Review: Running, Ronnie O’Sullivan (Orion Books, 2013)

Perhaps Ronnie O’Sullivan’s autobiographical account of how running has anchored his life should be called Meandering.  Running seems too simple, too direct as a title for a book that, at times, descends into a disjointed series of tales about periods of his life that have been dominated by snooker, drinking, smoking, and yes, running.

I came to this book with high expectations.  I’d listened to him on marathon talk a few years back and was intrigued by how he came to run 10K in 34 minutes.  Although I know very little about snooker, I knew enough about O’Sullivan to assume that he must have seriously cleaned his life up to enable him to go from being overweight and drinking alcoholically, to someone who could knock off a 10K so robustly.  Perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part; perhaps part of my disappointment with Running is the fact that I like tales of redemption, of clearing out the wreckage of the past, and of starting afresh; this autobiography seems a tad reluctant to go beyond the acknowledging of his character flaws into a more considered and mature narrative.

However, it must be said that there are some elements of maturity within the book. O’Sullivan describes periods of his life in which he seems to want to devote his entire time and energy to running.  But there is such a lack of detail of either the physical or emotional journey that this entails that the reader is left feeling a little short changed.  There is no significant insight into how he achieves such periods of stability.  He drops a few names (the sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters is one of them) and he mentions some of the detail of how he accomplished rare periods of calm, but the issue with the book is that it not exactly meticulously or even solidly outlined.  In this respect the book lurches from one period where he seems to have it all together…to another in which he quiet clearly hasn’t.  The result is an addiction narrative with, ironically,  a lack of substance.  It’s neither a book about running, or snooker, or drugs, or life, or insight, or psychology…despite touching on all of these topics at various stages it simply meanders along.  But, and this is important, it does capture something authentic of O’Sullivan’s mindset as both he and the narrative lurch from episode to episode.  Maybe the book is masterful in the way that it’s disjointed; perhaps it’s a transparent depiction of O’Sullivan’s uneven way of understanding the world.  Perhaps.

That’s not to say the book is without strengths either.  I completely admire the honesty with which he lays bare his demons as he talks about the psychological difficulties that he still encounters.  The only way in which mental health issues are ever going to be treated with the same respect as physical difficulties is through such openness and honesty.  In this respect the autobiography succeeds as it depicts O’Sullivan as arrogant as he is frail; as masterful on the table as he is feeble; as professional as he is flawed.  It reads like a chat with a likeable human; rounded yet throughly imperfect.  It’s overwhelmingly clear how much he benefits from the cleansing discipline that running brings to his life.  I hope he continues to run more than he drinks.