bob Graham Round represents, that in no way diminishes what amazing feats the characters in Feet In The Clouds achieve (the author included) and a re-issue of this book is the perfect antidote to the Olympic legacy of multi-million pound sponsorship deals, Olympic stadia and corporate endorsements. This is a book about getting out there and doing it.

So I really recommend that you get a copy… then lace up your fell shoes and go and get out on the hills. It won’t be long before Richard Askwith’s tale of obsession becomes your tale of obsession – just don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

 

 

Feet In The Clouds is published in paperback by Aurum Press and will be in shops on 9 May 2013, priced at £8.99.

The good people at Aurum have sent me a copy of Feet In The Clouds to give away, so head over to the freestak Facebook page for a chance to win the book.

The perfect review of ‘The Perfect Distance’

A two part review of Pat Butcher’s book The Perfect Distance

In this review, Michael Shelton took the time to review the book that takes an in-depth look at the rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett and ultimately resulted in such spectacular races in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Having read the book myself, I have then added my thoughts at the bottom – Simon

Michael’s review

My earliest memories of athletics were of events like the Golden Mile in Oslo and seemingly amazing feats as runners tried to break 3 or 4 world records in a matter of weeks. It was a golden age of British athletics, being led by two men,  Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.

The Olympics are just around the corner [Michael sent this review before the Games started but I have only just had a chance to post it here. Sorry Mike! – ed] and despite all the predictions of a record medal haul, there are few expectations for team GB in the men’s 800m and 1500m.

Yet just over 30 years ago, in the Communist stronghold of Moscow at the 1980 Olympics, it was the British that ruled middle distance running with an iron fist. In 1984,  we went into the Los Angeles Olympics with the Olympic champion (Coe), the world record holder (Ovett) and the world champion (Steve Cram). It is scarcely believable these days.

The Perfect Distance is the fascinating story of Coe and Ovett, two driven athletes, following contrasting timelines from promising beginnings through to titles, world records and Olympic triumphs.

The title refers to the magical mile distance, but also how a middle distance runner has to be the perfect athlete. They must have the speed of a 200m runner, the endurance of a six miler and the tactical savvy to win a race at any speed and from any position.

The fact that Coe and Ovett rarely faced each other in a competitive race meant that the Moscow Olympics was even became a national talking point in the USA, a country who had boycotted the games.

The events of 1980 may be well known (Ovett won the event, the 800m, that Coe was favourite for, while in the 1500m the reverse happened), but it’s the more personal moments that Butcher captures and you come to understand how these champions were moulded.

Butcher draws the battle lines between the pair –geographically, physically  and socially. Coe would become an MP and head of the London Olympic movement, while Ovett has remained out of the spotlight, even to the extent of being the only living British Olympic gold medal winner not to appear on special series of BBC Radio programmes. Rather than by these great enemies represented in the media, they were just very different personalities who would never be friends in any walk of life.

Like the Boat Race, most of the media and watching public lay their allegiances in either the Ovett or Coe camp. However you would be hard pressed not to develop a huge amount of respect for the other by the book’s conclusion.

Imagine being in the shoes of Coe, after running the worst race of your life at the Olympic Final. Rather than getting encouraging words from his father, he instead receives a four letting dressing down from his coach (aka Dad) in front of a packed press corp.

Ovett is remembered as incredibly hard working and a natural runner. He could complete the 400m in under 50 seconds, won a 5000m gold at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986 and clocked 1hr5 for a half-marathon he entered on a whim. His unwillingness to speak to the media saw him portrayed as aloof, but the picture Butcher moulds is of a shy man with a complicated family who just wanted to run.

The eyes of the world may have been on only two men, but Butcher does not neglect the forgotten men. From the Scandinavians who tried to disrupt the gold parade, to German Olaf Beyer, who split the Brits to grab Olympic silver in 1the 1500m, we see how the Coe and Ovett phenomenon was portrayed around Europe and the world.

Inspiring, humbling and ultimately a very human story, I finished the book thinking that athletic perfection may be unattainable, but here were two runners who would give everything to try and reach it.

Simon’s review

I must start by saying that I agree completely with everything Michael has written. I think that Pat Butcher elegantly and accurately captures the rivalry that drove Coe and Ovett to achieve marvelous things in middle distance running during a period when Great British runners were unsurpassed at those distances.

