Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Game

A multifaceted, pictorial perspective on America’s favorite sport.

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With the aid of awe-inspiring images from the Library of Congress, Susan Reyburn (Baseball Americana) masterfully recounts a detailed history of the gridiron in Football Nation. From colonial times to the commercialism of contemporary professional and college ball, Reyburn offers a look at football’s journey toward becoming the most popular sport in the country.

With previously unreleased images, including cartoons, illustrations and photographs, Reyburn traces the historical relationship between the United States and the game. Fans will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the sport, but even casual followers of the game will be enthralled with an unprecedented depth of perspective on this glamorized spectacle in history and in popular culture. Football Nation is an appealing read for anyone remotely interested in what many call the United States’ most popular sport–and how it got that way.


This review originally ran in the November 29, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Stretching by Bob Anderson (illustrated by Jean Anderson)

I received my copy of Bob Anderson’s iconic Stretching on my 16th birthday, as you can see here:

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That inscription reads, “Happy 16th Julie. May you always keep on stretching mind, body & soul – 7 years & beyond! Love, Dad.” You see I was Julie rather than Julia and he was Dad rather than Pops – it’s been a little while! (The 7-year part is a reference to my aunt (my father’s sister) Laura Kastner’s book, The Seven Year Stretch.) I was a young athlete and my father was a slightly older one, and he wanted to pass on the important lessons communicated here.

stretchingStretching was originally published in 1980, before I was born; my copy was printed in 1997, but this book has been through multiple editions since. I still see posters on the walls at gyms and the like with Jean Anderson’s recognizable illustrations, teaching Bob Anderson’s stretches. Paging through this book now, I am impressed at how well it stands up. We mostly still use the concepts outlined here. I showed it to my physical therapist’s intern (hi, Percy!) and he thought it still looked pretty solid.

The book opens with chapters on who should stretch (hint: he’s pretty inclusive), when to stretch, why to stretch, etc., and then begins on the stretches themselves, which are heavily illustrated. The illustrations, by the author’s wife, are perfect: simple line drawings that show the positions used, with cross-hatching to indicate where I should feel the stretch.

I hope the Anderson's won't mind my sharing of this one page (click to enlarge)

I hope the Anderson’s won’t mind my sharing of this one page

A good portion of the book is dedicated to these text-and-illustration teachings; and then come combinations of stretches, like stretching routines for times of day and while watching television, and for various sports. As a soccer player I wore out that two-page spread; as a cyclist I keep a photocopy of the corresponding two pages handy. Then there are exercises for developing strength; a note to teachers and coaches; and advice on nutrition, back care, and running and cycling techniques. The nutrition part is a little more apt to be dated – possibly outdated, depending on what you believe, but mostly dated in the sense that today a person could read copious volumes on any one of several dozen faddish, extreme dietary programs (yes, I’m looking at you, Paleo), and Anderson’s advice is old-fashionedly simple. Also charmingly dated is the bit on cycling technique; nothing I found in a quick skim is wrong, but as with nutrition, it’s a far cry from the laser-heavy methods of precision bike fitting we use today. Frankly, I miss Anderson’s matter-of-factness and simplicity, but there you are.

In a word, this is a great reference manual for anybody – literally – but possibly of special interest to athletes, because of the sport-specific advice offered. Although old, it’s still gold. Thanks, Pops! Still stretching!


Rating: 9 deep breaths.

The Handoff: A Memoir of Two Guys, Sports, and Friendship by John “JT the Brick” Tournour

An earnest remembrance of a friend and the wisdom he passed on to a sports talk radio anchor.

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After a fun-filled, full-speed youth as president of his fraternity and, later, working as a professional cold-calling stockbroker, John Tournour finds his true calling: sports talk radio. He starts out as a listener calling in, then gets his own show but has to pay for airtime, gradually working his way up until one day he gets a fateful call. Andrew Ashwood mentors John, now known on the air as “JT the Brick,” through an ascending career, and they become the closest of friends. When Andrew is diagnosed with cancer, JT naturally gets the call to be his chemo buddy and “main go-to guy.”

Though The Handoff begins with JT’s childhood, we know from the beginning that Andrew will be its focal point. JT failed to take notes on Andrew’s every word in those final months, realizing only in hindsight that he was not only modeling how to live–and how to die–but also sharing all his life lessons, on and off the air.

