Review: Jornet’s Run of Die

Run or Die

Kilian Jornet

This memoir, written while he was still a very young man, is the story of the world’s greatest mountain runner.

Jornet is the perfect storm of mountain athlete. Slight of stature, he was born at altitude, to parents who routinely went on epic adventures with him and his sister. As is chronicled here, the lifestyle his parent’s choose set him up to love the mountains deeply and have a world class aerobic base by the time her was a teenager. From there, passion, and genetics, took over and he would go on to win every major ski mountaineering and mountain ultra-race in the world.

He is a one of a kind athlete and we’re lucky to be alive at the same time he is.

This book chronicles Jornet’s childhood and adventures in the mountains as an ultra-runner and ski mountaineer. It isn’t a great book. The writing is fair to middling, and the structure is, at times, poor. Jornet doesn’t spend much time talking about the things I’m interested in (his training, his diet, his routines) but he does chronicle many of his major accomplishments and what a passion for the mountains has given him, and taken away. It is an honest, if modest book. If you want to read about the journey of a man who is not only supremely gifted, but deeply passionate about the mountains, you could do worse.  Runners and wannabe mountaineers will likely enjoy this, others will be bored.

 

Recommended for the enthusiasts.

Review: Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running

80/20 Running:

Matt Ftizgerald

Fitzgerald is an ace at taking a basic idea about endurance sports and turning it into a useful, if a bit padded book. Racing weight is about, well, weight and racing, and 80/20 is about the very popular (some would say ubiquitous) running methodology of running eight percent of your miles easy and twenty percent hard.

 

Like racing weight, the concept at the center of 80/20 isn’t difficult to grasp, but Fitzgerald takes the time explain to us why, exactly, this training modality work, and why other modalities don’t work as well. As he is fond of saying, if you want to be good at running, do what the pro do. And the pros don’t do only HITT work outs, or crossfit endurance, or any of that other shenanigans. They run, a lot, mostly easy, sometimes hard.

 

It isn’t complex in theory, but in practice, its challenging. In addition to the science on offer here, Fitzgerald provides useful guidance on how to determine what is, really, easy, as well as helpful training plans for running preparing for races from 5k to marathon.

 

Do you need this book to utilize this training approach? No. Is it interesting if you’re obsessed with endurance sports? Yes. As a runner trying one more time to get into peak shape, I liked it. Your mileage may vary.

 

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Wellington’s A Life Without Limits

A Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey
Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington is one of the most successful triathletes of all time. But she’s more than that. She’s an activist for environmental issues, a legit player in the world of international development, and a survivor of a serious eating disorder and more.
She covers all of this in her much better than I expected memoir.
Honestly, I figured I’d get the usual – plucky athlete trains hard, gains success, remains humble. What I got instead was plucky girl battles eating disorder, becomes mid-level political operative in the world of international development, travels the world, starts doing triathlon, getting really good, works with controversial coach, becomes best in the world. It’s a good story, competently told.

Wellington has had a fascinating life. But perhaps most fascinating to triathletes and fans of endurance sports is her relationship with the very controversial Brett Sutton. Sutton, who was once convicted of having a relationship with an underage athlete, is legendary for how hard he is on his athletes, and how unorthodox his training regime can be. Wellington documents some of that. She tells of how he pitted her against other athletes, how he put them through incredibly punishing sessions, how he would lock himself in his room for days at a time, emailing the athletes their work outs. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m left with the opinion that while Sutton did create Wellington, one of the top five greatest female triathletes of all time, he also has created a lot of wreckage in others athletes who trained with him. I’d be curious to read a memoir of one of his athletes who ended up not being as successful.

Anyway, worth the read if this is your thing.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Armstrong’s Its Not About The Bike

Its Not About The Bike

Lance Armstrong

Even here, in a book that is supposed to be the inspiring, heart-felt version of Armstrong, the story of overcoming every obstacle (the poverty, the cancer, the doubters); the story of the charitable work, and the small town kid made good, even here, you can tell he’s a Grade – A Asshole. He insults those who helped him along the way and pushes those around him unrelenting hard. Those not willing (or unable) to keep up are promptly thrown aside. He all but admits to being a sociopath obsessed beyond all reason with success.

