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and now for something completely different

some months ago, i wrote a small blogpost wondering about the surprising lack of books which focus on the experience of cycling, running and whatnot. it is a theme that i revisited while writing for ET about the mumbai marathon.

Gather all books ever written on running and you will have enough to pave a running track. Most of these books evangelise running, extolling its health benefits. Yet others focus on technique. Another large chunk will be biographical narratives by athletes and amateurs alike. Books on the experience of running itself are few and far between. Which is pretty puzzling. What first attracts and then binds us to running is the experience of running itself. And yet, books examining that experience of running are the hardest to find. This seems to be true for any activity you care to name — cycling, motorbiking, cricket, whatever. Books on the experience itself are rare.

With that prologue, here are the best books I have read on running till now.

1. Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. This is a pretty well-known book and chances are runners will already be very familiar with it.

2. The Lure of Long Distances. If  you liked Murakami, you might want to try Robin Harvie’s account of the months he spent training for the oldest and longest footrace on the Earth — the Spartathlon from Athens to Sparta. The book is remarkable. In part because its exposition on something no one who exercises is a stranger to — pain and discomfort. And in part because it touches one big reason why people run — to see just what our mind:body complexes are capable of.

3. Ultramarathon. This journey into the self is one that James Shapiro is very familiar with. His cult classic, Ultramarathon, is now out of print. But you can get second hand copies off online book stores. He again focuses on the seeming madness which makes someone want to run 24 hours, as Shapiro does, at an event to gauge just how far humans can run in a day. The book starts with an account of that day. He has also written Meditations From The Breakdown Lane, an account of running across America.

4. Once a runner. And then, there is fiction. Quenton Cassidy is a competitive runner at an American university whose dream is to run a four-minute mile. He is a second away from getting there when he is suspended from the team for participating in an antiwar protest (the book is set in the Vietnam war era). With that foundation, the rest of the story was always going to be a predictable take of triumph against the odds. Under the tutelage of a former Olympic Gold medallist, Cassidy gives up his scholarship, his girlfriend, withdraws to the countryside and eventually prevails. But the descriptions of training, of running, are vivid indeed.

5. Flanagan’s Run. A mythical account of a transamerica run during the years of the great depression.

6. Feet in the clouds. As the book jacket says, fell-running is probably britain’s most obscure sport. It features a set of maniacs who run up and down hills (or, the fells). As in The Lure of Long Distances, Richard Askwith too is chasing a holy grail — he wants to complete the Bob Graham Round — a nonstop circuit of 42 of the Lake District’s highest peaks, all to be completed within 24 hours. Much of the book is about his initiation into fell-running, his preparation, and the legends of fell-running — Like Joss Naylor.

‘If you stop now, said a voice in my head, you will never, ever stand the remotest chance of finishing the BG. All your training will have been wasted. All those years of obsession will have been so much self-deception. Stop now and you might as well call off the attempt and save wasting everyone’s time. Never mind all the training you already have in the bank, or all the training that you’re still planning to do. This is the only moment that matters. Fail now, and you will always fail. Stick to it, and — well, you won’t necessarily succeed, but you will be in with a chance. Sticking with this is the basic, entry-level qualification.”

Got any suggestions on other books to read? Write in.

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