Tag Archives: Spartathlon

“Why We Run: A Story of Obsession” by Robin Harvie

When I was at university, I once had a big night out drinking absinthe. When we finally staggered home, my friend John and I thought it would be a good time to work out some ideas for our upcoming essays on the causes of European nationalism. It was an inspired night of discussion, where our ‘gently’ lubricated minds were able to delve deep and unleash new theories and concepts that would surely dazzle our tutors. We eventually called it a night, knowing that we had finally cracked the secrets of academic study and research.

Waking up in the morning, not feeling exactly 100%, I looked at our whiteboard of ideas and realised that what we had actually done was drawn up a list of our favourite cheeses. There was a relationship diagram indicating some sort of tenuous link between Emmenthal and Stilton, one of which may or may not have represented Mussolini’s Italy.

The crushing disappointment I felt that morning was very similar to the experience of reading Why We Run. A quote from Robin Harvie is often used to endorse other running books, and The Economist even interviewed him last Christmas for an article about the Spartathlon. Given the status the author seems to have, I thought this might be a landmark book, in a similar manner to Born to Run.

The central problem is that Harvie cannot actually come up with a satisfactory answer to his central question of why we run, so instead relies on using literature and literary quotes to make his points sound more profound than they actually are. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but thinking that it’s all well and good showing off to your readers that you’ve read Albert Camus’ The Plague, but it doesn’t help me explain why on earth I willingly did 3 laps round the Cirencester cross country course earlier this year, including that hill.

The frustrating thing about the book is that, buried among the rambling musings about the source of the Thames, there is actually a very touching human story to be uncovered here. During the course of his narrative, Harvie and his wife experience a sudden family tragedy, one that causes their lives to spiral into grief and inward retreat. As he starts telling this story, darker family secrets emerge, but he (understandably) pulls away without revealing all.

The central framework of the book is built around his training for the Spartathlon, the annual 250km non-stop race between Athens and Sparta. This is where some of the most compelling sections of the book can be found, because the sheer lunacy of running the equivalent of nearly 6 marathons in Greek temperatures makes for fantastic storytelling potential. The author’s account of his training (20 miles in a bin bag in the height of summer anyone?) and ordeal during the race do make for interesting reading, but it would have been good to know more about the other personalities who have taken part in the race, past and present. It is the descriptions of such characters that makes other books such as Feet in the Clouds so gripping.

What we end up with here is an unsatisfactory Frankenstein’s monster of a book – part memoir, part race report, part philosophical investigation – that does none of the parts full justice. Mark Rowlands, in Running with the Pack has a much better (and weirder) crack at answering the question of why we run, and draws on philosophical arguments without giving the impression of showing off. Alas, in Why We Run, what we have instead is, essentially, a whiteboard of pretentious Oxbridge cheese.

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“Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” by Scott Jurek

It won’t take a reader of this book long to realise that Scott Jurek is not a normal person. Or a normal runner, for that matter. Jurek is one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time, having won umpteen races of 100miles+, including the suicidal-sounding Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in temperatures of 40 degrees plus?!) and the Spartathlon in Greece (152 miles). This is a man who can unleash 7-minute mile-ing at the 90-mile mark of a race. And all this while living on a strict vegan diet.

Having become famous off the back of “Born to Run”, Scott has clearly been encouraged to cash in on his fame. Part memoir, part race report, part training guide, part recipe book – “Eat and Run” is a curious mix, but an enjoyable tour through Jurek’s life nevertheless.

The memoir takes you through Scott’s tough early upbringing in Minnesota, his difficult relationship with his dad and his love for his MS-suffering mum. We learn about his cross-country skiing schooldays, and his first forays into long-distance running. He gets married, takes up veganism and conquers the ultramarathon world. After a while, the unanswered questions start stacking up:

– What has happened to his brother and sister? They’re not even mentioned when their mother dies.

– Why does he fall out with his best friend towards the end of the book? Scott makes it sound like he’s somewhat baffled by it, but you get the feeling there’s more to it than that.

– And how on earth does Scott hold down ANY kind of personal relationship doing the kind of training he has to do? I struggle to maintain run/work/life balance when training for a mere marathon. What was his first wife doing for all those years?

Scott’s an amiable presence throughout the book, but the questions like the ones above mean you can’t help getting the impression that sometimes he can be a bit of a…well…dick. There’s a comment later in the book about overtaking a fellow runner suffering from hypernatremia that had me gasping at its callousness.

It’s the discussions about food and veganism where the book really comes into its own. (Disclaimer: I’m not a vegan, although I would call myself a ‘friend of vegetarianism’. I’ve been a pescatarian at times in my life, and often do fortnightly vegetarian streaks…although pork and pork accessories always lure me back). Jurek is a passionate vegan, and highlights how a runner can function perfectly well on a plant-based diet. I have to say, it does seems to involve a lot of beans, which makes me fear for his fellow down-wind runners. And what the hell is “nutritional yeast”? I’m sure I’ve got that growing in my trainers.

He claims it has made him healthier, faster, and quicker to recover, and I believe him. However, it seems to be almost as much of a full-time vocation as ultramarathon running. He mills his own flour, travels miles to health-food markets, and involves a lot of experimentation. I really enjoyed reading these sections, as he talks about his successes (the joy of discovering avocados) and failures (a flask of olive oil does not make for good in-run hydration). And I loved his (serious) reason for giving up a short-lived attempt at a raw food diet (it was taking too long to chew).

So while I don’t think Jurek’s diet is for me, there are certainly things we can all take away from his thoughts on food. His recipes for chocolate adzuki bars and smokey refried beans are already on my “to cook” list.

Overall, this is a breezy, thought-provoking read, and Jurek will inspire you in one way or another. I can’t help thinking the man has a dark or selfish side that gets glossed over, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

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