Archives for category: Book Review

boys in the boat

Recently the following question was posed on the website, irunfar, “Are runners better people on average than non-runners?”

Now this question may seem odd and even a bit presumptuous, but I would imagine that many of you have asked yourselves similar questions about the practitioners of your passions and professions.  If you are a musician, an artist, a teacher, a cyclist, a writer, or a traveler, I bet there were times when you felt that your fellow enthusiasts were better than the average folk.

Geoff Roes, a former ultrarunning champion, had an interesting take on this question.  He said, “I think that all people are inherently good people, but running does a huge part to help people to be closer to this reality.  People who have a daily practice like running tend to be healthier, more grounded, and happier.  It’s not that better people are attracted to running, it’s that running generally does a really good job of nurturing the goodness in people.”

I feel that the same could be said for any activity that is pursued on a daily basis and in a deliberate manner.  When you do something consistently, with a goal of progressive improvement, you will most likely be a healthier and happier person.  It doesn’t matter what that passion is, the key is to find one and pursue it wholeheartedly.

A few weeks ago I interviewed the author of The Boys in the Boat, a book about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team.  The team was made up of working class kids struggling through the worst of the Great Depression.  These nine guys discovered rowing and each other at a time when they most needed something to latch on to.  They were total underdogs that competed against the elite crews of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and eventually Hitler’s own German team at the Berlin Olympics.

It was a shared passion for rowing that gave these guys a sense of purpose and a common goal.  The end result of which was that they not only became better rowers, but better individuals as well.

Like many great works of nonfiction The Boys in the Boat contains elements of several genre:  sports, history, science and psychology.  It also has a great sense of time and place.  Before reading the book I hardly knew anything about collegiate rowing or the Great Depression or the fine art of boat building or the use of Nazi propaganda at the 1936 Olympics, but I loved learning about each of these interesting subcultures and specific points in history.

Here’s a link to the interview…Enjoy.

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Last week ultra running stud, Scott Jurek, was in town to promote his book, Eat & Run.  For those of you not familiar with Scott, he is one of the world’s most successful ultra runners.  In the last 15 years, he has won dozens of races, including classics such as the Hardrock 100, the Spartathon in Greece, Death Valley’s infamous Badwater 135, and the sport’s premier event, the Western States 100.

What I find even more impressive, however, is what Scott has given back to the running community.  His kind words and actions have inspired countless runners to go faster and go further.  Articles by and about Scott have motivated countless others to take up running for the first time.  He has volunteered at many races here in the Pacific Northwest and is known for hanging out at the finish line to cheer in every last runner.  As much as he has gotten out of competitive running, he has given back so much more, which is why I was honored to introduce Scott to a couple hundred of his fans at the recent event at Powell’s Books.

While Scott has always been well known in the ultra scene, his popularity with the public at large has grown enormously after being featured in Christopher McDougall’s bestseller, Born To Run.  At the event he discussed the recent death of the book’s main character, Caballo Blanco (Micah True).  A lifelong recluse, Micah died at a time when he was just starting to come to grips with his unwanted fame.  Hopefully his Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon will continue to be held in support of the local Tarahumara in northern Mexico.

I’ve always assumed that elite runners would need to consume lots of animal protein to properly recover from the intense training required to succeed at the highest level.  Yet Scott has been able to accomplish as much as he has living entirely on a plant-based diet.  In his book he explains how he went from being a fast food junkie to someone who has a thoughtful relationship with everything he consumes.  I don’t think I’d ever want to go vegan or vegetarian, but I’m still excited about trying out some of the tasty-looking recipes in Eat & Run.

Both in person and in the book, Scott comes across as a totally normal guy with a lack of pretension that makes the ultra running scene so welcoming and enjoyable.  If you are looking for some inspiring stories, some training tips and some yummy recipes, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Eat & Run.  And who knows, maybe one day you too will be running 100 mile races over mountains and through deserts fueled only by a plant-powered diet.

Growing up in the pre-ESPN era, a sports crazed youngster such as myself would spend many a cold winter weekend channel surfing in desperate search of a fix.  One February day in 1982, during that lull between football and baseball season, I happened across a sport so ridiculous it blew my mind.  Running had already gone mainstream and the idea of doing a 26.2 mile race no longer seemed like a form of lunacy.  But what I saw that day took it to a whole new level.  Started by a ex-military endurance junky, the Ironman triathlon also involved a run of 26.2 miles, but only AFTER swimming 2.4 miles and THEN biking 112 miles, all in the high winds, heat and humidity of Hawaii.  The announcer explained that the events were held in this particular order because if the swimming segment was held last, exhausted competitors may drown before finishing.

The reason I remember this particular afternoon so vividly is because of a graduate student named Julie Moss who was competing in the the Ironman to gather research for her thesis on exercise physiology.  Julie had little racing experience, but nevertheless took the lead in the women’s field.  She held on as the long day turned to night and was just 100 yards from the finish when her body completely gave out.  Here’s a clip:  Julie Moss-Ironman 1982

Watching her crawl towards the finish and then get passed in the final few yards is heart-wrenching.  Yet her performance on national TV inspired thousands to take up this crazy new sport.  One of those converts was a lifeguard from Southern California named Mark Allen, who would go become one of the great Ironman triathletes, not to mention the future husband of Julie Moss.

Though I’ve never completed in a triathlon(the swim has always been the deal breaker for me), I’ve remained intrigued by the sport.  A few weeks ago I happened across a copy of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run.  For those of you not familiar with the protagonists, Dave Scott and Mark Allen are the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the Ironman triathlon.  These two guys are a big reason for the massive surge in growth the sport experienced in the mid to late 1980’s.  And like Bird and Magic, they had very different personalities and styles.  Dave was an old school “no pain, no gain” kind of guy, while Mark had a more spiritual, new age approach to training.  Both were extremely successful.  Mark won races  all over the world and had lots of big name sponsors, yet couldn’t win the one race that mattered most, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.  And that just so happened to be the race that Dave dominated, so much so that the six-time winner was given the nickname, “The Man.”

In 1989, these two met at the peak of their careers and squared off in a race that would become known as the Iron War.  For 139 miles and more than 8 hours, they raced side-by-side, never more than a few feet apart, at a world record crushing pace.  These two rivals pushed themselves and each other to the limits of human endurance and mental toughness.  I won’t reveal who the winner was because I didn’t known myself while I was reading the book.  As tempting as it was to sneak a peak at Wikipedia, I held back and the book was more enjoyable because of it.

The author, veteran sports journalist Matt Fitzgerald, did a fine job of introducing us to these two superhuman athletes with all too human flaws.  The narrative arc of Iron War reminded me of John Brant’s excellent Duel in the Sun.  That book also focused on two men(Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley) and one race(the 1982 Boston Marathon)–a single day that changed the lives of these two men forever.  While I loved both of these books, Iron War had the added appeal of introducing me to the fascinating subculture of triathlons.  I’m now more than ever tempted to give it a try.  Maybe I should look into some swimming lessons.