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.

Review: Finding Ultra, Rich Roll (Crown Archetype, 2012)

From the outset, I knew that I would be hooked. This was going to be one of those books about recovery from alcoholism and running that simply did it for me. It was not just the clearly written prose and the enjoyable pace with which it clipped along. There was something very ordinary and honest about the narrative of spiralling addiction that had me reading feverishly from the opening lines.

Chapter one is where it starts to get juicy. Quite literally. Here, Roll describes his junk food addiction as something that he believed he was entitled to after successfully quitting alcohol during a programme some years before. He had been a promising college swimmer, but he also found himself plagued by another obsession: alcohol. He describes the havoc that this caused in his personal and then post-college professional life; he documents with honesty the distress it caused his family and friends. What is interesting is the honesty with which the obsessive thinking of the alcoholic is laid bare. There is no pity, no clichéd set pieces; just the solemn dawning that things could not continue in the way that they were. He had to change. And although with support Roll managed to leave alcohol behind, he soon found himself on a diet that was just as surely slowly killing him: high in fat and high in salt. His sodium levels soared along with his expanding waistline. On the eve of his fortieth birthday he decided that he needed to change. He needed to find his ultra.

And change he did. From a lifestyle that was slowly killing him, through the miasma of middle age, junk food, TV, and nicotine gum, came a new obsession: one for health and a positive way of living. And central to that was his wife’s passion for fruit and vegetables, raw, cooked, steamed and juiced.

Roll describes his reluctance to think of himself as remotely ‘hippy’ or ‘alternative’.

He also describes the torment of being caught in the alcoholic’s frame of mind: if I do this, I’ll need more.

So not content with going on a diet, Roll used the night before his 40th birthday as the motivation needed to change. Detox because veganism, and energised as he was, he realised that he needed more challenge, more life, more rejection of middle age. Not content with running a marathon or even an Ironman, Roll persuaded the organiser of what seems like an impossible event to give him a place: five full iron-distance triathlons on consecutive days.

Like the Epic-5 event, this is a book of different stages. The second half of the book moves away from his clearly written prose about his early years: college, swimming, junk food and alcohol and moves into some vivid descriptions of suffering and recovery. There is no doubting Roll’s sincerity and enthusiasm for a new way of life. California offers the landscape and the sea, the space and the climate to embrace the outdoors. It’s all too easy, in the wet and windy north west of England to dismiss the narrative as that of yet another middle class hipster transforming himself through a landscape where, to quote Ferlinghetti ‘anything is possible’. But unlike Ferlinghetti’s poem there is no cynicism here. Like some other California based ultra-distance athletes it is hard not to be swept away by the conviction of his arguments and the fluidity of his prose. I am not yet a convert to veganism, but I am converted to Roll’s passion for not accepting your lot as you approach the turning point of the middle decade. This book will leave you wondering what is possible. Roll’s gift, is of course, to give it away in order that he might keep it. Thoroughly recommended.