Updated: Dec 29, 2020
“All the books helped him in some way or another. Quenton Cassidy was not enthusiastically going about the heady business of breaking world records or capturing some coveted prize; such ideas would have been laughable to him in the bland grind of his daily lifestyle. He was merely trying to slip into a lifestyle that he could live with, strenuous but not unendurable by any means, out of which if the corpuscles and the capillaries and the electrolytes were properly aligned in their own mysterious configurations, he might do even better what he had already done quite well. He was trying to switch gears; at least that is how he thought of it. And though it was a somewhat frightful thing to contemplate for very long, he was really pulling out all the stops. After this he would have no excuses, ever again.”
I learned to love reading about the same time that I learned to love running. As a high school student, I was assigned to read The Grapes of Wrath over the winter break. That was a big book for me. Reading has never come easy to me, so it took me most of the break. I'd wake up and run in the mornings, return home and read, and then run again in the afternoon. I'd read again before bed. I was essentially living the life of a professional runner before the age of Netflix. I loved every minute of it. That same holiday break, I received a gift from my aunt and uncle who are avid readers. It was a used copy of Flanagan's Run - a story set during the same time period as the Grapes of Wrath about a transcontinental footrace. I was already enjoying the grittiness of the character's in Steinbeck's book, so it didn't take long for me to immerse myself in the caravan crossing the country on foot in Tom McNabb's narrative.
Long story short, I couldn't put the book down. I was reprimanded in class for reading when I was supposed to be listening to a lecture (and for the record I was not normally that kid). I read the book any chance I could. I continued the morning and evening running ritual, attended school, and worked after school, but I read every chance that I could. I remember lying on my back in the bleachers of an indoor arena awaiting the call for my indoor track race. I read right up until the moment that I needed to begin my warm up. I raced that day like I had never raced before. I ran possessed. I was laser focused. I led from the gun for 20 laps on a wooden 150m track and didn't even realize anyone else was in the race. It still stands out as a breakthrough moment for me as a runner and a reader. Ever since that day, I've viewed the two pursuits - reading and running - as symbiotic and existential.
Below are some of my favorite books related to endurance that have helped me throughout my life and particularly this past year. Some are timeless classics. Others are new books that I've added to the library recently.
Flanagan's Run is where it all started for me. This is a story about the Great Depression, but it is also a story about the human spirit and the collective energy and momentum that we are capable of creating when we work together to tackle seemingly impossible tasks. It is fictional, but the characters come to life and take you on a journey from Los Angeles to New York that you won't soon forget.
Once a Runner was one of the next running books I read as I came of age as a runner. I have read and reread it almost every year since. It helps me shift gears, as described in the quote above. The first person familiarity with the subject matter draws me in every time and each time I read it I appreciate poetic descriptions of this prosaic process we sometimes fail to acknowledge when we're in the thick of it all. Read this book if you haven't already. And if you have, reread it. It's a fun reminder of the beauty of the sport.
The Illegal was a pleasant surprise. I tend to gravitate toward non-fiction, but The Illegal came highly recommended so I gave it try. It drew me in and helped keep me mind off of other stressful elements of life. It allowed me to appreciate what I have while also distracting me enough so that I could sleep. It's a timely read about political unrest, corruption, racial tension and the need for community. Read or listen to The Illegal if you haven't already done so.
I have long enjoyed Katie Arnold's column, "Raising Rippers" in Outside Magazine and had even met her in person at the TransRockies Run. I knew she was an accomplished runner and writer, but I was not prepared for the grace and beauty and rawness with which she tackles the challenging subjects of love, loss, parents, and parenting in Running Home: A Memoir Arnold uses the common thread of running to weave the narrative of her upbringing as well as her development as a creative. I listened to the audiobook (which Arnold narrates) while running and definitely recommend that you listen to the book on your next road trip or long run. I had a very enlightening conversation with Katie on the Art and Science of Running Podcast and developed an even greater appreciation for Katie and her abilities as a runner, mother, partner, and storyteller.
