Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Lure of Long Distances, by Robin Harvie

If you've read my blog at all, you know I'm a sucker for running books.  I prefer the narrative/memoir books to "how-to" or training books.  The Lure of Long Distances is about as memoir-ish as they come.  I knew I could relate to Harvie on some level by the bio on the book jacket: After trying unsuccessfully to improve his marathon time, "he decided instead to see how far he could run before keeling over" and started running ultramarathons.  That's my story, too.  I started running seriously later in life, completing my first marathon at age 39.  Lots of running books talk about how our bodies start getting slower after 40, so I knew I'd never get too much faster.  I started reading about ultramarathons and decided that I may not be fast, but maybe I can last a long time on my feet.

Harvie was a younger man when he started running ultras, and has run much farther than I ever have.  The Lure of Long Distances covers his running history, primarily the year he spent preparing for the Spartathlon, the annual 152 mile race from Athens to Sparta.  He weaves in his training experiences, personal stories, reports from other races and runs along the way, anecdotes from history and modern running, and plenty of literary and poetic reflections.  He writes skillfully, putting together some beautiful and effective passages.
Harvie spent many hours running along the length of the Thames.
However, the overall product didn't turn out to be a very satisfying read.  All the well-written passages and stories flowed from one to another, kind of like the aid stations in an ultramarathon.  By the time you get to the end, you know there were some nice views and good conversations along the way, but they only fit together in the sense that they were part of one long race.

This is not to say I didn't like the book.  It was an enjoyable read.  But sometimes when I finish reading a book about running, I want to put my shoes on and head out the door right away.  This one made me sit back on the recliner and think about getting ready for bed.

The subtitle of the book, "Why We Run," is, in a way, a bit of false advertising.  Harvie sets out to discover why he runs, but it's up to us to find our own way.  He concludes, "Running is not about fitness, competition, or even other people.  It is simply about becoming a more sentient person, living . . .  a more authentic life." I'll buy that.  But I still ask myself sometimes, "Why am I doing this again?"

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