I think for me, the most wonderful thing that Butcher manages to capture is the value of the rivalry from the point of view of driving the protagonists on ever harder. It is almost as though they were in a world of their own – team mates and yet fierce rivals who knew how hard the other was training and racing and as a result pushed themselves harder and harder to not be outdone.

This is epitomised for me in a story that Coe wrote about in the Telegraph:

It was a harsh winter (harsh enough to bring down a government) but I ran 12 miles on Christmas morning. It was a hard session and I got home, showered and felt pretty happy with what I had done.

Later that afternoon, sitting back after Christmas lunch, I began to feel uneasy but was not quite sure why. Suddenly it dawned on me. I thought: “I bet [Steve] Ovett’s out there doing his second training session of the day.” I put the kit back on, faced the snow and ice and did a second training session. I ran several miles, including some hill work.

Not long ago, over supper in Melbourne, I told him the story. He laughed. ‘Did you only go out twice that day?’ he asked.

It should never be forgotten that the fruit of the rivalry between Coe and Ovett (and to some extent the young pretender Steve Cram when he joined the fray and pushed the two greatest middle distance runners to even great heights) were magnificent:

  • three Olympic gold medals
  • two Olympic silver medals
  • one Olympic bronze medal
  • seventeen middle-distance world records

An amazing period and one that might not ever be repeated. As the Olympic Games of 2012 come to a close, we have been treated to the incredible running ability – hard work and humility being the fuel – of one Mohammed Farah. But he has no domestic rival. There is no one in the UK that he fears and indeed it is arguable that trying to find a team mate who would push him to new limits was part of the motivation for moving to the Nike campus in Oregon to train with Galen Rupp. So I hope that the Olympics of 2012 has a part to play in lighting the fire of inspiration into at least two youngsters currently taking their first steps in athletics – let’s all pray for the next Coe and Ovett!

The selfishness of the long distance runner

I worry sometimes that my ‘focus’ when it comes to running is actually sheer, unadulterated selfishness.

I am incredibly lucky that my wife is so supportive, but it nags at me sometimes that she might get a touch frustrated by being woken before dawn day after day as I stumble across the bedroom on my way out for another pre-breakfast run. I worry that she might not appreciate the huge piles of festering kit or the rows of muddied shoes that decorate our home. My wife is hugely tolerant of the many ‘nights out’ that we have cut short so that I can get home in time to get a good night’s sleep before my Sunday morning long run, but for how long? Friend similarly may be getting tired of me being tired, or not wanting to drink until ‘after the next big race’. And how about work? Do my colleagues mind that I spend so many lunchtimes out getting in a quick run or stretching in the kitchen area?

But I like to think that this selfishness might simply be another face of dedication, which as we know is a crucial part of every athletes armoury. And three brilliant books I have read recently confirm this view, both to my horror and satisfaction.

The Ghost Runner

I must admit that when it was published I was not all that interested in reading The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop I’m not sure why, but having picked it up a few times and read the notes on the back and having read a few early reviews, it didn’t immediately appeal.

Then a few weeks ago, whilst at the Brighton marathon expo, I heard Ron Hill talk about one of the times he ran against Tarrant in a marathon. Tarrant’s brother and lifelong supporter, who was alongside on his motorbike as Tarrant ran at the head of the field, with Hill tucked in behind him, told Tarrant that he shouldn’t do all the bloody work! I suddenly realised that John Tarrant was an important figure in British endurance running and I should read this book. I bought it from a bookshop close to my office the next day.

I should have read The Ghost Runner sooner. Having always had a slight anti-authoritarian streak (just ask me about my run-ins with TV Licensing recently!) I really felt for Tarrant and his battle to be allowed to run for his country – something that he was banned from doing, thanks to taking a paltry sum in expenses as a teenage boxer.

The book is rather light on details of how Tarrant trained, but what it is not light on is the trials that he faced at the hands of the immovable AAA. It is also full of the impact of Tarrant’s single mindedness when it came to running on those around him: his ever-supportive brother, his long suffering wife, his exasperated employers – the list goes on.

Running On Empty

Having finished The Ghost Runner, my next book was one of my wife’s suggestions: Running On Empty Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America which is the autobiography of an amazing man called Marshall Ulrich.

