PIle of birthday books

Looking at this picture of my birthday books from last year, I’m very chuffed to see I’ve read all of them apart from “Because Internet” (which arrived slightly after my birthday), although I have the two Persephones still to review, too. I have had a bit of a reading frenzy over the beginning of this month, with four books finished and two more started, so reviews should trickle through for a bit now.

Adharanand Finn – “The Rise of the Ultra Runners”

(21 January 2020 – from Gill)

I’ve previously read Finn’s other two books on running with the Kenyans and running in Japan, so was keen to get my hands on this one. I also know a good few ultra runners and have even attempted an ultra myself! (I did the least terrifying one I could find to do – race report here if you’re interested). I have to admit that part of the joy of reading this one was seeing someone who’s quite successful as a runner finding himself very much challenged by the combination of going off-road, going slower and actively choosing to walk up hills, all the while eating a lot on the go which characterises these longer-than-a-marathon events!

He looks into the history of the sport and interviews many of the big names, like with his other books, offering good pen portraits of the characters he meets. He also covers the darker side of the sport – the mysterious points system that allows you to get into the Mont Blanc ultra he’s aiming at, ideas about doping and cheating and social media competitiveness. He also talks to plenty of women and raises the issue of their lower prize money and sponsorship, even though women are now proving just as strong if not stronger than men at very long-distance endurance running.

At first, Finn can’t really grasp why people run ultras. He finds a lot of people who have beaten adversity and addictions, and seems to find that people enjoy having some adversity and challenge in their easier lives (this is certainly why I was happy to just do one and go back to the idea of more marathons (road ones) in the future). This is also, for a different reason, why he can’t get his Kenyan colleagues interested in ultras, as they have usually got into running to make enough money for their families to survive rather than as a leisure activity.

Although Finn is at the sharper end even of ultras and doesn’t mention much about the folk at the back of the pack (he does interview one slower woman and also stays to cheer people through near the cut-off time, though), there are still some points in the book that chimed with my experience: he discovers watermelon is the.best.thing.ever while racing, and has a weird burst of energy in the final fifth of a few races (when he excitedly tells other ultra runners, he gets a sort of, “Yeah, and?” vibe back!). And the range of people who do these races and their range of mental and physical strength is there, especially in this amusing quotation:

In my state of almost total deterioration, it’s a little disconcerting to get passed by two women discussing the cost of hotels in Venice. (p. 114)

So a good solid history and survey of the sport with lots of time in the pain cave and talking about different ways of assessing and improving gait – I think most people interested in running would get something out of this, and I do like the way he’s not afraid to laugh at himself.