JT may be macho and manly–this is smack-talk sports radio, after all–but he is heartfelt and emotional in relating his love for Andrew and his appreciation of everything his friend had to offer. Although sports radio is JT’s passion and the background for his friendship with Andrew, his readers need not know or even much care about sports (or radio) to empathize. The Handoff is a memoir of life and loss, but foremost of friendship.


This review originally ran in the August 23, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 callers.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Josh Hanagarne

Following yesterday’s review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, here’s my interview with the man himself.


Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian Writes

Josh Hanagarne is from Moab, Utah, and lives with his wife, Janette, and son, Max, in Salt Lake City, where he works at the beautiful main branch of the SLC Public Library. His memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, touches on the bizarrely various pieces of his life: his struggles with Tourette Syndrome; his journey to becoming a husband and a father; his love affair with books and libraries that would eventually lead to a career; an obsession with the gym that became a penchant for tearing phone books and full decks of cards; and a less-than-smooth lifelong relationship with the Mormon Church, where he still finds family and friends but less faith than he once held.

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Your book includes a lot of personal and painful history that belongs not only to you but to your wife and family as well. What was the process for sharing those personal details?

It was hard. During the first draft I didn’t think too much about how people were going to react. When I started going through on the second draft, I started showing things to Janette or to my mom and asking, is this accurate? Is this something you’re okay with having in here? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Whenever anybody was mildly uncomfortable with something, I just took it out–nothing of real consequence. I guess when you write a memoir, you choose which periods of your life you’re going to represent, and then you choose which episodes best represent those periods. If you’re a normal person, sometimes that means you’ll look good and sometimes it means you’ll look bad. So that wasn’t fun, but it was honest, I think, without being tedious and self-flagellating.

I’ve always used humor kind of in self-defense, because I knew if I could make people laugh I could make them focus on something other than my tics. I think this book is kind of sad, and I think a lot of humor is rooted in something sad. I believe Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain both talked towards the ends of their lives about having various forms of irony fatigue, because humor was mainly a self-defensive tool for them. I think in any book where you get to pick and choose what you put in, the sadder stuff’s going to get sadder, and the funny stuff’s probably going to get funnier.

You’ve included Dewey classification numbers under each chapter heading. Do you think this resonates with the general population, or mostly just librarians?

I don’t know. I think most people, even if they don’t get it, will probably be intrigued. Some people have pointed out that they don’t all work out exactly the way capital-”L” Librarians think they should, to which I will just say, the numbers do exactly what I want them to do. I think it’s eye-catching. I didn’t necessarily think of it as being gimmicky, because it really does tie in thematically with each chapter. What I really like about it is that you can kind of see what’s coming and yet sometimes not have any clue how one thing will lead to the next.

Tell us about the process of writing this book: When did you write? Were you still working at the library?

This is probably going to disappoint a lot of aspiring writers who put off writing until they have hours of free time every day, but I don’t think I ever sat down and wrote for more than 15 minutes at a time. I just can’t; the tics won’t let me. I wrote whenever I could. I’d guess I rarely wrote more than half an hour total in a day. I do write really fast. I found out that, at least now, I’m the sort of writer who has to make a gigantic mess and then clean it up, because if I start trying to anticipate all the editorial questions on the fly, I just freeze up and I don’t get anything done. So I wrote a lot more to get to this book than I probably could have, if I were another writer. I wrote the first draft totally on my own and then I sent it to my editor, and things had just been going so well that I kind of assumed, yeah, my first draft is surely anyone else’s fourth or fifth. Then my editor sent it back and said, you’ve got to get rid of 120 pages. We can’t even talk yet. Fix this. Which was a great lesson to learn, and not an easy one. But editing was really kind of fun, because Megan [Newman] is really the right editor for me. I think it took three total drafts between us, but about eight on my part. I learned that it takes a hideous amount of work to appear spontaneous. But it was a lot of fun. The shortest way to answer your question is: I wrote every day, I only wrote for a few minutes at a time, and I just kept going. A big part of it is being willing to show up.

Was the writing process cathartic for you?

If this book hadn’t come about, I think I’d probably still be going through the motions in church, trying not to make waves. The ideas I’ve gotten from church have everything to do with my relationship to my body, and the explanations I thought I owed for my life. In writing the book, I realized, I’m actually going to have to deal with this. So I got into the sticky situation of writing a book about how much I love my family and yet gently distancing myself from the church, knowing that that would be painful for my family. That was the biggest catharsis: realizing that I was going to have to deal with that shift in faith. Spending so much time thinking about that, and trying to word it correctly, is what taught me what I actually do think about it all.