Ulrich’s story is very different from Tarrants, because as someone still running now in a period of tolerance on the part of those who run athletics and an ultra-runner, Ulrich doesn’t seem to have had to deal with the insanity of shamateurism and the pompousness of stubborn athletics officials.

But Ulrich and Tarrant do share a couple of things – they are both ultra distance runners (Tarrant had a long love affair with the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africa, a love that sadly the organisers did not reciprocate) and Ulrich confesses in his book that he is as ‘focused‘ as Tarrant was.

In one very moving part of the book, Marshall describes how, having found running as a way of dealing with his first wife’s long, slow decline as cancer took hold, he left to go out for a run even as she begged him to stay with her in her distress.

And it doesn’t end there. Ulrich has had failed relationships after the loss of his first wife that he attributes to his running. He acknowledges that family life has suffered. He even planned his epic, record breaking run across America against the wishes of his third wife and you get the feeling that he was always going to do the run, whether she approved or not.

Keep On Running

Having finished Ulrich’s book, I thought that something a little less intense would be in order. I found myself browsing the sports section of a huge book shop in central London and found Keep On Running: The Highs & Lows of a Marathon Addict by Phil Hewitt. The notes on the back promised a “light hearted account of [Hewitt’s] adventures on the road”… but despite Hewitt being what I would call an unremarkable marathon runner – with a personal best of 3hrs 20mins – the same theme emerges.

Because Hewitt is obviously a less extreme character than Tarrant or Ulrich and his targets are less extreme in their nature and duration, there is not the same requirement for compromise on the part of those close to him. But Phil still has to acknowledge that at least his wife, with a young family to deal with, has had to put up with a lot – losing her evenings with him after the children are asleep while he goes out for runs in the dark, traipsing around the London marathon course in the pouring rain whilst pregnant and with a two-year-old and, I suspect, dealing with all the extra washing of running kit that training for a marathon entails (though I might be wrong there).

So what, I hear you ask?

Well, it strikes me that we runners can be a selfish bunch, as these three books demonstrate. I am not saying for one minute that this is a bad thing, because I believe that it is better to be a selfish runner and have all the positive qualities that come with that, rather than a selfish boozer or a selfish gambler.

But these books have reminded me that life is about balance and I believe that every so often it is worth lifting one’s head and considering for a moment whether, in the pursuit of a new PB or a new distance, one is not sacrificing too much. Maybe once in a while, us runners should take our loved one out for dinner, or go away for the weekend and leave the trainers behind or maybe read a book… there are three about running all of which I can highly recommend!

All three of the books are great reads in their own rights.

The Ghost Runner is brilliantly well researched and is written by a writer, so the prose flows and the book was a real page turner for me, filled with uplifting moments, tragedy, inspiration and the odd word of warning.

Running On Empty, written as it is by Ulrich, is perhaps a little rougher, but no less wonderful for that. In this book, the reader gets a warts-and-all insight into what it takes to achieve feats of endurance that would seem utterly impossible had they not been done! A great book for anyone wondering what lies beyond the marathon.

And Keep On Running does deliver what it promises on the cover – a ‘beautiful description of one man’s passion for the open road’ according to Jo Pavey. The book is funny, inspiring, honest and moving. As a runner myself I really connected with Hewitt’s story and only wish I could have described my journey so far with such eloquence.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop by Bill Jones is published by Mainstream Publishing priced £12.99
Running On Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss and a record-Setting Run Across America by Marshall Ulrich is published by Avery and priced £11.99
Keep On Running: The Highs & Lows of a Marathon Addict by Phil Hewitt is out now and published by Summersdale priced £8.99

Book review – Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

Make this top of your reading list

It is not all that often that I wait with real anticipation for a book to be published. Even less common for me to pre-order it online and count the weeks and days until it will arrive, mainly due to the fact that I always have a pile of books next to my bed that I have yet to start, so adding to that pile is never a priority. But a combination of some brilliantly written articles in advance of one particular book and the fact that the subject matter is something I am fascinated by, meant that I was impatiently waiting for my pre-ordered copy of Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn from the day that the publishing date was announced.

Thankfully my great friend and mentor, Charlie Dark, passed on a pre-publication copy that he had been sent to read so I was able to see whether the book would live up to my rather high expectations earlier than anticipated.

