Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ultra Reading

What better way to relax after a run than to grab a snack and kick back with a good book. Anyone who knows me or regularly reads my blog knows that next to running, reading is my favorite pasttime. I enjoy polishing off pages by the dozen and will pick up pretty much anything that looks to be entertaining, interesting, or thought provoking. Reading helps me relax and open my mind to various viewpoints and different ways to express oneself through the medium of paper and pen (or keyboard and monitor.)

So what does any of this have to do with trail running? Well, there are three books in particular that I read a few years back that first got me interested in the sport. It was through these books that I first discovered ultramarathons even exist, let alone that I (and many other non-elite athletes) are more than capable of running beyond 26.2. These three books are a must-read for any current or aspiring ultrarunner, and the first two are both entertaining and educational for the general population, including non-runners. (I am in no way affiliated with any of the books or their authors, and all opinions are my own.) 

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Since its release in 2009, Christopher McDougall's autobiographical tale of an eccentric group of American ultrarunners racing against the Tarahumara in Mexico's Copper Canyons has become something of a pop culture staple. Over the last six years, pretty much anyone who's ever purchased a pair of running shoes has read Born to Run. Even my non-runner brother found the book interesting and highly entertaining. On its way to selling millions of copies, Born to Run introduced ultrarunning and barefoot running to the mainstream. Although opinions on barefoot running have reached a broad spectrum, there is no debate that Born to Run helped turn the running shoe industry upside-down. Additionally, the book is frequently cited as one of the major reasons ultramarathon participation has increased significantly over the past five years.

Shortly after the publication of Born to Run, a friend recommended I read it, telling me that it would give me a completely different perspective on the sport. At the time I was running exclusively on roads. I had only run one race - a 10K - and never ran more than about 12 miles at once. I couldn't even comprehend running 26.2 miles continuously, and figured that a marathon was the ultimate test of human endurance - a distance which no human being could ever run beyond.

I found Born to Run so encapsulating that I read the whole thing in a few days. There is something so enchanting about McDougall's conglomerate of human evolution and biology, his history of long distance running, the Tarahumara tales of incredible feats, and his picture of America's ultrarunning scene as we know it today. Add to that the author's witty commentary and knack for suspenseful storytelling, and you have yourself a best seller that will be talked about for years to come.

My friend was right about the book shining a new light on the sport of distance running. Previously, marathoners alone seemed crazy enough. Now I was reading about a third world tribe running in sandals through the scorching desert for 50 miles at a time, 100 mile races at 13,000 feet through the Rocky Mountains, Western States, Badwater, and so on. I had no idea that any of these events even existed, and at first even doubted that I was of the same species as the people who competed in these freak shows.

As I began to poke around the internet, I realized ultramarathons were even more commonplace than the book made them out to be. There were even a few within an hour's drive of my house. I thought it was neat to hear anecdotes about people running ultras, but figured it must take some kind of superhuman athlete to successfully complete one. In Born to Run, McDougall chronicles his own journey from an overweight, oft injured road runner to a fit ultrarunner. But McDougall was working with a professional coach and hanging out with some of the best ultrarunners on the planet, so clearly he had the means to become an endurance sports outlier. An average Joe like you or I would never have a shot at surviving a run of 26.3 miles, nevermind running 100 miles off road. Right?

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

About a year or two after reading Born to Run, another friend told me about some guy who had run a marathon in every U.S. state in 50 consecutive days, all while traveling from place to place, making media appearances, mingling with fans, and sleeping only 3-4 hours a night. I was deep in my phase of reading ultramarathon stories for recreation, so I googled the name Karnazes to see what would pop up. As I quickly found out, Dean Karnazes was arguably the most recognized name in ultrarunning in the entire world.

To my surprise, I learned that Dean had in fact run 50 marathons in all 50 states in 50 days. He also had completed dozens of other superhuman feats, such as running a 200 mile relay race by himself, running a marathon at the North Pole, and several finishes at the infamous Badwater 135. He had also written a few books about his ultra endurance exploits. I picked up a copy of his first book, Ultramarathon Man, since it had overwhelmingly positive reviews online.

In his autobiography Ultramarathon Man, Karnazes dedicates a different chapter to each of his most notable endurance challenges. I found it entertaining to read about his preparation and execution at each of his biggest ultramarathons and adventure runs. What I enjoyed even more, though, was Dean's account of how he first got involved with the sport. His backstory is pretty well known. An average cross country runner in high school, he hung up his spikes at age 15 and didn't run another step for 15 years. Despite earning an MBA and working a very lucrative office job, Dean became disenfranchised with the corporate lifestyle. On the night of his 30th birthday, and a little drunk, he decided on the spot to run 30 miles around his hometown of San Francisco. Dean was bit by the ultra bug, and before long he was signing up for races and eventually made ultrarunning into a full-time career.

Upon completing Ultramarathon Man, I realized an average guy like me or Dean, with no endurance sports background, no coach, and no elite training tools at our disposal, could not only survive ultra distance events, but could excel at them. Knowing that I was capable of running for that long and that far gave me the drive I needed to sign up for an ultra. However, one important question remained. How does one train for a race like this?

Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons 

I went ahead and signed up for my first ultra in January of 2013, with six months to prepare for the 50 mile trail race. I found all kinds of free training plans online for anything from 50K to 100 miles and beyond, but didn't really trust any of them to get me to the starting line prepared and uninjured. Enter Bryon Powell and iRunFar.

By chance I came across Relentless Forward Progress online and decided to purchase it not only for the training plans, but for the advice given by the author and numerous elite ultrarunners regarding all things ultra. Powell's book covers many of the training topics discussed in the posts on, the ultra conglomerate that started off as his personal blog and has evolved into the go-to source for all things ultra. The site features well written training and nutrition discussions, runner profiles, gear reviews, video interviews, race previews and recaps, live race coverage, and more. The training columns are all written by some of the biggest names in American ultrarunning.

Relentless Forward Progress sums up the best of iRunFar's training and race execution articles in a single book. Reading chapters on pacing, power hiking, fueling, managing aid stations, and gear choices gave me a good idea of what to expect mid-race. This allowed me to practice and experiment with different tactics throughout the months of training leading up to the 50 miler. Additionally, Powell provides various 24 week training plans for distances of 50K, 50M/100K, and 100M, based on peaking at either 50 or 70 miles per week. He also explains how one can tweak the plans to better accommodate his or her weekly schedule. For my ultra debut, I followed the 50M/100K plan for 70 miles per week, and modified it a bit to make the most of the plan without the training taking over my life. The training plans and execution provided in Relentless Forward Progress worked well and I got through the 50 miles in one piece. I think that any beginning or seasoned ultra runner could benefit from the advice found in Relentless Forward Progress, regardless of background, abilities, or aspirations.


There are hundreds of books out there covering any and all running related topics one can dream up. Many of them are good reads, and some not so much. The ones I've discussed above are the three that helped me get involved with the sport I am most passionate about, and I've read each one cover to cover multiple times. If you are considering getting into trail and ultra running, or just looking to expand your reading list with some new topics, you should definitely pick up these books at your library, or better yet, support you local bookstore. Books of course make a great gift for the holidays too!

Have you read any of these books and if so, what did you think? What are some of your favorite books or authors, running related or otherwise?

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