Now don’t get me wrong, Lance’s fight with cancer is inspiring, even now after everything, but in hindsight, its easier to see that his fight with that disease was part of a larger fight against the world. And while it inspiring to go all in against a deadly disease, its less inspiring to go all in against you oldest friends and supporters.

Not only is the Saint Lance mythos of this book now discounted, the book itself is not well written. Its schmaltzy, and corny and just not very good. With all the better books about Armstrong out there, this one should probably be avoided for all but the most completest Armstrong scholars.

Not Recommended.

Review: Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War

Ed note: This review was originally written for a now long dead livejournal.

Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France
Daniel Coyle

This is without a doubt the best book written about Lance Armstrong before his fall from grace. If you have an interest in professional cycling, you’ve probably already read it (and the Tyler Hamilton memoir co-written by Coyle). If not, you should.

If you don’t have an interest in pro cycling, you should get in on it.  No sport mixes cutting edge science, the limits of human endurance, complex tactics, and horrific physical pain into a more engaging final product. I ask you, where else can you learn about hemocrit levels while watching little men in tights turn themselves inside out, day after day, to hold a little toy tiger in the air? Nowhere.

Lance Armstrong’s War is first and foremost a report of Armstrong’s attempt to gain a sixth Tour de France victory. Even though this was written before the doping revelations, you still get a real sense of what a driven psychopath he is. To say the least, he is not a very nice guy to work for. He holds grudges; he hates his enemies with an unhealthy passion, and he drives himself, and his team, incredibly hard. Its clear from very early on that he’s a pretty terrible person. But he is also a really compelling person to follow. Even in this sanitized version, he is will to go farther, push harder, and do more than anyone else. And, as we all know, it pays off and he wins.

But this book is more than a book about Lance. It is also great primer (maybe the best primer?) on pro cycling. It gives you a real sense of who these mostly working class kids are and how they and their teams go about trying to win the Tour. There is just enough explanation of the tactics involved in winning to be interesting without so much that it would bore the general reader. If I have a criticism, it’s that doping isn’t covered in enough detail. But to be fair to Coyle, when he wrote this the most serious doping allegations about riders of this generation (i.e. Armstrong, Landis, Hamilton, Ulrich) hadn’t been revealed.

Still, the stories were there and Coyle could have done more to tell that part of the story. I wish he had. Despite those reservations I’d read this one again.

Recommended.  

Review: Stewart’s The Places in Between

The Places In Between
Rory Stewart

In theory, it is easy to hate an Eton educated upper class Scotsman who decides it’d be a lark to walk across Afghanistan six months after the fall of the Taliban. The idea reminds me of the stupidity and adventurism I encountered in my twenties with people going to the West Bank or Chiapas on a lark. People vacationing in other people’s misery so they can go home and brag about it is not really my cup of tea.*

But after reading Stewarts book, I have to say it is extremely good. We learn next to nothing about Stewart here outside of the details of daily walking. He is cold, he has dysentery, other than that, the focus is almost entirely on the people he meets, and I cannot think of a travel book that does a better job of honestly relating the lives of the people he meets.

Not every Afghan in this book is a noble tribesman; some are downright unkind to Stewart. Others are incredibly welcoming. Some are Taliban supporters; some are not. Some are drug dealers and some are subsistence farmers. I think the honestly in Stewart’s portrayal of the Afghans he meets is very respectful and his writing of this book is the best outcome of this kind of experience I can imagine.

*Which isn’t to say someone should never go experience another’s struggles. But if you’re going to do it, do it with humility and purpose, thanks.

Review: Alberto Salazar’s 14 Minutes

14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life

I’ve been meaning to write something up about Alberto Salazar’s memoir for sometime, but now, with Salazar in the news, it seems like the right time.

