‘Running to the Edge: An American Running Guru, a Mysterious Breakthrough, and the Relentless Quest for Speed’ by Matthew Futterman (2019)

Running to the Edge tells the story of distance running coach Bob Larsen through two distinct phases of his career.  Futterman uses Larsen’s career to examine both why we run and how we should train to run further and faster.

Larsen was a high school and collegiate athletics coach who was obsessed with finding ways to run long distances faster.  He developed his ideas of ‘running on the edge’ – now generally known as tempo running – in the 1970’s.

It is very much a book of two halves.  Firstly, Futterman examines Larsen’s early coaching career in California high school and junior college jobs.  Larsen became obsessed with exploring the concept of running on the edge and became convinced he could turn a bunch of young runners from San Diego into an elite team that could claim national titles.  Futterman tells this narrative entertainingly and paints a vivid picture of the underdog ‘Jamal Toads’ running team and the key runners who brought Larsen success.  He captures the joy and heartbreak of competitive sport as he traces the ups and downs of this fascinating cast of characters.

The second part of the book skips ahead to the 2000s.  Larsen had spent many happy years at UCLA with much less focus on distance running.  However, Larsen was determined to improve American distance running (which appeared in terminal decline) and set out to develop a training system and camp for elite athletes.  Futterman traces the success of Larsen’s unorthodox methods through the careers of two American distance running Olympians.  It’s a story I was totally unaware of and a fascinating journey of triumph, despair and every emotion in between.

In addition to the main narratives, Futterman interweaves a short history of the science behind distance running (which will be familiar to fans of Born to Run or The Sports Gene) and his personal running journey.   I’m not sure how much the personal material added but, as someone trying to get back running afters years of inactivity, I found them interesting.

Overall, Running to the Edge is a really enjoyable book. The narrative flows and the characters are vividly brought to life – I found myself nervous about the results of races from nearly 50 years ago as Futterman brilliantly told the long forgotten careers of many unknown runners.

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‘Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen’ by Christopher McDougall (2009)

Born to Run was a huge hit when it was published in 2009.  Part manifesto, part love letter to running, the book is built around a secret race that the author took part in alongside the reclusive Tarahumara Native Mexican tribe and the legendary ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek.

McDougall becomes enthralled by stories of the Tarahumara who can run amazing distances without shoes and without injury.   McDougall intersperses the story of him tracking down and the secret race being organised with his own musings on how running has moved away from its original origins.

The book has gained most of its attention for its exploration of barefoot running and the (surprising) impact running shoes have had on injury rates.  Spoiler alert: as technology improves, injuries have gone up, not down.

McDougall also explores the hypothesis that gives the book its title – that humans have evolved as a running animal.  The theory goes that humans developed the ability to run long distances in order to literally run down prey.

The book is exceptionally readable and packed with a cast of fascinating entertaining characters.  McDougall’s passion and enthusiasm shines through.  He may not be the most neutral of narrators at times – he clearly had a blast and really liked the people he met along the way – but he manages to tell the story and make his points in a fast paced and entertaining way.

I first read Born to Run at a time when I 4 or 5 times a week and devouring every book on running I could find.  I was totally gripped and totally unquestioningly accepted McDougall’s hypothesis.  Reading it again now at a much more sedentary phase of my life  (I really need to get back running!), I found myself much more skeptical of the barefoot running theory and the pop-evolutionary anthropology.  However I still really enjoyed the book and McDougall’s writing style.

Born to Run has gone down as a classic sports book and it definitely deserves its place on your book shelf.  Highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered just how far they could run.

BTR