Would you say that you had a message or even a cause to communicate with this book, related to Tourette’s, or libraries, or anything else?

I’m not much of a crusader. But when I go speak to groups of people with disabilities, or their parents, or special educators, the reaction I get is so humbling and overwhelming. If people I speak to are actually getting out of this story what they tell me they are, I knew I really needed to do this book as well as I can. So that it can go be me in all the places I can’t be. There’s definitely no downside to spreading the word about Tourette’s. This story seems to inspire some people without me ever needing to claim I can inspire anyone. As far as libraries, obviously this whole book is my love letter to books and libraries. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but for me to write about myself honestly, that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in your book?

To entertain my son occasionally in the morning when I put my pants on, I will hold them up at about waist height and I will try to jump into my pants. So I jump all the way up in the air and tuck my knees in and if I do it right, my feet come through the pants and I’m dressed. And if it goes wrong it goes really badly wrong. And about one of every 10 times I can put my pants on this way. Once in a while. You know, one out of 10 might be optimistic.


This interview originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

My editor recently asked me if I’d like to put together my first Maximum Shelf for them, and said she had just the book in mind for me: The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne. (My father found this a hilarious expression of what my editor thinks of me. I’ll let you work that one out. I haven’t.) I was thrilled; and I loved the book. Because this would make for an extra long blog post, I’ve split the Max Shelf issue into two posts for you, so please enjoy my review today and my interview with the gracious & funny Josh tomorrow.


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Josh Hanagarne, blogger at The World’s Strongest Librarian, “might be the only person whose first three-hundred-pound bench press was accompanied by the Recorded Books production of Don Quixote.” This is just one of his remarkable singularities. A gentle giant who tears phone books for fun, at 6’7″ he tends to catch the eye at the Salt Lake City Public Library, even when his Tourette Syndrome is not acting up. His memoir explores these contradictions and oddities, and his remarkable journey from idyllic childhood to painfully jerky young adulthood to a contented family and work life.

Hanagarne had a happy childhood, beloved by his mother, an incorrigible prankster and devout Mormon, and his devoted, irreverent bear of a father. He grew up in libraries, a passionate bookworm disturbed only by the tics that began in first grade but would go undiagnosed until high school (although his father suspected Tourette’s from the beginning). By young adulthood, they were not only embarrassing but violent and debilitating. He would eventually suffer a hernia from the force of his involuntary shouting tics, and his larger movements resulted in injury to himself and chaos in his immediate surroundings. After high school he spent years trying numerous cures, in and out of college, working various jobs and struggling with depression. Lifting weights at the gym stilled the tics somewhat, and for a while he got regular Botox injections in his vocal cords to quiet the shouts and whoops. During that time he met and married a lovely Mormon folklorist named Janette. For the first eight months of marriage, he couldn’t speak to her above a whisper.

Although deeply in love, the atmosphere of Josh and Janette’s story early in their marriage remains clouded. For years they try to get pregnant. Janette suffers two miscarriages and they are harshly rejected by the Mormon Church as adoptive parents. Josh continues to tussle with Tourette’s. For a short time, he finds a position as assistant special educator quite satisfying, not least because his tics become unremarkable in a room full of special needs. But he soon leaves that job, because he seeks challenge: crucially, he aspires to overcome Tourette’s, to beat his tics into submission. Pondering what might present the greatest challenge to a man who can’t keep quiet, Josh is drawn to the quietest place he knows, a place that has always offered succor and delight. He gets a job as a clerk in the library and begins a master’s program in library science. And a key piece of marital bliss is finally achieved when Janette delivers a healthy baby boy named Max.

Josh continues to battle Tourette’s in the gym, discovers kettlebell lifting along the way, and makes a new friend in Adam Glass, a former Air Force tech sergeant and strongman: he bends wrenches and horseshoes and tears decks of cards and phone books. Josh’s story takes an inspiring turn as the twitchy librarian and the foul-mouthed strongman gradually develop a friendship; as Adam helps Josh build strength, together they also begin to understand and subdue the tics. He finds Adam a little strange, and the explanation for his social awkwardness is also what makes him the perfect mentor for overcoming Tourette’s: Adam is autistic.