I was hoping that the book would be part-training manual, part-inspirational tome and part-sports psychology discussion – maybe a combination of Paul Thoroux, Rasmus Ankersen and Professor Tim Noakes. It turned out to be a bit of all of them, though perhaps not in the proportions I was expecting.

The big question

There is no doubt that there is a plethora of literature, research, opinions and even movies about the reasons behind the recent and current domination of endurance running by people from east Africa and in particular the areas around Iten in Kenya and Bekoji in Ethiopia (there is a pretty amazing film coming out about Bekoji and you can see the trailer here) and the question that comes up again and again, is what is the secret behind their success? I have my own opinions and I’m happy to talk about this until the cows come home. But this is about what Adharanand discovered…

The (bigger) answer?

In Running with the Kenyans, Finn transports himself and his young family to Iten for a year to try to find the answer to the vexing question of why there are pockets of outstanding achievement in endurance running in east Africa. Along the way to trying to answer that question, Adharanand has adventures, set-backs, triumphs and no small amount of self-discovery.

I loved the parts in the book when Finn starts to train regularly and discovers that he is capable of much more than he thought he was. The descriptions of some of the runs – those that went well and those that didn’t go quite as well – had me variously laughing, wincing and nodding in sympathy. Finn ran the full gamut of experiences (pun intended) on his way to becoming the best runner he could be.

All along the journey of self discovery, Adharanand met people who gave him hints and tips, ideas and little nuggets of advice. But the answer to the big question always seems slightly out of reach. There are many examples of runners who are not super-human, of little set-backs, of every day struggles which makes the amazing achievements of the greatest runners alive seem even more extraordinary. So does Finn finally get the answer he is looking for?

I think in the end up Finn does answer the question. Certainly the answer might not be to everyone’s liking, but the end of the book has a very satisfyingly concise conclusion, that only someone who has really got up close and personal and lived the experience that Finn has, could confidently come to. The book is very well written – so really easy to read: I finished the book in two days on my warm-weather training camp – and whilst I personally might have liked a little more ‘science’ (I’m a running geek after all), I was massively inspired by the book and my desire to go to Iten has been stoked more than ever. And when I do pack my bags for Kenya, I’ll most certainly take a copy of Running with the Kenyans because is it well worth a second read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iron War by Matt Fitzgerald

First and foremost I am a runner. But I never considered myself to be good enough to be totally one dimensional and so I have dabbled in sports alongside running, most notably the two seasons that I competed in triathlon. I was not very good at triathlon (arguably my best result was 10th in an Olympic distance race in Seaford, on the south coast of the UK) and I especially found the swim, or at least the start of the swim, very challenging. After a few attempts, I decided that my focus, at least for the mean time, would be on improving my marathon time. I am ashamed to say that it has been months since I went for a swim and longer still since I went for a bike ride.

Iron War by Matt Fitzgerald

However I did enjoy my foray into multisports: I most definitely developed a respect for triathletes and to this day I am an avid follower of standard and ironman distance events. So it was that whilst shopping (by which I mean rushing into a shop, already scoped out as one having the item I wanted to get, and then rushing out again as fast as possible – I hate shopping per se!) I picked up Matt Fitzgerald’s new book, Iron War: a book that takes the 1989 Kona Ironman race, which came down to a duel between two legends of the sport – Mark Allen and Dave Scott – as a canvas onto which to explore the very nature of endurance and the things that make those that are great, great!

As happened with Open, Andre Aggasi’s book or Matthew Syed’s Bounce, I was captivated by the end of page one, in fact possibly by the end of the opening paragraph. Fitzgerald is a great writer and this means that not only is the book brilliantly researched and executed, the prose is also beautifully crafted and this makes the book a genuine ‘page turner’. I for one couldn’t put it down.

Inspiration and motivation on every page

Iron War has had such a huge impact on me, that I intend to explore some of the main themes in the book in more detail in upcoming posts, so I won’t write too much here. But I will say that the incisive discussions in the chapters that surround the narration of the increadible race that Allen and Scott took part in at the 13th Ironman race in Hawaii in 1989, cut to the core of many of the theories that I have been thinking and reading about recently relating to the power of the mind in endurance sport. There is no doubt at all that immense feats of endurance are built upon a basis of supreme physical fitness, but more than that is necessary to drive the protagonists of this book (and indeed many other stories) to achieve what they did. Fitzgerald uncovers research in fields such as neuroscience, spirituality and psychology to explain how in truth we are all capable of much more than we think we are and that indeed we often fail to be the best that we can possibly be, not because we reach a physical limitation, but rather a mental one that too few of us are prepared to push beyond.

