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Running

books

Movies give me that quick hit of inspiration when I need a push to get out the door. Books, on the other hand, provide me with so much more than that. Yes they are motivating, but the stories the authors share also give me more knowledge, insight and appreciation than a two hour film can. The lessons learned and wisdom gained can be carried into all areas of my life, not just running.

 

Biographies are my preferred style of book, following an athlete from humble beginnings to the top of their game. It doesn't matter to me that the authors are not accomplished writers, that they aren't going to win any literary awards. I just want to listen to their story, to hear how they went from a "regular" life to elite almost by accident. They often aren't born into super-sporty families, there was never any inkling that they could achieve incredible feats. But life took them down a path that allowed them to discover a hidden talent, and they took full advantage of this to become the best that they could be.

Below I have listed the books in the running and adventure genre that I have personally read, in no particular order. Each is accompanied by a brief review of my thoughts after reading each book. For more details on what stories are about, see Google. There are roughly a thousand more books on my to-read list, and I will update this page as I get through them. If you have a personal favourite that you think I should check out, feel free to send me a message with your recommendation. Happy reading!

Running & Adventure Biographies

Born to Run

Christopher McDougall

The classic, the original, the one everyone has heard of. Yep, like many others this was the first running book I read that didn't involve pace calculations and training plans. I was instantly hooked, and eagerly sought out further adventure stories (as you can see by this list here). When I read it I had recently returned from a holiday to Mexico, visiting the Copper Canyon and meeting the Tarahumara people, but I had no idea of the famous running tribe living in the area. It would have changed my outlook immensely. But back to the book - the people, the adventures, and snippets of running history and the build up to one of the great unknown showdowns engrossed me from start to finish. While I'm not ready to adopt the barefoot running craze, or commence a pinole diet, it did inspire me to get out into nature more often and just run for the sake of running. The only thing that grated me was the author's depiction of Ann Trason. She is one of the greatest female ultrarunners of all time and deserved to be treated better than she was. Aside from this, it is still one of the best running books I have read.

Runner

Lizzy Hawker

What a legend Lizzy Hawker is! I didn't know much about her before reading this book, but she has achieved some phenomenal feats. Lizzy seemed to accidentally fall into running in her twenties, coming from relative obscurity to win the famous UTMB. And not just once: five times, a record that still stands today. She has set world records, has held numerous fastest known times on trails around the world, and generally just seems to be born to run. She talks a lot about her personal life, where she achieved a PhD in physical oceanography and carried a job that wasn't necessarily conducive to running (can you imagine training on a ship in Antarctica for months at a time?). The story is a bit disjointed and I started to tune out in the last section where it becomes more philosophical, but her adventures inspire me dream big and never give up.

Eat and Run

Scott Jurek

Is there anything this man can't do? Winning Western States 100 an insane seven times is just the tip of the iceberg. But this book isn't just about running (and eating) - it's about who he is as a person, his relationships, his motivations, his struggles. Don't read this looking for a training plan and running drills, read this book for someone who could achieve the extraordinary and open up the idea of endurance athletes thriving on a plant-based diet to the world. The writing is simple and boastful, and he comes across as a bit of a douche at times, but you can't deny that he is one of the best and he deserves to have his story told. With a few vegan recipes thrown in too there is something for everyone in this book.

Wild

Cheryl Strayed

I think this was the fastest book I have ever read. Not because it was short (it wasn't), but because I was completely captivated by Cheryl's memoir. From a tough childhood that involved an abusive father and a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing, to her adult life that included her mother's death, a divorce, her family drifting away and the start of a heroin habit - not the usual lead up to someone who decides to head out on a three month solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Her tales from the trail had me entranced at every step, spurring me to design my own ultimate adventures. 

Run or Die

Kilian Jornet

From one of the biggest names in ultrarunning today, you know this is going to be an epic story. He started out at a young age, crossing the Pyrenees with his parents as a child, and from that moment on his entire life seemed to be dedicated to outdoor adventure. His love of nature and the pure act of running clearly shines through, and his ability to push his body to extremes others can only dream of is mind-blowing. I didn't learn how to be a better ultrarunner by reading this book, there were no running tips or exercise plans, but that's not what I wanted as I read his story. I wanted an adventure, and that's what I got. I just hope he writes a follow up to recount all of his achievements since this book was published in 2013.

Becoming Odyssa

Jennifer Pharr Davis

I have no idea why I picked up a book on hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail (I had never even heard of this trek), but I'm glad I did. There aren't many 21 year old women who head out alone for four months to solo-hike over 2000 miles, and it was not something I had ever considered myself before reading Davis' story. Many people were deterred by the author's judgmental tone and her close relationship with God, but I was mesmerised by her adventures and welcomed her honesty. Her encounters and struggles during her time on the trail were extraordinary, which led her to becoming a much more worldly and grounded person than I was at that age. It has definitely sparked in me a longing to tackle a similar journey one day.

