Archive for the ‘Running Book Reviews’ Category

Footnotes – How Running Makes Us Human


Review by Ben Peel

Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s book Footnotes, How Running Makes Us Human is written by an English literature professor (who left school with virtually no qualifications) and is about ‘what running can tell us about the way we live now’.

The book recounts a number of adventures that he had whilst out running and in a highly readable manner brings in his own personal anecdotes and shows how environmental science, physiology, pyschogeography, literature, art, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy are all relatable factors in modern day running.

Running is an immersive experience that uses all our senses and for Cregan-Reid is a way of escaping the technological bombardment (he forsakes unnecessary running devices) of the modern world to plunge into and explore the byways of the past and connect with both our surroundings and inner selves.

Today We Die a Little

zatopekReview by Ben Peel

Richard Askwith, author of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free, has now written a biography of the legendary long distance Czech runner Emil Zatopek who set numerous records, won three gold medals at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and whose at the time unorthodox training methods are now accepted as commonplace.

However he also lived during a tumultuous period of European history when Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis, then became a Communist state, then after the wall came down a democracy and finally peacefully divorced itself into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

As the poster boy of the Army and his country Zatopek was faced with a lot of conflicting demands but unlike many of his compatriots had a relatively easy time living in a totalitarian regime and his running also allowed him to travel.

After he retired from running he remained with the Czechoslovakian army but denounced the putting down of the Prague Spring in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled in leading to the protest death by self immolation of Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square.

His fame protected him to a certain extent for a while but in a Communist regime he eventually had to be made an example of and was sentenced to internal exile which effectively broke him.

The extent to which he collaborated with the State will probably never be fully known but Askwith convincingly argues that if he did then it was only ever reluctantly, half heartedly and in an obfuscating manner. Unless one has lived under such a system then there is no way of knowing how one might have behaved when put under pressure to inform on friends and neighbours.

For Askwith Zatopek turns out to be a flawed not flawless hero but all the more interesting for it as his running achievements and generosity of spirit especially towards fellow runners far outweighs his all too human faults and foibles.


Wild Running


An excellent book for those looking to get off the beaten track with their runs in the UK and beautiful to just look through.

Running with the Kenyans


Review by Ben Peel

When Adharanand Finn runs a 10K personal best he contemplates how much a better a runner he could be if he trained seriously. To that end he uproots his family to Kenya to see if he can learn the secret of how that nation has become predominant in distance running.

However Finn soon discovers that a combination of factors play a part such as being conditioned to run barefoot from an early age meaning they continue to run in that much more efficient style when competing, pooling resources and training, better diet and overall exercise than in the West despite having a much poorer economy. Indeed successful athletes are accorded respect and status. When Finn pushes someone to put one reason above all others it is simply ‘a hunger to succeed.’

The Way of the Runner


Review by Ben Peel

Unfortunately this was nowhere near as interesting as his previous book Running with the Kenyans which is mostly to do with the fact that the book seemed like a long magazine article extended into a book. The only reason he seems to find for the Japanese being good at running is the intense pressurised training they are subjected to in ekiden relays. However this very often leads to burnout and their racing careers are often over by their mid twenties.

There are some interesting mentions of Galen Rupp and Alberto Salazar especially given recent events. Whereas Running with the Kenyans had an interesting narrative that the reader could sprint through The Way of the Runner was more of an endurance marathon.


World’s Ultimate Running Races


If you are looking for your next big racing adventure either in the UK or abroad this book has a fantastic selection to choose from of various distances and challenges. It’s where the Three Countries Marathon incorporating Germany, Austria and Switzerland is listed.

Running Free

running free

Review by Ben Peel

As someone who came relatively late to running (my early thirties) and is a decade younger than the author (I also spent ten years living in London, where I began my running, before moving to the Lincolnshire seaside) I think I have progressed fairly rapidly through what Richard Askwith describes as the Seven Ages of Running and I am now into the fifth. That is like him I don’t wear a watch let alone any kind of high tech measuring device anymore whilst out on a solo training run or listen to music. Instead like the author I prefer to enjoy my natural surroundings and let my body and environment dictate the run and consequently unless I am doing a set route have no real idea of time or distance. Having said that I do still try to push myself on organised runs or on club nights as it is still pleasurable to gain a pb. However I am now at a stage of life where I may gain some improvement for a few years before it starts slipping back again but I am certainly not going to be challenging for any medals. Like Askwith I am also enjoying runs that go off the beaten track a bit more and like him I am lucky to live in a part of the country with it on my doorstep (in my case a coastal nature reserve).

In his enjoyable book which has a slightly more meandering air than the more tightly focused, Feet in the Clouds, Askwith argues the case for a return to simply enjoying running in its basest form rather than succumbing to the demands of what he calls, ‘Big Running’. Whilst I agree with his philosophy to a certain degree especially when the over-commercialisation of the London Marathon and Great Run series is considered I still think there is scope to enjoy different forms of running. We are not all lucky enough to have instant access to the country seeing as the majority of the population live in urban areas. I have enjoyed the 24 Hour Adidas Thunder Run as although it is a commercial enterprise it brings a community of runners together. As you are running laps at various parts of the day the course can change with the weather and temperature and each lap can be very different. Some of the most enjoyable runs I have done have been organised through the club I belong to such as long distance relays and our own version of a ‘Hound and Hares’. These have involved club runners of all abilities and have been more about the taking part than achieving times. Many local clubs in Lincolnshire put on some good inexpensive races over a variety of distances and terrains, which I would rather take part in and support than many of the commercially organised ones.

