Marathon endurance test loses itself along the way

Why We Run: A Story of Obsession. Robin HarvieJohn Murray; £12.99

AT THE core of this book is an interesting, and at times, absorbing memoir of a man who ran his first marathon for a bet and became an ultra-distance runner, prepared to clock up 6,000 miles of training in order to compete in the toughest footrace on the planet.

That race is the Spartathlon, a 152-mile retracing of the route taken by foot messenger Pheidippides who ran non-stop from Athens to Sparta to beg the Spartans to join the Athenians in battle against the invading Persians at Marathon and his recounting of that experience is a welcome and rewarding climax to a book that otherwise rather loses its footing in deep ruts of over-analysis.

There is no little endurance required of the reader of Why We Run in learning of the endlessly accruing blisters and bloodied nipples that the author collects in his pursuit of this epic feat.

Yet just as Harvie commits to paper so much of the pain that went into becoming an ultra-distance runner, the problem with his book is that there are too many ideas and theories and metaphors that he brings into play to explain the process.

And while one can feel compelled by the various descriptions of bewilderment, ecstasy, grief and hurt the author experiences at various times during his long runs along the Thames or over Lake District fells, his decision to include lengthy quotations from a plethora of philosophers, authors, poets and the like only served to annoy this reader.

There is some method to his citing of doomed heroes, such as Scott of the Antarctic and the mountaineer George Mallory, in exploring the human desire to push one’s capabilities to extreme, but does one really need to be taken on a detour, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theories of the sublime, because the poet had a connection with the fells and pikes that Harvie chooses to run?

It takes until the 200th page for the author to harken back to the Roman poets and their saying: “solvitur ambulando” — that anything can be worked out by walking, including one’s own emotional tangles — to really strike upon the crux of the matter.

Harvie’s emotional tangles are myriad. At one point he says running has helped him on his “journey to adulthood” although this is never fully explained or explored. Yet the over-riding tangle which serves to motivate his wish to run the Spartathlon is as a way of coping with the grief of losing his father-in-law, to whom the book is dedicated.

For all the gripes, Harvie’s opening description of a disorienting training run in a desolate coastal area of Denmark and his closing account of his Spartathlon attempt are excellently portrayed, but only serve to underline the feeling that one’s reasons for running are highly individual.

I’m no athlete but I’ve been around plenty of top-class professionals and dozens more enthusiastic amateurs to know that Harvie’s perspective on running is not necessarily representative.

Like him, many do seek to confront their demons by pounding the roads and trails, but plenty of others see running as an opportunity to escape problems. Or to raise money for good causes. Or simply because they enjoy it.

Which makes “Why We Run” a presumptious title. Why I Run is a much more suitable description of Harvie’s epic journey.

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