Skip to main content

Book Review: The Longest Race by Ed Ayres

"The older I get and the more I learn, the less I know with certainty. And that actually feels right, although I really can't say exactly why." - Ed Ayres

Since I can't really run right now (curse you IT band), I've been reading running books instead.

I just finished The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance by Ed Ayres (a distance runner with a half-century running career) and definitely recommend it. As a running addict myself, I've written and read my share of race reports (many on this site, obviously) and, when you break it down, Ayres' book is essentially a 200-page race report.

The race in question is the 2001 JFK 50 Mile, a trail race that starts in Boonsboro, Maryland and covers sections of the Appalachian Trail. It's been going on since 1963 in response to JFK urging Americans to get in better shape in an article in Sports Illustrated called "The Soft American" and his challenge to the military to walk 50 miles in 20 hours.

In this particular race Ayres is attempting to break the course record for the men's 60-69 age group (and to break 8 hours). A little back story: he won the race in 1977. Throughout the course of the book Ayres describes the race, the trail, the other runners and, most importantly for any race report, his experiences along the way. What makes this more than just a race report (and it better be more than that since it's 200 pages long) is his reflections on his lengthy running career, his work with the Worldwatch Institute and his work for Running Times (he was founding editor and publisher of the magazine).

Ayres is a dynamic writer and his descriptions of the course, his competitors, the spectators and the history of the race make for captivating reading, particularly for those who are already into running (and who's reading this book that's not?). But he takes this book a step further and attempts to make analogies between endurance running and society, making the case that society should function like an endurance runner instead of like a sprint runner. In short, we should be more ecological and economical with our resources. It's a pretty good metaphor, and I'm certainly on board with him (both in running and in societal practices), but this metaphor sometimes feels a little forced and slows the momentum of the book a bit. In the midst of describing a turn on the trail he'll start talking about nuclear development, which can be a bit difficult to follow.

Similarly, when he gives the history of running as it relates to human evolution, which he frequently does, it feels a little too speculative for my tastes. There are other books on this topic that are much more in-depth and offer real data to back up the claims of persistence hunting and the evolution of our species. Personally I like this article from Outside magazine, which was actually the first I had heard of this persistence running for hunting concept. I do like that Ayres worked some of this information into his book but it also feels a little beside the point for this particular race report.

Still, "The Longest Race" is a fun read, particularly in his descriptions of the course and his thought-process as he's attempting to maintain his energy and speed throughout the race. Ayres comes off as an interesting and intelligent guy - someone I would definitely love to chat with on a long run... if I could keep up with him.

The last 20 pages or so of the book are an appendix titled "Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner" and give a series of tips for anyone who hasn't yet tackled an ultra but is thinking about it. This section is extremely helpful advice and written in an informal style that makes it easy to take in. If I were planning to train for an ultra, I would look to Ayres for guidance.

Maybe that Earth Day 50K I thought about running earlier this year will look good next year...

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Daily Guide to Chicago Comedy Shows in April 2018

April 1: Character Assassination presents The Roast of Disney Princesses at Laugh Factory The latest entry in the Character Assassination roast show series pits a collection of Disney princesses -played by Chicago comics - against each other. Starring Allison Dunne, Alex Kumin, Sarah Shockey, Gena Gephart, Audrey Jonas, Eunji Kim, Samantha Berkman, Stephanie Weber and Mandee McKelvey. April 2: Comedy Overload Open Mic at Gallery Cabaret A weekly open mic open to all forms of comedy that takes place at a sweet venue in Bucktown. April 3: Shake 'Em Up Comedy Showcase at Shakers on Clark   This free two-hour comedy showcase is hosted by Darrick J and Nate Galloway. Comics get between four and 10 minutes each and the hosts let comedians know a bit needs work by hitting a bell and "shaking 'em up." April 4: Comedians You Should Know at Timothy O'Toole's Really you should be catching this weekly showcase at Timothy O'Toole's e

Carrera de los Muertos - Race of the Dead

When we signed up for this race I had a feeling it was going to be a good one just based on the website . Carrera de los Muertos?! Race of the Dead?! Sounds sweet right? And it definitely was. Check out my Newcity review for more of a breakdown on that front. There were a ton of great costumes (mostly skull-face painting) and the base camp was in the parking lot of an UNO Charter School in Pilsen, with sweet decorations, music and food for sale. Lots of partying going on for such an early morning on a cold November day.

Life of Pi: The Pi Day Pi K Returns to Fleet Feet Stores Across Chicago

I have run a grand total of ONE time since crossing the finish line of the Chicago Marathon in October of last year. I know, I know, I'm disgusted with me too. So when I got Fleet Feet's notice about the Pi Day "Pi K" Fun Run this coming Monday evening (3.14 - PI DAY, get it?) it seemed like a pretty solid way to get back out on the running trail without getting myself up super early or registering for a timed race where I would embarrass myself. Also, my wife and I ran this race back in 2014 and had a great time. Plus, after an article I wrote for the Tribune about xkcd creator and all-around baller Randall Munroe speaking in Chicago at an Illinois Science Council (ISC) event , I know a little more about the organization behind the Pi Day Pi K and their mission. Quick excerpt from the Trib article: Founded in 2006 by nonscientist Monica Metzler (who also serves as executive director), the ISC was created to help engage adults in science and technology