My selection of the most interesting and inspiring books about running adventures around the world.
I’m very much a walker rather than a runner, having decided I quite enjoy keeping my toenails connected to my feet. But a few years ago I dipped my toes into the world of ultra-running (distances beyond a traditional marathon length of 42.2km or 26 miles) and endurance events as I trained alongside my friend Rachel while she prepared to complete the Marathon des Sables, an incredible 251km (134 miles) race over several days in the Sahara Desert.
Very much at the lower end of the epic scale, my greatest ultra running achievement was completing the Isle of Wight coastal path, 113km (70 miles) over two days, with a lot of sunburn and just a mild case of heatstroke to show for it.
So if you’re looking to find the motivation to maintain your New Year’s running resolution, or you’re more than comfortable as an armchair ultra runner, read on to find inspiration for your next running challenge, or enjoy the vicarious exploits of these incredible individuals.
Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen- Christopher McDougall
This is the book that launched the concept of barefoot running into mainstream consciousness, exploring the endurance running hypothesis of human evolution and drawing on the experience of the indigenous Tarahumara people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon region. The Tarahumara, also known as the Rarámuri, are renowned as long-distance runners, covering large distances across rugged terrain on foot, wearing nothing more than lightweight, homemade sandals known as huaraches. The book culminates in a race between the Tarahumara and some of the leading names in North American ultra-running, a cast of colourful characters who display all that good sportsmanship demands.
Just a Little Run Around the World: 5 Years, 3 Packs of Wolves and 53 Pairs of Shoes – Rosie Swale-Pope
At the age of 57, following the death of her husband from cancer, Swale-Pope set off on a run, a way of processing her grief and searching for her next steps, and to give something back to the doctors and carers involved in her partner’s final stages of life. Fast forward to five years later, and she’s completed an unassisted 20,000 mile (approximately 32,200 km) circumnavigation of the northern hemisphere. From long summer days to sub-zero survival conditions in Siberia and Alaska, she faces injury, traffic accidents and being tracked by wolves in the taiga. The expedition is both arduous and deeply personal, as Swale-Pope gives her account of the challenges she faces, and the generosity and kindness she encounters, taking it all in her stride.
North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail – Scott Jurek and Jenny Jurek
Scott Jurek is one of the most well-known names in the ultra-running, having participated in all of the biggest events and endurance challenges over the past two decades, and shared his experiences in speaking engagements around the world. But this undertaking was something new; an attempt to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the 3,523km (2,189 miles) Appalachian Trail. Jurek would have to run around 50 miles a day, for almost seven weeks, pushing himself to the limits of physical and mental endurance. The narrative voice switches between Jurek and his wife Jenny, who provided the support for the expedition, faced her own challenges on the way and brings a complementary perspective to that of an ultra-endurance runner.
The Pants of Perspective: One Woman’s 3,000km Running Adventure through the Wilds of New Zealand – Anna McNuff
I subscribe very much to the Roald Amundsen school of thought around expeditions, that what we ascribe to adventure is very often down to little or poor planning, and feel that McNuff and I would very much set about this challenge in quite different ways. However, the account of her solo run, as a self-proclaimed fun runner, along the 3,000km (1,865 miles) Te Araroa Trail from end to end of New Zealand is inspiring and highly accessible. Unlike many adventurers who seem unable to share their interior journey as they travel, McNuff is so open about the feelings and emotions she cycles through on her run, the connections she makes with those she meets on the way, and shares her obvious joy and enthusiasm for life through her undertaking.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami
Running is the lens through which Murakami meditates on the forces that have shaped his life and his success as a writer of several critically acclaimed books. Throughout nine short essays, connecting personal memoir, travelogue spanning locations from Tokyo to Athens to Boston, and the ups and downs of his training journal as he prepares for the 2005 New York City Marathon, he reflects on his writing processes and work ethic, and how they are inextricably linked to the self-discipline of his daily running regime. This book is inspiring for the aspiring writer as much as for the runner.
Beyond Impossible: From Reluctant Runner to Guinness World Record Holder – Mimi Anderson
I met Marvellous Mimi on several occasions through my brief ultrarunning career, most often as she ran past me or helped out at the finish as the back of the pack crossed the line. It has always been inspiring to hear about her achievements, from taking on the Marathon des Sables as a novice runner, to ever more challenging races like Spartathlon (246km/ 153 miles from Athens to Sparta in Greece), the Badwater Ultramarathon (double course, 470 km/ 292 miles in Death Valley, USA), and the 6633 Arctic Extreme Ultra (612km/ 352 miles in Yukon, Canada), and setting World Records for JoGLE (1,352km/ 840 miles from John o’Groats to Land’s End, Great Britain) and M2M (555km/ 345 miles from Malin Head to Mizzen Head, Ireland). She also writes candidly about overcoming the eating disorder that shaped her younger life, and how running formed a vital part of her recovery.
Terry: Terry Fox and His Marathon of Hope – Douglas Coupland
Terry Fox was a remarkable individual, who captured the hearts of his native Canada when he set out on his marathon run across the country in 1980. After a diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, a couple of years previously, his leg had been amputated and he used a prosthesis, and set out to raise funds for cancer research, $1 from every Canadian, a goal of £24 million. This book draws together letters and photographs from Fox’s marathon run, with a narrative account by Coupland detailing the events and the tenacity of his character. Starting in Newfoundland, Fox ran 42km (26 miles) a day for 143 days, until he was forced to withdraw as the cancer had metastasised to his lungs. Fox passed away ten months after ending his run, at the age of just 23. Terry Fox Runs held across the world in his memory have raised more than $750 million.
Night Running: A Book of Essays About Breaking Through – Emily Mitchell, Pete Danko, Steve Kettmann, Dahlia Scheindlin and T.J. Quinn
A collection of personal essays and short stories by five different authors set in various locations around the world which capture perspectives on running after dark and the transformative power that it conveys. The premise of each piece is breaking through feelings of fear and dread and discovering exciting new possibilities that lie beyond, and taking advantage of an absence of judgement and oversight to feel free to explore new thoughts and sensations. Much like the work by Murakami, this book could be as much about the process of writing as the act of running.
Above the Clouds: How I Carved My Own Path to the Top of the World – Kilian Journet
Another giant of the ultrarunning world, Kilian Journet is known for his dominance in skyrunning (mountain running at altitude), and as a ski mountaineer with several records for fastest ascents and descents. This book is Journet’s memoir, recounting stories from various expeditions and events, and details of his gruelling training regime in brutally honest accounts, culminating in the ultimate challenge for any mountaineer: reaching the summit of Everest. It also includes many moments of soul searching as he wonders whether the time dedicated to training is worth it, and particularly when his partner Emilie experiences a fall while preparing for Everest together, recounted in terrifying detail.
Running Up That Hill: The Highs and Lows of Going that Bit Further – Vassos Alexander
This book is an excellent introduction to ultrarunning for those looking to take their game to the next level, but equally enjoyable even if you have no intention to try. It largely focuses on Alexander’s completion of the Spartathlon, and the trail running preparations that led him to the starting line, conveying all the enthusiasm, exhaustion and emotion he experiences. It also features several conversations and interviews with other runners, exploring their passions and motivations, and the anxiety, resilience and tenacity they show through their sport.
What inspiring running book would you recommend to me? Are you tempted to take on any of the challenges for yourself?
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