Salazar was the most dominant marathon runner of his time — winning New York in 1980,81 and 82 and the Boston Marathon in 1982.  Salazar was legendarily driven, pushing himself into dangerously unhealthy territory in both his training and racing, most famously, in the legendary Duel in the Sun with Dick Beardsley at the 1982 Boston Marathon.  Salazar won that duel, but he was never the same. Afterwards, he battled depression and a compromised immune system. He finished a disappointing 15th in the 1984 Olympics, and spent years afterwards racing to disappointing finishes. Eventually, he was able to figure out his health issues*and, at 34, win South Africa’s legendary Comrades marathon.

Salazar in his running prime.

After Comrades, Salazar retired from competitive running and eventually founded the Oregon Distance Project, with which many great distance runners have been associated, including Galen Rupp, Mo Farah and Kara Goucher. If you follow the sport, you know it is also now embroiled in allegations of doping which may forever  tarnish Salazar’s reputation.

All of this (well, all of it but the doping) is covered in his memoir. As is his contentious relationship with his difficult and demanding father, his insane training regimes (including 200 mile weeks) his brush with death in 2007 (giving the book its title; allegedly Salazar’s heart stopped for 17 minutes), his relationship with athletes, (most notably his father-son like relationship with Rupp) and his deepening Catholicism, including his interest in the Marian phenomenon at Medjugorje.

If you’re interested in the history of distance running, the book is a must read. Salazar addresses how his troubled relationship with his father led to his running obsession, and how that running obsession perhaps ruined his health. He speaks openly about his deepening faith and his story of discovering Rupp is fascinating.

But Salazar is also a bit of a nut. The Medjugorje phenomenon is pretty far out, even for ultra-devote Catholics and his constant tinkering with his runners nutrition, gait, and training is all a bit mad scientist, (and perhaps also against the rules).

Salazar today

It can make for amusing, and occasionally bizarre reading. However, just because it is amusing, doesn’t mean it’s good.  As anyone who reads sport memoirs knows, much is always left out, and the writing is often workman like. Such is the case with 14 Minutes.  The point of this book is to cement Salazar’s reputation as one of the great men in U.S. distance running, so you’re not going to see anything about doping, or about the athletes who left the Oregon Distance Project broken. Still, it’s a fascinating story, made more interesting, perhaps, with the latest accusations that the Salazar presented in these pages may not be the full story of this slightly mad legend.

A side note about the copy of this book I read – I took 14 minutes out of the Brooklyn Public Library. Whoever had read it before me had carefully corrected numerous statement in the book with a pencil, correcting points of running history Salazar got wrong, or mile splits that didn’t add up. This was all well before the doping allegations, but someone in Brooklyn was already suspicious.  

*Or, as some whisper, find performance enhancing drugs.

Review: Jurek’s Eat and Run

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness
Scott Jurek
Its rare that I’m without a book, but it happens. Last summer, it happened when I was on vacation in Vermont. Little dude was sleeping better than expected, and I had more time to read, so low and behold, three days into a seven day trip, I was out of books. I was running a lot that week, and had just finished Bernd’s Why We Run.  I was inspired to keep the running theme rolling. Heading to the local bookstore, I browsed the relatively small running book section and grabbed Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, his combo memoir/ cook book.

Jurek in 2014

I have to say, I didn’t have high hopes. I’ve long admired Jurek as a runner – he has one of the most storied careers in ultra-running — but Jurek is an evangelical vegan and, after spending much of my twenties eating seitan and drinking soy milk, I’m not much for vegan lectures.  Thankfully, this book isn’t a polemic. Instead, it’s a moving memoir of a poor kid from Minnesota, from a family plagued by health problems who, through the usual mixture of determination, hard work and luck, became one of the most celebrated ultra runners in history.

The book is broken up into chapters, followed by recipes linked to the chapter’s theme. Jurek’s early years get vegan versions or mid-western staples; his chapter on running with the Tarahumara gets a Mexican influenced recipe, etc. The recipes look good, for vegan food, yet I haven’t made any of them.

But recipes are not why anyone is reading this book.  You’re reading it learn about Jurek’s adventures, as a multiple winner of Western States, a winner of Badwater, a winner of the Spartathon, the U.S. record holder (for a time) at the 24 hour race… and well, I could go on. There was a time when Jurek just dominated ultra-running and he recounts those years here with humor and thoughtfulness about what pushed him to such extremes as well as what it taught him, and cost him.  It isn’t all roses for a fulltime mountain runner, and Jurek’s honesty in dealing with the low points is admirable and makes up for the basically work-a-day prose.