The adult Josh Hanagarne who relates his story is content and stable, happily married, thrilled to be a father to four-year-old Max, and working full-time at the Salt Lake City Public Library. As he relates his stranger-than-fiction story, he intersperses present-day anecdotes from a workplace that he wryly notes is rife with strange and occasionally smelly patrons and events. He muses eloquently and powerfully about the role of libraries in society, and their future possibilities. Throughout his life and this book, Josh struggles with his Mormon faith, as he sets off on the expected mission and faces myriad challenges in school, work, marriage and parenthood. In telling a story about family, church and Tourette Syndrome, he always circles back to libraries and to books, in many charming literary references. And always central to Josh’s story is his love of family. From his loving parents and exceptionally close siblings through the clear delight Josh finds in marriage and fatherhood, he stresses the inestimable gift of a loving family.

Josh’s memoir is thoughtful, heartfelt, often hilarious– and unsparingly honest. He is not proud of every moment in his own past, but he shares nonetheless. The image of the man today who wrote this book and who works in a large branch of a public library in a large city is that of a serious yet funny, mature, loving family man, and this image is only partly at odds with the earlier, less secure young man we come to know in these pages. The younger Josh was unsure and unstable, and the author is more comfortable in his own skin. But both have tics, and stories to tell.


This review originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 minutes of calm.

Tomorrow: I interview The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963: The Team that Changed the Color of College Basketball by Michael Lenehan

A dynamic, emotional study of one college basketball team’s role in the civil rights movement.

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Michael Lenehan’s Ramblers chooses one college basketball team, and one season, to illustrate a sea change in the sport–and in the United States. The Loyola Chicago team of 1963 was not the first to send black and white players out on the court together, but Lenehan makes an excellent case for the significance of this particular team’s actions at a key moment in the national struggle for civil rights. He examines their competition over the course of the season, focusing on two teams in particular: Mississippi State, whose players had to sneak out of state due to a ban on playing teams with nonwhite members, and Cincinnati, which was also an integrated team, but one with an increasingly antiquated playing style.

Relying on primary sources and interviews to study a handful of individual players, coaches and administrators, Ramblers passionately evokes the beauty of a great game in a time of great change, and works as a metaphor for changes taking place across the nation as well. Lenehan handles the game with an ease and comfort that indicate his expertise, and Ramblers combines his passion for basketball with an intimately detailed history–including a deeply moving digression into the 1962 riots at Oxford, Miss. Lenehan eventually follows each of his subjects through to the present (or the ends of their lives), giving Ramblers a feeling of completeness. Throughout, he maintains a sense of fun appropriate to a book that’s ultimately about the antics of college kids.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the March 19, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 fast breaks.

book beginnings on Friday: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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I have discovered a strange and wonderful new book: a memoir by a Mormon strongman librarian with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.

To me, this beginning establishes the author’s voice, which will be evocative as well as irreverent. One of Hanagarne’s strengths is that he communicates often serious content with a wry twist that sometimes had me giggle out loud. Aside from which, the opening setting of this book is a library, and I am a sucker for that, as I bet are some of you.

I’m sorry to tell you that this book won’t be out until May! But be sure to look out for it then.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

guest review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, from Pops

Pops joins us again today to write about a book firmly within his area of expertise: running. We’ve all heard something about Born to Run, I believe. I’ve certainly heard good things; but have never been strongly inclined to pick it up. Pops may change my mind, though.

borntorunI am writing to make a public apology to myself for not reading this book three years ago; and to make a few personal comments for what they’re worth. It’s not coincidence that I pulled it from the shelf soon after reading Ayers’ The Longest Race; that book reminded me that McDougall’s work might contain some of the same magic, which I had (indeed!) delayed for too long. That instinct was accurate; there are similarities between the two that I really appreciated: inspiring depictions of running, fascinating science & history and a wonderful (though different) voice.

Much has already been written about this book, mostly positive and in great thoroughness. I won’t add much to that effort. Another place to look for insight would be McDougall’s website where you can peruse selected readers’ comments; this book has literally changed lives and inspired people. There are also some wonderful photos, which illustrate that this really is non-fiction, as absurd as that may seem while reading it.

I have mentioned before that I collect books about running, particularly in an often frustrating search for good fiction. This is one of the best running books I have ever read. In spite of its connection to reality, it reflects some of fiction’s best elements: humbly heroic characters who are larger than life; a compelling story that defies reality; a romantic adventurous heart; a witty rollicking storyteller’s voice; and sexy women running hard & kicking ass.

