Selections to keep a reader on pace during the Olympics

August 15, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

With the Summer Olympics under way this weekend, armchair athletes everywhere will be scanning the television or surfing the Web looking for events to watch or results to pore over. News programs will pump out neatly packaged and often predictable biographies of Olympians. Bloggers, journalists and talkers of all credibility levels will chew over rumors and realities of illegal doping.

To step back from this fray of excitement, disappointment and 24 / 7 news, we've pulled together a few volumes that offer a slightly different perspective on one simple, often romanticized sport: running.

Beware: Unlike the books we usually feature in these pages, those discussed here were not published recently and may not be available in bookstores. Procuring copies may involve a trip to the library or searching at an online book-seller.

If running a marathon -- 26.4 miles -- sounds like an act of insanity, how about this: A race that is 135 miles long, takes place in Death Valley, in mid-July, starting at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and ends 8,000 feet above sea level. The race is an ultra-marathon called Badwater, and contestants have 2 1/2 days to complete it before officials drag them off the course.

In To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance (Warner Books, 285 pages, $14.95) New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson chronicles training for and running this event. Johnson was 41 years old -- and had never run a marathon -- when he decided to take a year off from his job, train for this race, and write a book about it.

There is tension between the idea of a marathon and the concept of a race like Badwater: "Where the big urban marathon is premised on sunny middle-class optimist, physical fitness and personal growth, the ultra-marathon is about limits and the virtues of stoicism," Johnson writes. "Where marathons are built around community and crowds and cheers, ultra-marathons are all about being alone." Crowds of people cheer on the marathon runners. Ultra-marathoners are scorned by many Death Valley locals and, in Johnson's experience, misunderstood by almost everyone else.

The course is mean. In Death Valley: "Whole flocks of birds have been knows to plummet to earth, baked to death by the superheated updrafts that surge from the valley floor," writes Johnson. Some who have attempted Badwater have died. Others have suffered grotesque injuries. One former Marine who attempts the race that Johnson joins is sidelined after vomiting out the lining of his stomach.

Johnson deftly avoids a few obvious traps -- he doesn't dwell too much on personal tragedies that occurred near the time of his decision to do the run. Instead he describes his own struggle with his decision to run the race, and admits to not fully understanding his desire to do it. He talks about the vulnerabilities that he feels as he trains, the pits of fear that he faces.

To the Edge provides a sweat-free glimpse into a seldom seen corner of the running world.

Finding Their Stride, by Sally Pont (Harcourt, 228 pages, $21), isn't about extraordinary skill, talent or dedication. Instead, it is a refreshing look at the reality that most runners -- and most athletes -- inhabit at one time or another.

In the book, Pont -- then a running coach and English teacher at Moravian Academy in Pennsylvania -- tracks the ups and downs of a single cross-country season that she coached. The team has some good runners and some weak runners. It has some ambitious kids and some clueless ones. At times they want to be champions. But at other moments competing pressures -- college applications, homework, the student talent show -- take precedence.

These are not the Bad News Bears. Her runners win sometimes. When they do, Pont is honest is about the serendipitous nature of the sport: "They don't know how they ran so well; they don't know why. The body, sometimes, makes its own choices regardless of the dictates of the mind," she writes.

Running can be a wonderful release and escape from the world. But some days it is just painful and the urge to quit is difficult to fight. Pont talks about how the members of her team deal with both extremes. When they don't love running, as a team, they are able to tolerate it. Why do they run? There isn't always an answer to the question.

Foibles universal to most high school teams are nicely rendered. At one point the bus gets lost on the way to a meet and the team misses a race, runners get lost on the trails, kids do homework on the bus rides home, the glamorous and outgoing field hockey players intimidate the more introspective cross country runners.

Parts of the book are overwritten, but others are elegant and surprising. Most impressively, Pont takes cliched material -- a high school sports team -- and turns it into a thoroughly original book.

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