I also disagree with the author when it comes to barefoot running. Again its very much ‘horses for courses’ as I had a lengthy lay off with a knee injury before being prescribed running shoes to correct over-pronation and I also use corrective inserts in my everyday shoes. Since then, touch wood, I have not a serious injury that has required a long recovery. Where I do agree very much with Askwith is in trying to enjoy the moment of running rather than the outcome. Again that maybe is because I feel I am moving into the fifth age of running that he describes where pb’s seem increasingly less important as does the use of recording devices, using social media to share my every run and shelling out vast amounts of money on kit when I am not going to improve by any significant amount. Although he touched on it a bit when describing what brought him to running, a chapter on what inspires people to start running (wanting to get fitter, depression, escape etc) would have been instructive.

Running Free is an interesting and thought-provoking book containing much that I agree with and some that I don’t. I also suspect that younger runners or city dwellers may disagree with even more of it. Perhaps at the rate I am going it will not be long before I join him in the sixth age of running which as he says is rediscovering the simple carefree childish joys of running or running free.


Running with the Pack

running pack

Review by Ben Peel

In this highly original book philosopher and amateur runner Mark Rowlands explores the reasons why he runs.

Interspersed with his ruminations on significant runs is a dialectical investigation into how the theories of various philosophers can be applied to running. Rowlands cogently argues that running returns us to something we have lost, as we are caught up in seeking the ‘goals’ of work and materialism. We intuitively understand the importance of play for its own sake during childhood and running was once an activity that was essential to survival. During ‘the beating heart of the run’ we are returned to what we once were and have forgotten. To run is to understand the intrinsic value in life, which for Rowlands is the meaning of running.

Kings of the Road


Review by Ben Peel

Although Cameron Stracher in, Kings of the Road, writes about the American running boom which occurred in the 1970s many of his arguments about the sport are still pertinent to this day and age and not just in the States.

It is a fascinating look at the nascent period of running before it turned into the boom of the eighties and which, although Stracher disagrees, continues to this day. Stracher places the development in its historical context as the more innocent free loving America of the sixties gave way to a darker introspection as the country struggled with Civil Rights, Vietnam and gender equality. Indeed up until the early 1970s many people still regarded long distance running as harmful to women’s health.

Stracher brings out the rivalries and very different backgrounds of his three main protagonists very effectively and shows how the rise of running dovetailed with the development of better equipment and training methods. It was also an era still overshadowed by the conflict of amateurism and professionalism which Stracher argues was part of the problem when the boom turned to bust.

According to Stracher long distance running entered the public’s consciousness in February 1978 when Jim Fixx’s, The Complete Book of Running became the number one best selling non-fiction title. That he dropped dead of a heart attack in 1984 aged 52 was used by some to mark the end of the running boom. However becoming a runner, after being an overweight heavy smoker before, probably added to his life expectancy. There are a lot of interesting digressions along the way such as Stracher’s dismissal of bare foot running saying that today, ‘only a fool or fanatic would train for a marathon in bare feet, and the number of elite athletes racing barefoot is exactly zero.’

As interesting as the book is I disagree with Stracher’s overall theme that the running boom also inevitably led to its downfall. Stracher’s main contention in conclusion is that the growth of running has slowed the median pace in a typical race and that commercialization has `ruined’ the sport as it has become more about the mass participants than the elite runners. As more people enter races then the average pace will be slower. It is true that some marathons such as London have become too commercial in the amount of charity places available and there has been controversy over payment to some athletes to take part. There are plenty of races that promote the taking part rather than the running with their emphasis on goody bags and on site retail. There are also plenty of running clubs that put on small scale no frills events as well which are about the running.

Does this mean that the boom is over though? Surely in this sedentary age any form of running is to be encouraged and applauded and as Stracher himself says in his final paragraph;

‘In the end, running fast is not about fame or fortune. It is not even about winning. It is about pushing the human body to the limit…It is about staring at death and beating it back, kicking it hard to the other side of the road. “No, not today. I’ve got a race to run.'”

Running for their Lives

running lives

Review by Ben Peel

In 1928 the first of the so-called Trans-Continental Road Races was held, starting in Los Angeles and finishing in New York.

Taking part were Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi, whose largely forgotten life stories Mark Whitaker explores in fascinating detail. Newton and Gavuzzi, both Englishmen, came from very different backgrounds, yet through their running experiences forged a lifelong friendship. His book also covers the reasons they fell into obscurity, which is largely due to the clash of amateurism and professionalism with the governing body refusing to countenance giving either man a coaching role.  Whitaker ably explores what drove them on in their endeavors which is, as he convincingly argues, feeling ‘fully alive when running, ideally alone, over very great distances’.
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