I knew bits & pieces about many of the characters in this story, about the ultra running culture and community, about the barefoot running revolution it stimulated and about the Tarahumara Indians. None of that prepared me for such a fun, informative, exciting and ultimately poignant journey. It is always risky to compare writers or books, but I must say that McDougall’s work reminded me in some ways of both Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I kept stopping to think “I know this is based on fact, but it’s so wild and so much fun I can’t believe it!”

Arnulfo Quimare, “elite” Tarahumara runner

Arnulfo Quimare, “elite” Tarahumara runner


The poignant part of the story actually arrives outside the book, sharply in the realm of real life but in some ways as hard to believe. This probably qualifies as a spoiler so stop right now if you want to read the book first; but for me it is an important part of the tale. It’s almost like McDougall should write the sequel.

Here is a relevant quote from the book that sets up the surrealistic “real life” conclusion. The main character in the book, Caballo Blanco, is speaking (he worshiped Geronimo as a kid and retained great respect for the Apache warrior.)

“When I get too old to work, I’ll do what Geronimo would’ve if they’d left him alone… I’ll walk off into the deep canyons and find a quiet place to lie down.”

The author then comments: “There was no melodrama or self-pity in the way Caballo said this, just the understanding that someday, the life he’d chosen would require one last disappearance.”

In March of this year (2012) Caballo was visiting southwest New Mexico so he could run the rugged mountain trails in the Gila Wilderness. One day he planned an easy solo run of 12 miles or so – and he never returned. The Forest Service began a search, and many of his friends (including the author and many characters from the book) arrived from around the country to join the hunt by running the trails. On search day 5, it was a group of Caballo’s running friends who found him off an obscure trail near a stream, dead from heart failure apparently unrelated to any disease or abnormality. He was 58 years old.

(This is also a curious “synchronicity” for blog readers who remember our family fixation with Fire Season, which is set only a few miles away from where Caballo met his end.)

You can read more about this sorrowful ending on the author’s web site, various other online sources, or this NY Times story. The author told his own version of this ending in a piece for Outside Magazine.

Caballo Blanco, RIP.

Caballo Blanco, RIP.

Thanks for another solid review, Pops. You make a strong case. Narrative nonfiction (aka “creative nonfiction”) about exciting, culturally diverse, outdoorsy, unbelievable experiences is right up my alley.

guest review: The Longest Race by Ed Ayres, from Pops

As I read The Longest Race, I thought of my father throughout. He is a marathon runner and a trail runner, and has been contemplating issues of climate change, sustainable living, and humans’ place in nature quite a bit recently. I thought this would be a perfect book for him in its combination of themes, which you can read about in my review. Here, he responds. [His page numbers come from my advance review copy.]

Julia has already done her usual commendable job reviewing this book; my personal interest in Ayres’ two main themes – running, and human degradation of our earthly habitat – compel me to comment further (as she knew it would.) At the same time, I want to parse her use of “metaphor” to describe how running and human development are related in Ayres’ story. While he does often employ metaphor, I believe in many cases he is saying that running actually is part of human development and does have an impact on how we relate to the world. Such is the hubris that plays a part in his tale.

For the above reasons, I really enjoyed this read. That doesn’t mean I found it uniformly superb or satisfying, but the book’s strengths were more than enough to keep me going.

Using a 50-mile ultra to structure his narrative worked better than I expected. There were few threads about his race that required following intently, and those were not lost as we periodically reconnect to that story. The more esoteric subjects he contemplates along the way vary greatly – just as would one’s thoughts during the hours of such an endurance event. In fact, that is an example of the athletic authenticity I found throughout. While I was only familiar with Ayres generally as editor of the early magazine “Running Times,” his deep experience as a lifelong runner shows through. His mental meanderings during a 50-miler – and their sometimes-questionable lucidity – are a familiar element of “running long.”

I was not familiar with Ayres’ background in the themes of human impact on the earth; he worked for the Worldwatch Institute and describes how this commitment evolved from a Quaker upbringing and through a lifetime’s experience. Along the run, we gather bits of his own back-story and “meet” such characters as Mohammed Ali, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ted Taylor (nuclear weapon physicist); such moments are fun and interesting – and chilling, as with his quotation from Taylor evoking the cold war’s nuclear terror (p.94). Also chilling is Ayres’ observation that for those who study the science of ecology, the survival of modern human society is “not just an abstract, academic concept;” it is very immediate.

