Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing by Erin Beresini

One woman’s exhilarating experience in a strange extreme sport.

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Erin Beresini was a committed Ironman triathlete and endurance athlete facing overtraining injuries and burnout when she first heard about obstacle course racing (OCR). How silly, she thinks, and how divergent from her past efforts–perhaps just the thing to make new friends, find new motivation and relieve her overstressed muscles by working new ones. From her first mud run she is hooked, and gratifyingly exhausted. She jumps feet first into this bizarre new scene, undertaking a journey that culminates in racing the OCR world’s first marathon-length event, the Spartan Ultra Beast. In Off Course, she documents her labors.

Throughout Beresini’s often-funny personal story, she interjects details of the history and quirks of this recent trend in amateur athleticism. Characterized by mud, fire, ice and blood–and often involving broken bones, electric shocks, sadistic beatings and barbed wire–OCR strikes many as an insane way to chase fun and fitness. As it happens, millions have signed up for these events in recent years, in the United States and around the world. The sport draws “regimented military types and anti-organized sports rebels,” and shares a fan base with CrossFit and endurance athletics. Beresini also scrutinizes the compelling personalities (and controversies) behind the sport’s two main powerhouses, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, as well as a handful of their participants. As weird as this tale is, it will appeal to both fans of sports narratives and readers who appreciate offbeat obsessions.


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 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 burpees.

Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer by Margaret Webb

An amiable and instructive memoir about achieving and maintaining competitive fitness at any age.

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Margaret Webb (Apples to Oysters) was a successful young athlete and an active adult, but never suspected she might be a marathoner. Staring down her 50th birthday, she became curious about what she could accomplish. She knew there were competitive women runners several decades her senior; could she join their ranks? Older, Faster, Stronger covers what Webb calls her “super-fit year.” And as her subtitle states, the lessons she shares are valuable for men and women of all ages, in any sport.

With the luxury of being able to devote her time and energy primarily to training, Webb engages expert nutritionists, personal trainers, coaches, sports psychologists, aging specialists, physiologists and laboratory researchers. She has her maximal oxygen consumption tested (twice); adds cross-training, gym time and track workouts to her running schedule; travels; and brunches with world champion septua-, octo- and nonagenarian women. She sets goals: to qualify for the Boston Marathon under the fastest women’s standard (the qualifying time for 18-to-34-year-old women) and to be competitive in the half-marathon at the World Masters Games.

Webb is meticulous in applying her results stringently to her own life and documenting them for her readers. Her research appears thorough, although the more fastidious reader may be frustrated by the absence of citations. Older, Faster, Stronger is packed with statistics and studies, but is well explained, so the reader will find the science easily digestible. Athletes of any sex, age and discipline can benefit from–and be entertained by–Webb’s approachable investigation of becoming faster and stronger into advance age.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 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 minutes.

book beginnings on Friday: Older, Faster, Stronger by Margaret Webb

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.

older

I am well pleased with this current read, and want to share.

A year ago, at age 50, I set out on a journey to run my way into a younger self. Just as Henry David Thoreau set off for the wilds of Walden Pond to enter a solitary relationship with nature and understand how to live well, I wanted to enter a deeper relationship with my body and understand how to train it well.

These first two lines tell you what the book is about. This lucky woman spends a year studying on how to be the best marathon runner she can be, with all sorts of science & experts to back her up, and shares with her reader what she has learned. Stay tuned; I like it.

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

Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Game

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

football nationa

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!

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