Review: The Rise of the Ultra Runners

Many of us are running less at the moment and many of us are reading more about running so I thought I would try and capture my thoughts on Adharanand Finn’s ‘The Rise of the Ultra Runners’ which I finished a few days ago.

Except I don’t really know what to say. Is it the definitive book on ultra running as the endorsement from Dean Karnazes on the from cover suggests? Is it an electrifying and inspirational account as the back cover blurb suggests? Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know what I think about the book. I sort of like it and don’t. I enjoyed reading it. There where bits of the book I couldn’t put down and then there were bits where I lost interest fast and rolled my eyes repeatedly and just got irritated. The thing is, I am not sure I know why.

So the book then. It’s an account of a journalist road runner turned ultra runner trying to understand ultra running and ultimately getting to and running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Along the way Finn writes about ultra running as an emerging sport, about some of the top ultra runners he interviews and about his own running. It should be the sort of book I like, a nice mix of personal stories and experiences mixed with descriptions of iconic races and some less well know ones and some general information and analysis about ultra running. And actually that is what I like about it. Finn’s writing is really good story telling. He takes you on those races with him, he transports you into those stories and it feels like you know the people and places he’s talking about just a little bit better at the end of the book. Read it. It’s worth reading. It might even inspire you. It’s a good book.

So why don’t I like it? Why is there something about the book that really grates? Something that has not shifted since I finished reading a few days ago? Maybe it is simply that Finn’s focus is the racing world of ultra running. And it would not have occurred to me to start there when thinking about ultras. Finn mentions Fastest Known Times and gives a brief nod to running in the Lake District but his focus throughout the book is on the races. Somehow that’s just not where my mind goes when I think ultra running. I think Nicky Spinks and fells and racing yourself and maybe the clock but not racing others. I think Kilian Jornet in summits of my life rather than Kilian Jornet winning or not winning a race. To me the racing over ultra distance is a side show of ultra running not the main thing. For Finn (and I guess also for sponsors etc), it seems racing is central. So maybe our starting points and approaches to thinking about ultra running are just different. And maybe the racing starting point grates because it puts the focus on times and on winning or placing and one of the things I have always enjoyed about watching even the elite ultra runners is that they don’t talk in those terms. They talk about the challenge of the distance, the terrain, the conditions. Maybe it’s that.

Maybe it’s that there are people who I think of immediately when I think trail and ultra running that are barely featured. Maybe it’s that the book actually has quite a US focus. Maybe I am just grumpy that Nicky Spinks, Joss Naylor, Jasmine Paris, Emilie Fosberg (for example), my heroes of the sport, don’t take centre stage. Maybe it’s that.

And then there’s something else. And this is unfair because I have never met Adharanand Finn. I don’t think I like him. I don’t think we’d get on. Throughout the writing there seems to me to be an arrogance. It reminds me of a type. A type I don’t like. A type I sometimes see out running. A type that makes me roll my eyes and exclaim ‘road runner’ silently in my head. You know, the type who is too focused on their pace to nod an acknowledgement of a fellow human, too important to step aside and wait to let people pass and too wrapped up in their training to consider anyone else out on the same stretch of earth. It’s subtle and it’s a kind of arrogance I know I am over sensitive too. It’s not elitist really but something akin to it. It perhaps links to my points above about where our respective starting points are in thinking about ultra running. For Finn it is still about racing in some way. It’s like taking a road running mentality and transposing it to longer distances and more difficult terrain. It’s still about winning or if not quite in that elite field then it is still about posting a respectable time. As someone who has never and isn’t likely to ever run a respectable time over any distance that mindset just grates. It suggests that if you can’t do this in a certain time then really you don’t belong here. And that certain time is up there close to the elite times. I wonder how Finn would feel actually coming last.

So clearly Finn is a decent runner. His running journey as outlined in the book is impressive and I am sure he learned a lot about himself during the races and during the training he did. I just, for whatever reason, don’t find his story inspiring. Impressive yes but nothing more than that. Should you read the book? Yep absolutely. If you’re interested in trail and ultra running and the people at the top of that sport then yes. It’s a good book and I hope it inspires you and I hope you enjoy it. I’m going to continue to feel uneasy about it, quite unconvinced that Finn has really got to the heart of my kind of ultra running, not really sure that when Finn writes about ultras he really truly gets it. And I realise that this is an utterly idiotic things to say given that Finn has completed several and I have completed none and given that almost all of my races have been road races and that I am a wimp of a trail runner who can sit at a top of a hill too scared to run down. So yes, I am being unfair and judgmental but to me Finn writes about trail and ultra running as a road runner. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a road runner if that’s your thing but they are different sports with different mindsets, cultures, goals an ambitions and I think the problem I have with the book is simply that it is written by a road runner who also happens to be pretty decent at running trail ultras as it turns out. I am not sure why that bothers me but it seems it does.

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