Summer Running Reading by Brian Sansom

As a teacher, my belief is that an interest in reading is on the decline. However, if you are like me and have a strong affinity for the written word, then your one of your favorite summer pastimes is reading. My life as a bibliophile, along with my love of running, leads me to find books about running.

There are hundreds of books about running. Many, if not most, deal with technical aspects, such as: form, training, and nutrition. With regard to those who spend years doing the research and studies to discover knowledge and push the boundaries of human performance, I tend to shun these accounts because they can quickly become out-dated and the primary conclusions of those books are incorporated effectively as best practices in Runner’s World.

Thus, the books that draw my interest tend to be those that deal with people who run, especially their various motivations and obstacles overcome. I find this to be a compelling and intense form of literature. Therefore, this summer, along with my usual assortment of fiction and non-fiction, I picked up two books that dealt specifically with the limited number of people in the ultra-running nation.

The longest I’ve gone is 26.2, but I’ve had a strange fascination with those who push even further. I vacillate between questioning their sanity and admiring their ability to push the human body to its limit. Regardless, their stories make for gripping drama.

One of those compelling stories is Ultra Marathon Man by Dean Karnazes. His running resume is extremely impressive: Badwater, Western States 100, 199 Mile Solo Runs, South Pole Marathon, 50 Marathons in 50 Days in 50 States, etc., there does not seem to be any challenge that he cannot handle. In addition to explaining the origin of his ultra-running neurosis, the book is basically the details behind his major races.

The author’s view of his own self-importance leaps off the pages, but without a large ego, it is doubtful that Karnazes would have the perseverance to put his body through what he does. People who accomplish amazing things do not tend to be humble. One of his stories defies belief. Because of his dislike of his high school track coach, Karnazes went fifteen years without running. According to him, he essentially hit a mid-life crisis in a bar on his birthday, and he ran thirty miles through the night in his underwear as a sort of introspection. Thirty miles is a long way to go with a decade-and-a-half break.

Even though there are parts of the tale that seem to be exaggerated, the detail that results by being in Karno’s brain as he completes these incredible challenges is gripping. The mindset of an ultra-runner is more like a novice 5k runner than someone who is age group competitive; their goal is survival. It is also interesting that Karnazes tends to use humor as a coping mechanism. He recalls a good number of his one-liners from races. If someone puts their body through the wringer, they have to do something to cope with the pain.

Christopher McDougall chronicles another group of runners who put their bodies through the wringer in Born to Run. The race described is one that pits many of the leading ultra runners against some of the tribe members of high-altitude Mexicans whose culture is centered on distance running (much like some of the tribes in Kenya). The story is written first person from the perspective of one of the participants of the race and a novice ultra runner. The author alternates between the buildup to the race, anecdotes and the biographies of the participants, and some technical aspects of running.

Compared to Karnaze’s book, this was a more compelling read. Written from the perspective of an outsider to the ultra culture, the author is able to objectively evaluate the runners and brings out both their positive and negative qualities. The human elements of the story make the characters come to life, and the scientific and historical asides give a deeper meaning to the tale.

At times, it can be difficult to keep the characters straight, but it does not detract from the story. The author was part of the story, and it is written from any “every man” perspective. That’s part of the genius and appeal of this book. In running, and especially in ultra-running, the average and below average performers get to be on the same stage as the greats. Very few people can play basketball on the same court with Lebron James, but with very few races with entry restrictions, nearly all of us can run with the worlds’ elite.

That’s why this book was such a great read. From the perspective of an open-minded novice, it blended a range of subjects, from the technical to the psychological, in the context of a race. In a dynamic that added to the story, it also pitted a Mexican mountain people in a cultural battle against some of America’s finest.

While I would recommend both books, Born to Run is the better read. Karnazes’ story is truly amazing, but if you want a book with gravitas, Born to Run is the way to go. It doesn’t have vampires or werewolves, but if you’re a reader/runner, it is worth the investment of your time.

Brian Sansom
July 2010


  Brian finding his own challenge at the
2010 edition of Run the Tunnel.