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.

2 Responses

  1. […] 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 […]

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