We learn with him on his journey; e.g. Jared Diamond’s observation that agriculture is “in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered” (p.102) – or “anthropomorphism as a major root cause of the ecological crisis” as noted by many literary luminaries over the years (p.106) – or the 1992 consensus-scientists’ dire & explicit climate change declaration so long ago (p.163) – or a reminder that the regressive “progress” of a suburban lifestyle model may prove to be a mere 2-generation phenomenon. We also meet such authorities as Paul Shepard, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry along the way.

Similarly, Ayres has much to offer about running itself – not just practical stuff, but history and science as well. He met and/or learned from such names as Joan Benoit, Ted Corbitt and George Sheehan. He cites a Joe Henderson article that I know I read at the same time 25 years ago. Ayres is not the namedropper – that’s my doing throughout here – but rather all these names simply arise as part of his story.

His introduction to the JFK ultra event’s origin unwinds into a period piece on the Kennedy Physical Fitness campaign (which I too experienced), including analysis of JFK’s civic motivation and his 1960 column in Sports Illustrated (who knew?!). I loved learning of David Carrier’s fascinating theory of primitive “persistence hunting,” where humans demonstrated the superior endurance trait that we runners still attempt to conjure (Ch.4). In fact, the role of endurance running throughout early history is compelling – including the Chasquis, the Inca runner-messengers.

Chasqui runner

Chasqui runner


The brief 23 page Appendix, “Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner,” is an worthy overview but any really interested reader will do well to research the many other references available.

All together, I enjoyed the blending of themes, emotions and ideas in Ayres’ book. Here is a single passage where Ayres is so nicely able to blend his heritage, running and science:
“The last sounds of the spectators faded, and, after a period of silence that could have been either five minutes or the hundred years it takes for a Quaker kid to sit through Sunday meeting, I found myself glancing left and right, the way I’d been taught as a teenager to drive a car – keep your eyes moving, don’t get fixated on the road ahead. Maybe that was a vestige of the hunter-gatherer’s need to read his surroundings.”

While it is different in some ways, a reader drawn to Ayres book may also appreciate Long Distance, by Bill McKibben. Here you would find a foremost climate change writer who instead writes about his experience pursuing an endurance goal (cross-country skiing) and the lessons he derives for surviving in our every day lives. (Interestingly, the one promotional blurb on the cover of Ayres’ book is a McKibben quote.)

Finally, I must note two of my own favorite observations about running, which he mentions along the way. One is the uncanny and almost inexplicable way that a seasoned trail runner, moving quicker than the eyes seem to process, can cover rough ground dense with rocks & roots – and yet every footstep survives the gauntlet (“almost inexplicable” because there is a scientific story, of course); this phenomenon is well-captured in the exclamation “do my feet have eyes of their own?!” (p.58)

The other fave comes after he has related the many challenges that can test a runner’s resolve and motivation, all the aches & pains & setbacks – which are all so easily overcome by the most sublime moments (or preferably hours!) This he also captures with a mere phrase: “When running is good, there is nothing like it.” (p.98) Alas, as we age, it becomes harder to remember that lesson – but after 35 years it can still be good, and there is still nothing like it.

So glad you liked it, Pops. Thanks for sharing.

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance by Ed Ayres

An ultramarathon, run by a master of the sport, becomes a metaphor for the race for human sustainability we are all running.

Ed Ayres has been running competitively for more than half a century. On a professional basis, he’s also studied climate change, sustainability and a variety of issues facing the future of the human race and our planet. The Longest Race is the story of his 2001 run at the JFK 50 Mile, the United States’ oldest ultramarathon. As Ayres attempts, at age 60, to set a new age-group course record, he contemplates the relationship of human endurance to the sustainability of human life in a fast-changing world.

Ayres’s recollections a decade later are heavy on metaphor. The ultramarathon is a symbol not just for his life, but for any man or woman’s life, and ultimately for the lifespan of humanity. The attributes that work toward sustainability at an individual level are equally valuable in a large society, Ayres says, and today’s “sprint culture” would do well to reconsider the concept of pacing. He also touches on the atom bomb, human evolution, the U.S. crisis in physical fitness and the reasons for following a vegetarian diet. But for all its peripatetic allegory, The Longest Race is always the story of one epic 50-mile race in all its technical and visceral elements, and also a celebration of the sport of running and of our ability to keep running in changing times. For those readers inspired by his story, the appendix offers practical advice to the aspiring ultrarunner.


This review originally ran in the October 19, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 miles to go.

EDIT: See also my father’s glowing review of same.

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