Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Extra Mile: One Woman’s Personal Journey to Untrarunning Greatness (reviwed November 2008)

Pam Reed, The Extra Mile: One Woman’s Personal Journey to Untrarunning Greatness (2006) [**1/2]. Having spent most of my life an avowed non-athlete, I took up running about six years ago, and now actually think of myself as a runner. (Well, a jogger. A very slow jogger.) Being a convert to athleticism, I’m fascinated by athletes, especially ones who push their limits; in the past few years, I’ve very much enjoyed books such as The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb (about the quest for the four minute mile) and Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynne Cox. Recently, my running discipline has lapsed, and I picked up The Extra Mile in the hopes that it would a) be as enjoyable as some of the other books about athletes I’ve read recently, and b) inspire me to hit the road. Unfortunately, this memoir of an ultrarunner is just pretty awful. The writing isn’t great (even for someone who isn’t a writer), the book is weirdly organized, and there’s just way too much that isn’t about running, but isn’t particularly interesting either. Reed doesn’t strike me as a particularly thoughtful, or even bright, person, so the book is short on the sorts of insights one might expect from a woman who runs 135 miles through Death Valley in July to win the Badwater Ultramarathon in something like 25 hours. But there’s the thing – even a poorly written, poorly organized, annoyingly meandering, uninsightful book can hold my attention when it’s about a world of athletes who run races like Badwater. This race begins in Death Valley at 10:00 a.m. in July, goes uphill for 40 miles through the desert in 120 to 130 degree heat, and then over the course of the next 95 (!!) miles, it climes something like 13,000 feet up a mountain. Typical winning times are something around 25 hours. Reed won Badwater twice in a row. She has run more than one hundred 100-mile races, more than one hundred marathons, and has challenged herself to several crazy stunts. She and a friend ran the London marathon, flew immediately to Boston for the Boston marathon, which they first ran backwards, and then, with the rest of the field, ran forwards – all in 48 hours. She also is the first and only woman to run 300 miles continuously, with no sleep, over the course of 3 days. The last of those miles she ran in 8 minutes (the rest of them she ran a lot slower than that). She profiles another runner who stands out for me, perhaps because, being among the slowest runners on the planet, I’m fascinated with speed: this woman ran a 100 K (that’s 62 miles) in around 7 hours, which averages 6:44 minute miles. Can you imagine?? I’m intrigued by what motivates people to such extremes; even the zealous convert in me finds it hard to fathom. Alas, Reed does not really illuminate her own motivation very convincingly. Nonetheless, the books seems to have accomplished one thing I had hoped for, in that I’m finding myself motivated to run again. Reed is the director of the Tucson Marathon, which sounds like a beautiful spot to run 26 miles, and a friend of mine and I are thinking of setting our sights on Arizona in 2008.

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