Running Man

Charlie Engle

When a booking titled "Running Man" opens with a chapter of the author in a prison cell, you know you're in for one fascinating adventure. After battling a decade-long alcohol and drug addiction that led to more than one brush with death, Engle found running to be a key part of his recovery. He quickly discovered that marathons weren't enough - he had to go after the most extreme endurance events. Running across the Sahara: check. Running/cycling across America: check. Not even a 16 month stint in jail could slow him down. Each chapter provided another of his monumental feats that kept me captivated page after page. Well written, fast-paced, inspiring.

A Life Without Limits

Chrissie Wellington

I'm pretty sure this woman is living most athlete's dream. Just your average swimmer growing up, never looked like sport was going to be a major part of her life until out of nowhere she discovered she could run and cycle too. Before she knew it, she was the Ironman world champion. Wouldn't it be great to discover a hidden talent that you just happen to do better than anyone else? Her training sounded like a nightmare though, and the bitchiness between training partners I could do without. An easy, fascinating read that draws you in to all her highs and lows over the years. 

Ultramarathon Man

Dean Karnazes

Amazing man. Amazing achievements. 100% jealous of what he has accomplished in the field of ultrarunning. But the self-indulgent tone throughout the book was difficult to look past. It was an easy, quick read, highlighting triumph after triumph of superhuman feat that made me feel substandard for not being able to go out the door today and run 226 miles non-stop. He absolutely deserves to share his story, and many will enjoy the ride. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Will I read it again? Probably not.

The Pants of Perspective

Anna McNuff

What an adventure! Running over 3000 km along the length of New Zealand is incredible in anyone's book, but doing it unsupported carrying a 14+ kg backpack every day is insane. I couldn't put the book down as I was gripped by the highs and lows of her journey, astounded that she made it through the harsh and inhospitable conditions. Her warm and social personality shone through, which I didn't fully relate to - I'm as shy as they come around strangers. But thanks to this book the Te Araroa Trail is now on my bucket list as a place to explore one day (although I'm not sure about the whole 14 kg on the back part).  

Dirty Inspirations

Terri Schneider

Terri is an ultra-endurance machine! She has covered almost every endurance sport there is and never ceases to push herself to the extreme. I am absolutely in awe of what she has accomplished, and loved the journey she took me on as she recounted just a handful of her adventures. In between the narratives, however, were all the life lessons she has learned along the way. I can see how others would be interested in these, but I found myself tuning out when they inevitably popped up in each chapter. I don't need to get into the psychology of her life, I just want the action. Still, it was an inspiring read.

Finding Ultra

Rich Roll

What do you do when you're almost forty, an alcoholic, overweight, and so unfit you can barely climb a set of stairs? You become vegan and start training for an Ultraman (that would be a DOUBLE Ironman). And if that wasn't enough, how about the EPIC5: five Ironman triathlons on five of Hawaii's islands in a week. Crazy? You bet. But the transformation he achieved (eventually being crowned one of the fittest men on earth) goes to show that anyone can do it and it is never too late. This book is part athletic achievements and part plant-based diet guide. As a fairly new vegan when I read this it quickly converted me to breakfast smoothies, a ritual that I continue to this day. As soon as I moved to Asia one of my first purchases was a decent blender. I don't go in for the exotic ingredients Roll seems keen on promoting, but I always look forward to my first meal of the day (I never said that when I was eating Weetbix for breakfast). While recipes weren't included (you can check out his other books for these), there is a lengthy resources section at the back for further information. If you can get past the frequent sales pitches for every other product Roll sells, you will find one inspirational story that is definitely worth a read.

Feet in the Clouds

Richard Askwith

Fell running. Something I know absolutely nothing about, which made it really hard for me to get into this book. I can see why the book is so highly rated, but the continuous lists of people and places that have zero meaning to me had my mind wandering on every other page. The author's personal quest to finish the Bob Graham round was captivating, as well as his first hand race reports, and these were the only reasons I continued reading until the end. If you're a fell runner or in any way interested in the sport, then you should definitely grab a copy. If not, you're probably not the target audience for this book.

Running Free

Richard Askwith

This book reminded me a lot of Born to Run. The author frequently switched between present day running tales and the history of some aspect related to running or fitness, much in the same way that Christopher McDougall did in his acclaimed book. In Running Free, Askwith is taking a stand against "Big Running" (i.e. the commercialisation of the sport) and encouraging us to get back to what running is supposed to be about - nature, community, no fancy gear, no pressure. In the middle of all this he explains the pros and cons of obstacle course racing, the backstory of the Hash House Harriers, and why Park Run has sold out. These informative chapters were interesting, but what drew me in were the descriptions of his running adventures, often with his dog Nutmeg, in the rugged English countryside. I'm not ready to abandon all my creature comforts (I like the cushioning in my shoes and my moisture-wicking tops) but I appreciate the message he is trying to get across: running should be about what happens to you on the inside, not what is forced on us from the outside. 

