Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: The Longest Race (2012)

By Ed Ayres

The short description of "The Longest Race" certainly doesn't sound like a best-seller: "Runner gives his thoughts on his sport, his life and other subjects while competing in a 50-mile race in 2001."

The first reaction might be "2001? What took him?"

There's no clue inside about the timeline of the book, so we'll have to make due with what has been presented. I think the reactions to this book will be all over the map.

Ayres is the founder of Running Times magazine. The publication is devoted to a rather small niche of the running community, targeted toward ardent runners. Its sister magazine, Runner's World, throws out a wider net of subject material. This, pretty clearly, is more of a Running Times approach.

As it turns out, the year of the race really doesn't matter one bit. Ayres has been running for most of his life, and he's over 70 now. Ayres caught the beginning of the "running boom," as he finished third in the 1970 New York City Marathon. The portions about running 50 miles along the Potomac River in Maryland near the West Virginia border are rather timeless. I doubt the experience will have changed much in 11 years. It's still quite a physical undertaking. By the way, the book has some tips for ultramarathoners at the end.

It took me a while to figure out a way of describing what reading this book is like. Eventually, an analogy came to me, and it's the obvious one. "The Longest Race" is like running along side Ayres for a long time without doing any talking. Thoughts come and go during runs like that, and they come from all sorts of unexpected directions. This is Ayres' point of view, albeit with the chance to do some organizing and editing before presenting them.

You should probably know that Ayres was raised as a Quaker and is a vegetarian. He's also been working for and is sympathetic to a variety of positions on the global stage. As a for instance, Ayres is hardly a graduate of the "drill, baby, drill" school of energy policy. He believes that sort of approach merely delays the inevitable, and does damage to the environment in the meantime.

Thus Ayres finds tangents in a variety of ways. Suddenly, the reader is presented with thoughts on Mikhail Gorbachev, or the man who helped design the world's largest nuclear bomb. It's fair to say there is plenty told about running and anthropology along the way, mostly in the form of our ancient ancestor's running roots. Ayres argues -- and others have echoed the thought -- that running long distances helped us survive as a species way back when, when we could outlast the potential food supply during the chase and strike when the animal at the lower end of the food chain when it was forced to rest.

Ayres obviously a bright person, and he writes nicely enough. The big question comes on whether this sort of book works, and that's going to come down to a very personal reaction. Based on the blurbs on the covers and the reviews on, this sort of thoughtful approach works quite well for some.

But it didn't work particularly well for me, even though I'm relatively sympathetic to some of his points of view. The lack of focus was a little distracting, and the road to the non-running sections struck me as a little too winding. That leads to a problem of a rating here; I chose to give my personal reaction to the book rather than solely on its merits. There's something to be said for grabbing the reader, even loosely, and bringing him along.

I don't want to discourage anyone interested in running from at least pondering a look at "The Longest Race." This may sound interesting to you, so by all means give it a try. The book probably will find an audience, but my guess is that it will be a relatively small one. And that's O.K. ... every book doesn't have to sell in the millions.

Two stars

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