Review: Running on Empty, Marshall Ulrich (Avery, 2011)

There is a line in Marshall Ulrich’s book in which he, unflatteringly, describes himself as a tank. Or rather he admits to having a tank-like build. You don’t really expect this as ultrarunners are famed for their svelte, slight builds and their often quiet, introspective manner. This book is neither of these things.

Like the monumentally epic challenge that Ulrich describes, the narrative is forceful and brash. He is brutally honest throughout about his shortcomings and he admits to the painful compromises that he has had to make along the way to becoming one of the most respected ultrarunners ever. But here, in Running on Empty, such honesty does not really translate into a narrative of psychological interest. This is a shame. I am far more interested in his thoughts rather than the food that he ate along the way. Although I have nothing but admiration for his attitude and guts, the prose did leave me a little empty.

Review: Why We Run, Robin Harvie (John Murray, 2011)

Obsessive’s accounts of their exploits often make for interesting reading: Ranulph Fiennes’ DIY fingertip removal springs to mind. But, as vivid and as interesting as such accounts often are, they also leave the reader with the nagging doubt that what they have just read is indeed the narrative of the unhinged loner, caught in the terrible circumstances that they have invited into their lives in order to find out who they really are. Harvie’s book acknowledges this from the outset. His is a story of obsession and although he claims to rationally explain `why we run’, there is, like the fingertip removal, something much more interesting going on: less obviously dramatic, but much more considered.

His account of his ultra-running reads more like an exploration into what is possible, an exploration into the frequently untapped vault of human potential. It is less about why we run and more about who we might become.

Harvie’s book then is, like his training for the arduous Spartathlon, a personal journey, which at times, like running, transcends its surroundings and takes on an almost spiritual dimension. Consequently, the sublime pushes through his magnificent prose with startling frequency. Naturally, at times, he struggles to answer why we run. To do so would involve an objective stepping away from the simplicity of the activity. You’d think this would be easy. After all, running, by his own admission is not a special skill that only the privileged few can enjoy. But, step away he must in order to answer this self-imposed question. In some ways he does manage this. The book describes the regression of his social life and friends; it outlines the way in which running encroaches on his personal life and in some beautiful passages he acknowledges a deceit: that he may be using a very personal grief to motivate his efforts.

And then, of course, there are occasions when he is not really able to objectively step away from his running: his really is a story of obsession. In doing so he references many writers in a textual journey through literature that concerns itself with the obsessive pursuit of who we really are. This literary pursuit could be contrived: a lesser writer would claw through such intertextuality without regard. It would be easy to see glib cliché trod underfoot, as it were. But here, in Why We Run, the flow of the narrative (it is no coincidence that the Thames is a ubiquitous presence in the book) is so beautifully managed that, like long distance running itself, you find yourself wandering, transported, left to return back home a different person. It is why we read.

So Harvie’s is a book about the most agonising of pains, and a book that affirms all that is good about running with each turn of the page. Between these two perspectives lies a narrative that is as engaging as it is well-written and a narrator as eloquent as he is obsessed. It is a remarkable book.