So I cannot recommend highly enough that you buy a copy of this amazing book. We all know that the New Year is a time when motivation could do with a boost and this book should be just the thing to energise (or indeed re-energise) you and challenge you to push yourself that little bit further in 2012. I know that I will have passages rattling around in my head during tough training sessions in weeks to come.

Is The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time the single greatest book about marathoning of all time?

I am a self-confessed marathon addict. Sure I have dabbled with shorter distances and indeed I am a big fan of the half marathon distance. I have even tried cycling and triathlons (please forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing). But at the core of my being, sits a love of the marathon that is unshakable. And it is everything about the marathon that I love: I love training for them. I love running them. I love reading about the training and racing and mental approach required for a marathon. And I love the history of the marathon.

A book worm

On my bookshelf at home I have started to build up a collection of dog-eared books that I have read and re-read and annotated and lent (and thankfully always recovered!). From coaching books like Advanced Marathoning by Pfitzinger and Douglas and Road Racing for Serious Runners by Rogers, Pfitzinger and Douglas to autobiographies like From Last to First (Charlie Spedding) and Gold Rush (Michael Johnson) or Running With Joy (Ryan Hall) and biographies like The Greatest (about Haile Gebrselassie). But possibly my favourite types of books, because they appeal to the inner-geek in me, are those about the history of running such as The London Marathon by John Bryant or Running With The Legends by Michael Sandrock.

These books about the history of marathoning are a window into the world of running, which have the benefit of hindsight. There is no doubt that an interview with a current super-star of running or a recent review of a great race can be interesting, but it is not until a runner’s career has ended or a race’s epoch has passed that all the pieces in the puzzle can be seen and arranged and their contribution to the universe of running can be celebrated.

The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time

And then I discovered William Cockerill’s massive and wonderful tome The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time. Actually I read about the book. I discovered second-hand what a brilliantly well researched book it is. How in-depth and well written each race report is. How every true fanatic of the marathon should have a copy. And how difficult it is to get a copy.

But as we all know, the marathon is at least in part about persistence and I was not going to be defeated. I considered second hand copies, or a new copy sent all the way from the US for an extortionate cost, but in the end the simplest solution proved to be Amazon, where the author himself was selling copies which, if you are lucky, will be signed and even dedicated. You can get your copy here (pick the copy available from William Cockerell).

Getting hold of my copy

When my copy arrived, I had just moved into a new flat and emptying boxes and shifting furniture was the order of the day. The book taunted me. I would snatch a few pages during those moments when I knew I was allowed – over breakfast or before my weary eyes slid shut in bed at night. Every page was filled with wonderful details of the 50 races that Will has chosen as well as back stories, descriptions of the protagonists and evocative pictures. There is everything in there.

In the foreword, by David Bedford, former 10,000m world record holder and race director of the London marathon, he writes that when it comes to the marathon “what I really crave when I assemble my elite field is a battle, a saga, and a mystery” and that is what Will manages to get across in every one of the races he has written about. Bedford goes on to say of the author and the book

“What William has done in this remarkable and fascinating book is to comb through 109 years of marathon races and skillfully select the races that have captured the imagination of the public, provided thrilling entertainment, and yes, sometimes a healthy dose of controversy”

I couldn’t agree more with David Bedford’s analysis of the way in which the book details 50 amazing races. As William himself wrote to me

“I’m a freelance sportswriter by trade, and had studied the history of the marathon very closely for many years. It struck me that something like this [his book] hadn’t been done before. There were books on the marathon, but they were either crude summaries, or in “The Olympic Marathon” or “Boston Marathon” incredibly in depth analysis on just very specific races. My book attempted to fall somewhere in between.”

A great amongst marathon books

Well I think that Will has done far, far more than ‘fall somewhere in between’ – in marathoning terms, I believe that The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time has, through sheer strength and determination, hours of dedication and no small amount of raw talent honed over many years, ripped the field to pieces and emerged as one of the greatest books ever written about the marathon. As The Times wrote,

“At last the marathon has found a book worthy of its long and epic journey”

And as William himself wrote in the book when he dedicated it to me “I hope you find some snippets of motivation in here” – undoubtedly, Will, undoubtedly!