If you’re interested in ultra-running, you’ll want to read this one. I’m giving this the recommended for the enthusiasts tag.

Review: Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

In the late 19th century, we still had no fucking clue what was going on in the artic. For example, many smart people thought the North Pole had a temperate climate and was covered by an open sea. Wild life flourished there, we were told, and man could live on the pole comfortably. The theory was known as a “the open polar sea”. It led to the deaths of many men.

The USS Jeannette

In the Kingdom of Ice is Hampton Sides tale of one group of these men — the sailors on the U.S.S. Jeannette. Based on the open polar sea theory, the sailors of the Jeanette, led by Charles DeLong, an American naval officer, attempted to sail for the North Pole. They figured if he could get through the ice that encircles the polar sea, they’d be golden.
Obviously, it didn’t work out this way. Instead, they became trapped in the polar ice – first for a year and then for another.

Then things got real bad.

I’ve read my fair share of harrowing tales of survival, and this one ranks up there with the best. I’d tell you of the horrors of surviving (or not surviving) in the inhospitable far north, but really, you should read the book for yourself. It has everything you’d expect from this story: incredible acts of bravery and endurance; tragic mistakes leading to inevitable death, and inspiring stories of admirable men acting… admirably. It is, at base, a story of human hubris where the sailors of the Jeannette paid the price for the fools of science who thought they answered all the questions of a landscape they had not even begun to understand. The theories these men believed in were horribly misguided; the maps they sailed under, wrong. That they endured as much as they did is a testament to the human will to live, and makes for a compelling read.
Sides isn’t content to only write a gripping narrative of polar exploration. He’s also deeply interested in the world which produced the expedition. There are long passages focusing on the science behind the expedition, and on the eccentricities of the expedition’s backer, James Gordon Bennet, Jr. The intention is to set the scene, and give a better understanding of the culture that produced the Jeannette. But I found these passages a bit trying. I appreciate a bit of background on August Petermann, the German scientist to blame for much of this foolishness, but an extended sequence on Bennet bringing tennis to America was a bit too far afield for me.

Still, this one gets the recommended tag. Top notch writing and storytelling combined with the incredible nature of the events makes this a great read.

Review: You Are An Ironman by Jacques Steinberg

You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Tr iathlon

As the subtitle suggests, You Are An Ironman traces the stories of six age groupers as they train for, and race, Ironman Arizona. Given my obsession with mortals attempting events of long distance, and the fact that the author is a New York Times reporter, I was really looking forward to this one.

It was a bit if a let down.

In following the six athletes, Steinberg jumps back and forth between the characters. The book is two pages on an soldier in Colorado, struggling to find the time to train followed by a page on a mother in Sacramento juggling her five kids, followed by three paragraphs on a teacher in Arizona whose Ironman dreams have hurt his family’s finances, followed by a page on a husband and wife in South Carolina who train together to raise money for charities. It’s all a bit confusing. Further, it appears Steinberg never really got to know these people. Much of the insight into their inner lives (such as it is) comes from the personal blogs of the athletes, and all of their experiences are told from their perspective, with little context given. We read, briefly, that one participant’s wife isn’t particularly supportive, but we don’t her from her as to why.  We learn that one woman has a deep religious faith, but we don’t learn how that plays out in her life.

Its all a bit surface level.

Still, there were moments of inspiration. Many of these people overcame incredible setbacks on their way to the race, including cancer, injuries, and just the stresses of everyday life.  Training for an Ironman is an incredible time commitment, and much of it is absurdly boring. Steinberg’s attempt to make it interesting left me wanting more context on the life of the athletes, yet it still almost brought me to tears when while reading of their struggles, especially in the race itself.

I’m going to rate this one as recommended for the enthusiast. If you’re interested in what it takes to train for the Ironman culture, you’ll appreciate this. If not, you’re better off with something else.