If you're like me, this year was likely a challenge for you. I'd go so far as to say this year has been the hardest year of my life. And yet despite all of the challenges, it has been a year of learning, growth, and opportunity. I have read and listened to more books over the past year than I have in many of the previous years combined. I have returned to writing more. I have learned to appreciate the good people and gifts in my life and much of that can be attributed to books that I have read or listened to. I returned to some of the books I read in my youth as reminders of what got me through some hard times then, but I have also read some books in a genre that I had never really ventured into before.
This trilogy by Ryan Holiday of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key has provided insight, perspective, and context for much of what I have struggled with over the past year. I've read and listened to each book twice. Maybe I'm just a slow learner, but I really like the auditory and tactile experiences of reading and listening. At any rate, I believe that those who view this challenging time as an opportunity to learn and grow will be better off for it. These books have provided me with guidance as far as how to go about making the most of this challenging time both as individuals and as a society. While Holiday is best known for his writing about stoicism, these books draw upon Eastern and Western philosophies, histories and personal anecdotes to provide a holistic and inviting learning and growing experience.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is possibly the best book I have read since graduating from college. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I wish I had read it in college and I wish that it had been required reading for all high school and college educators, coaches, and counselors. It's that good. Epstein uses sport, personal experience, and loads of evidence to make the claim that there is an overemphasis on specialization and that we as individuals and as a society are worse off because of it. He argues that we will all be better off individually and collectively if we approach learning, sport, and life with the goal or better understanding the whole rather than the individual parts. If you haven't read or listened to Range, I recommend that you make it the next book on your wish list.
Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance is another well researched book written by an accomplished athlete and prolific writer, Alex Hutchinson. The book explores what we are truly capable of accomplishing as humans when we put our minds to it. Hutchinson shares his own experience - also on a small indoor track - when he ran a breakthrough race in part because the message his mind was receiving about his pace wasn't entirely accurate, yet believable. It led him to run a lifetime best and catapulted him from frustration and stagnancy to quickly becoming a contender to make an Olympic team. Malc and I visited with Alex in Episode of 14 of the Art and Science of Running Podcast. Like Epstein, Hutchinson has the unique ability to translate science and make it comprehensible for the layperson. If you don't think you'll get a chance to sit dow and enjoy this book over the holidays, I recommend the audiobook.
Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of US is my favorite book about food because Matt Fitzgerald uses case studies of a variety of cultures throughout the world to show that much of what we believe about food, health, and nutrition is not in fact true - but rather a cultural construct that we have accepted as common sense. While we may not be gathering en masse with family and friends this year, it is still likely that you'll read or hear about a new diet that claims to be the cure for all the ills in the world. Before you abandon your current worldview and embrace a new diet, I strongly recommend that you read or listen to Diet Cults.
If after the holidays (or a year of isolation) you are looking to shed a few pounds, I recommend reading the book Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance by Matt Fitzgerald - the same author as Diet Cults. While I don't advocate for fixating on a specific number on the scale, I recognize that there is a demand and desire for effective ways to manage body weight. Fitzgerald has coupled philosophies from the Volumetrics Weight Control Plan and provides some very valuable tools in the form of tables that show which foods are most nutrient dense. He proposes that rather than filling up on foods that don't nourish us adequately, that we prioritize nutrient dense food in our diets. The problem is that we often don't even realize which foods are actually good for us and which ones are just taking up space in our guts. I find myself referring to this book regularly when I'm trying to decide which food to use to best fuel my training, racing, and recovering.
Malc and I interviewed Matt on Episode 18 of the Art and Science of Running Podcast about a whole host of topics. He is one of the most prolific writers in the sport. I recommend that you listen to the episode if you want to get a sense of the vast area of experience that informs Matt's writing.
Of course, there are plenty of really good books out there. These are just the ones that I find myself recommending more than others. If you haven't read or listened to them, I recommend that you do. And if you have any book recommendations for me, please share them in the comments below. I'm here to learn and grow with you. Here's to a new year full of new challenges, new perspectives, and positive changes!
Anima sana in corpore sano. Healthy mind in a healthy body.