Up, up and away, away, AWAY!

As some of you will know, some time ago I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful man who goes by the name of Charlie Dark (who can be found on twitter @daddydark). Poet, teacher and runner (amongst other things) Charlie is the founder and force behind the RunDemCrew (@rundemcrew), where I have been welcomed and made to feel part of the family, as well as having the privilege of helping a few of the runners there where I can.

This year the RunDemCrew, captained by Mr. Dark, took on the London marathon and in celebration of that, the design agency Rosie Lee, led by Mark Fleming (more commonly known as Chop and found on twitter as @chopbot) designed a book, incorporating photography from the amazing Tom Hull (who has a lovely website here and can be found on twitter as @tomhull) to celebrate the journey and the event.

The book incorporates six photo essays to illustrate the journey the ‘Crew took including regular RunDemCrew Tuesday night runs and track sessions (instigated by me and, to my surprise and delight embraced with fervent energy by many of the ‘Crew) as well as the big day of the marathon.

The book has a fantastic look and feel, really energetic and creative which is what makes it a perfect reflection of the people who appear in it. I don’t think I have seen such a creative treatment of a running group or a race before and this makes the book unique. Having checked with Chop, there are a few copies available so contact him via twitter (@chopbot) or at Rosie Lee on 020 7613 3752. I would love to hear the thoughts of anyone who gets hold of a copy.

Oh and if you’re wondering where “away, away, away” comes from… then you’ll just have to come along to the RunDemCrew for a run and find out!

Team Dean – a review of Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Run!’

I love reading (especially now that I am trying as much as possible to leave my laptop in the lounge when I go to bed – one of the most important steps to getting a good nights sleep is the lack of too much iStimulus in the bedroom) and my two favourite subjects are running and business or economics. It will come as no surprise that on balance I read running books much more often than business books. And I rarely have time for novels.

However I do sometimes lament the writing quality of books about running. Undoubtedly there are many running books that are beautifully written and as a result are engaging and captivating and motivating. Charlie Spedding’s book ‘From First To Last’ is one book that springs to mind when I think of running books that are not only informative and interesting, but are also easy to read and real page-turners.

So I was excited to buy a copy of Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Run! 26.2 stories of blisters and bliss’ because I really enjoyed reading Dean’s first book ‘Ultra-marathon Man; Confessions of an all night runner’ not least because the book was so well written.

‘Run!’ does not disappoint on that score; it is brilliantly written – or rather dictated because Dean points out that much of the content was spoken into a digital recorder on his smart phone whilst he was out running – and I was so absorbed in the book that I started and finished it in one day.

As far as the story goes, I thought that ‘Run!’ does two things; firstly it gives an insight into what Dean does as an ultra-marathoner, entrepreneur, campaigner, husband and father (and it comes as no surprise that Dean reportedly gets by on 4 hours sleep per night. I’m sure he doesn’t have time for any more!) Secondly I enjoyed getting a real understanding of team Karnazes. Let me explain.

Whilst there is no doubt that what Karnazes does is a very individual sport both in terms of competition and even more so in terms of training, Dean clearly relies on a group of people who support him in different ways. The book really highlighted for me the relationships Dean has with some key people including his wife Julie, his father – who he refers to throughout as Popou – and another ultra-marathon legend Topher Gaylord, who it seems had little or no interest in running until he met Dean and is now considered to be one of the top ultra runners in the world (whilst also being President of Mountain Hardwear Inc).  There are naturally other people who appear in the book, but these three seem to have a special place in Karnazes’ life and his continued professional and athletic careers.

So, I think that ‘Run!’ surprised me in one regard. It is a predictably great account of some of Dean’s crazy antics – the chapter on the 48 hour treadmill run is utterly brilliant – but in another regard I was surprised at how strongly the book reminded me that despite the fact that we are engaged in a solo sport, runners of all levels rely on and take inspiration from those around them. I think that Dean has written a brilliant book and I would recommend it to runners of every level. It might also be wise to buy a copy for your loved ones if you are thinking of embarking on a career as an ultra-runner… just so they know what they are letting themselves in for!