Endure, and The Rise of the Ultra Runners (Runners Book Club)

Since I’ve been injured I’ve been writing less. Although I consider running and writing, and reading, to all be complimentary, I did not necessarily think that the lessening of one pillar would also so significantly weaken another. In fact, I would have guessed that it may have made the others stronger as I would have been able to dedicate more time towards it.

But, no.

I have still been running, but much less than I was three, four weeks ago. Strangely enough, that coincides to when my consistency in my blog dropped.

What brings me back to the blog today then, is an increase in my running.

Although what specifically brings me back, is the third pillar. Reading. Since my consistency has dropped I have embarked on two relevant running reads, and I want to talk about both of them at once.

Endure, by Alex Hutchinson, and The Rise of the Ultrarunners, by Adharanand Finn.

Endure, by it’s author’s own admission, is not a training manual. It is, however, an exploration of training. It takes us through a gallery of tricks and twists and deep scientific dives through the world of self-afflicted pain, across a variety of disciplines. Running, cycling, un-assisted deep sea diving.

It orbits the first of Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2 hour marathon attempts, around the Monza racecourse in Italy back in 2017. In the end, as you may know, he failed by coming astonishingly, agonizingly close to the unsmashable barrier.

Still, it was the fastest unofficial marathon time ever.

Yet, last year the barrier was indeed smashed.

Photo by Peter Okwara on Unsplash

It serves as an introduction and conclusion to the world of pain. How much can we endure? How can we endure more? And why the hell would we want that?

To try and answer this question Hutchinson leads us quickly to the conclusion that ‘brain and body are fundamentally intertwined, and to understand what defines your limits under any particular set of circumstances, you have to consider them both together.’

It is a book for the scientifically curious. It does not shy from the raw data. Yes, there are personal stories within it’s pages. The elite of any sporting sphere tend to walk a line between idealistic dedication and absolute insanity, so they’ve always got good stories, but for me Endure does verge into the territory of dryness. I was reading it on my Kindle and I thought I still had a solid quarter of the book to go, yet as Kipchoge’s effort wrapped up it was clear that the end was nigh, and I found that the last 20% of the book was Hutchinson’s references.

It is spectacularly researched and detailed, but it’s findings were wrapped up (as it was intended, I think) by a paragraph in it’s closing stages:

 ‘In the end, the most effective limit-changers are still the simplest—so simple that we’ve barely mentioned them. If you want to run faster, it’s hard to improve on the training haiku penned by Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner, the man whose 1991 journal paper foretold the two-hour-marathon chase:

Run a lot of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in a while

We all want to know if there is some way to transcend regularity, some simple trick that will springboard us away from pain into pure, exemplary performance, but in our search we may miss the simple truth.

This may frustrate some readers, leaving them thinking: what was the point of that then? Why read the book if the answer is actually just 17 syllables long?

Well, plain old curiosity I guess.

That’s why I’ve combined two books into one.

The Rise of the Ultrarunners is a different kind of book, but is essentially about the same thing. Curiosity.

The first thing we think when we see some act of extreme endurance tends to be: why do that? Then you find yourself thinking: maybe I can do that. How can I do that? And suddenly you’re in it, thinking: How do I get better at this?

This is what happened to Adharanand Finn.

He was perplexed by the growing popularity of ultra-running. To him, it was not as impressive as the pure act of running a marathon or 10k at speed because, well, even for the best ultra-runners there are sections to be walked, static rest, and aid stations to check you up and keep you fed. Running is running. Walking is walking.

Then he received an opportunity to enter and write about an 100 mile ultra in the Oman Desert.

Although at first he declined the opportunity, curiosity (and the fact this was an expensive race to enter otherwise) intervened and he dived in.

He was poorly prepared, and suffered badly.

But he caught the bug, and off he went.

He takes us on a global journey, interweaving his own journey to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the crème-de-la crème of the ultra-marathon calendar, with further races to guarantee his entry, and the stories of the unique and elite from the ultra strata. Along the way he runs the Ring of Fire in Anglesey, the famous Comrades in South Africa, and a 24 hour Self Transcendence track race on a athletics track in Tooting. Along the way he suffers tremendous, appalling pain. He hallucinates. He breaks down.  

Photo by N TP on Unsplash

And he is joyous. He celebrates. He loves it, or, at least, he keeps going back for more.

He is also not the only one. Not by a long shot.

If Endure is good for data fanatics, then The Rise of the Ultra Runners is good for those seeking inspiration. It is light on data, and in fact makes reference to Endure, which I think makes a great companion read to this book. The Rise… is less about the minutia and more an exploration of what it means to push yourself to the edge, and beyond, into a seemingly endless void of despair, only to emerge on the other side better, strong, transcended – maybe.

I’ve not run a marathon, let alone an ultra, but now that I have read Finn’s wonderful work, and pondered Hutchinson’s deep dive, I can’t help but wonder…

How far can I go?

Whether you run, at all, or not, I think this is a good question for everybody to ask themselves.

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