North

Scott Jurek

"Imagine running 84 marathons. Consecutively." Umm, nope, can't do it. This wasn't the first book I read on the Appalachian Trail and like the initial story I indulged in, this one had me longing to fly to the States to see the route for myself. Each chapter gave an account of a section from both Scott's and his wife's perspective, which provided an interesting insight into the unimaginable feat. Clearly emotions were running high throughout the exhausting experience, and there was no attempt to cover up how both parties broke down from over the weeks. Like Jurek's first book, the writing from both parties was very simplistic, making for a quick read. If you want to know what it takes to set the Fastest Known Time on a seriously long trail (including dealing with the doubters), then this is the book for you.

Running with the Kenyans

Adharanand Finn

What is the secret that makes the Kenyans the best runners in the world? The author is determined to find out, so he picks up his life and takes his family from England to Iten, Kenya (a.k.a. running mecca) for six months. Finn trained as the locals did and investigated numerous theories as to why the Kenyans dominate this sport. He applied many of the lessons learnt to his own running, with the final goal of completing a sub 3-hour marathon. In the end his conclusion to their secret is a bit of a letdown, but this doesn't detract from the insight he gives us into the everyday life of an Kenyan runner. This book is more of a diary of Finn's experiences while in Kenya, rather than an analysis of the Kenyan running culture or the inherent poverty that obviously runs deep within the community (although these themes do come up). I didn't find myself wanting to move to Kenya after reading this story, but I did enjoy reading about a life far different from my own.

The Way of the Runner

Adharanand Finn

I was gripped when I commenced this book - the times that Japanese runners have been achieving in local races blew me away. And the idea of competing in ekiden relays, a sport I knew almost nothing about, captivated me. I loved reading about the family's transition to living in Japan, something I can relate to after living in three Asian countries, and I found myself nodding my head at the unusual cultural differences you only see when you truly immerse yourself in a foreign land. But after a while my interest faded. A large chunk of the book seemed to list ekiden after ekiden, and they all rolled into one for me. Although they were broken up by intriguing anecdotes, I was longing to get to the end so I didn't have to read about another race competed by athletes I had never heard of representing companies that meant nothing to me. I felt awful that bad luck prevented the author from fulfilling his dream at the end of this journey, but I'm glad he (sort of) made amends once he returned to England. The conclusions he drew about Japanese running provide some thought-provoking ideas, and it makes me wonder if we will see more of a dominance of Japanese runners in the coming decades as old theories are replaced with new training principles.  

Natural Born Heroes

Christopher McDougall

I think I was in the wrong section of the bookstore - this is definitely more of a history book than a running tale. And the story it told wasn’t particularly captivating (or easy to follow) until I reached the last quarter of the book. The plot jumped around all over the place, the dozens of characters were impossible to keep track of, and the frequent allusions to an amazing “special diet” and to the power of “natural movement” was infuriating. These two themes were actually the most interesting part of the book, but they only expanded on in detail briefly right at the end. Also, the link between these topics and the central story about kidnapping a German General on Crete was tenuous at best. If you are a World War II history buff you will love this adventure. If not, it wouldn't be my first recommendation for a running book.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami

Murakami is one of those people who have a fascinating life, the type you could talk to for hours and be captivated by all the stories he has to tell. One of those stories is about running. Like Muramaki, I feel at times like I live to run. When I run, everything else in life is easier. It's my alone time with my thoughts, it sets me up for the day. It keeps me sane. Murakami is not trying to convince anyone that running is the answer to their problems, but rather he was sharing what has worked for him.

I don't usually go in for the reflective, philosophical-style books, and I often forget the story as soon as I have read it. This was no exception. However because the subject-matter was so close to heart I found that I enjoyed parts of it while I was reading it. I think I will value it more in 10-20 years time, as a large chunk of the story concerns the effects of aging on his running. It's not at the top of my must-read list, but many will appreciate the author's sentiment.

Into Thin Air

Jon Krakauer

Definitely not about running, but climbing Everest is about as extreme as it gets - especially during the deadly 1996 disaster that claimed so many lives. Krakauer, an experienced climber, set off for Everest as a writer for a magazine, and he gives us a firsthand account of the unfortunate series of events that unfolded. The tone is very matter-of-fact and he has no trouble giving his opinion of everyone else on the mountain, most of whom he believes are incompetent and the reason that many people died. The incident itself was incredible and this is what kept me turning the pages, far more so than Krakauer's writing style. It also made me want to go nowhere near Everest. On the downside, the constant criticism of the other guides and climbers made me feel a little uncomfortable, which was further increased when I looked into the controversy that appeared after the original article was published. Plus there were so many characters in this book that I found it impossible to keep up with who had which role on which team. Epic? Yes. Horrific? Yes. Five stars? No.

Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer

I watched the movie years before I picked up the book. I remember loving the movie; I did not love the book. I thought the story would be from the perspective of McCandless, a young man who left everything to set off across America and live a nomadic existence. Instead it was from the author's point of view, as he personally travelled around the country in an attempt to retrace McCandless' footsteps and determine why he chose the path he did. It's an interesting story, maybe worth an article, but the reporter-style tone, the lack of empathy I felt for the central character and the strange obsession Krakauer had with McCandless made this book a struggle to finish. Most people seem to love Into the Wild, so chances are you would too; unfortunately it wasn't for me.

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