Page turners to run the world

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We are entering a time of year when giving gifts is all the rage. Luckily, Helen Carr has delved into her well-read running head and plucked some absolute gems that have entertained and educated, and taken her all over the world. These are perfect gifts for the runner with a thirst for words

Looking for the perfect gift for the runner in your life? Instead of the latest piece of kit or another hi-vis top you could give them something that encompasses coaching, advice and inspiration in one package – a book about running. As someone who runs and loves reading, it would be one of the best presents I could receive. I’m not alone in this – some of my clubmates and I have a WhatsApp group for sharing all things running-related – news, articles, podcasts – and we often discuss who’s reading what and recommend authors to one another. Good running-related books would definitely rank high on all of our gift wish lists!

As a self-confessed book-nerd, I started to dip into books very early in my running career. Some really stood out for me and I’d return to them again and again. Everyone will have different favourites, but these are my – completely subjective – recommendations. Some are new, some are not so new, but all are currently available and perfect for anyone wanting to treat the runner in their life, or looking to line up a bit of reading for themselves over the holidays.

How to…

The first type of running books I explored were the ‘how to’ books. These make a great gift for a new runner.

One of my first was Running Well: Run smarter, run faster, avoid injury … and enjoy it more by Sam Murphy & Sarah Connors; I’d recommend it as an accessible source of encouraging advice on everything from shoes and socks to diet – and it has a handy ‘symptom map’ injury guide that’s very useful for all the niggles that new runners tend to pick up. An excellent Irish book along the same lines, Get Running by Mary Jennings, running coach and Irish Times columnist, was published this year and is packed with inspirational stories from people she’s worked with on her ‘Forget the Gym’ courses, as well as training guidelines and information on getting started and keeping up the running habit.

For runners who have passed the beginner stage, a real favourite of mine is The Competitive Runner’s Handbook: The Bestselling Guide to Running 5Ks through Marathons by Bob Glover & Shelly-Lynn Florence Glover. Written by a husband-and-wife team with decades of experience of racing and coaching, there’s so much here, from training plans and speed sessions to tips and advice on preparing for races. My favourite sections are the more discursive bits about mental preparation, whereas a more planning-oriented running friend of mine loved the explanations for the rationales behind various sessions.

Marathoner must-have

If the runner in your life was inspired by the recent Dublin Marathon to sign up for 2020, a good present might be The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes, a doctor and sports scientist as well as a runner. This book was much discussed in our WhatsApp ‘book club’; it became such a bible for my clubmate, who was training for her first marathon in 2019, that we all just called it ‘your running book’ – it needed no further explanation. Despite the amount of running advice available online today, she found having such an authoritative guide a real help: “Everything he writes is backed up by research – I trusted him. He’s amazingly widely read, and will always point out if there’s a book or piece of research that disagrees with what he’s saying,” she said. She also felt she could get a lot more detail on her training in a book, rather than online: “A lot of advice on the internet is short, concise and presented as fact – great if you’re looking for something in a hurry, but it doesn’t allow for much explanation. Noakes brings together a huge variety of plans. He discusses the pros and cons of each and explains exactly whom they’re most suitable for.” Don’t let your new marathoner start training without it!

A running narrative

Though I’ve got a lot out of running guides, I have a particular love for ‘narrative’ running books – stories about running, from biographies of famous runners, pacy sports writing about great races, accounts of particularly challenging or unusual events to inspiring memoirs about running and life. Whether you love stories of triumph over adversity, want to explore running’s mind/body links or just wish to be transported to a very different sort of running from your own, there’s a book out there for you.

For anyone wanting a compelling page turner, or a present that’ll be a sure-fire winner, I’d recommend anything by Adharanand Finn, one of my favourite running writers. I love all his books, but my two absolute favourites are Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the secrets of the fastest people on earth and The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the edge of human endurance. Finn, a contributor to Runner’s World UK, is a good club runner and a really lively and skilled writer. His books cover his immersion in different aspects of the world of running; in Running with the Kenyans, he and his young family decamp to Kenya for six months so he can train in Iten. It’s an engaging story of life and running in a completely new environment. As well as learning about his training, running and racing, the reader gets to know a huge cast of characters and through them learn about the dedicated lifestyle of the Kenyan runners. But we’re also immersed in daily life – his kids’ first day at a rural Kenyan school, house hunting adventures, his attempts to organise a team for a race, taking part in a terrifyingly fast cross-country race. His latest book, The Rise of the Ultrarunners (2019), is also a brilliant page-turner, even for those who have no desire ever to run an ultra. In the course of the book, Finn runs several ultramarathons himself and vividly describes the highs and lows he experiences, as well as introducing interesting runners from elites to recreational and showing the physical skills and mental strength required for ultrarunning.

Taking it to the extreme

Another book about ‘extreme’ running that will interest runners of all types, with quality writing and compelling stories of ‘hard-as-nails’ hill runners, is Feet in the Clouds: The Classic Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession by Richard Askwith. One of our reading group said: “I didn’t really have any interest in either fell running or in ‘extreme’ running challenges such as the Bob Graham Round until I read it. He just manages to make the descriptions of the challenges so compelling, particularly the Bob Graham Round, which you can picture so clearly while reading it. He describes perfectly the on-edge feeling of the day before and the preparations, and the wild swings in mood during the run itself. The personal stories of the fell runners are so interesting … these people are insane, and he illustrates this with photos showing some of the nearly vertical slopes they run down at top speed.”

Closer to home, I also loved Moire O’Sullivan’s first book, Mud, Sweat & Tears: An Irish Woman’s Journey of Self-Discovery, an account of her training and her – ultimately successful – attempt to become the first person to complete the Wicklow Round. Richard Askwith described it as ‘an awe-inspiring tale of guts, passion and pig-headed refusal to surrender.’

While Feet in the Clouds immerses the reader in the arcane world of fell running in the North of England; another of my favourites, Running with the Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher and The University of Colorado Men’s Cross Country Team by Chris Lear is set in the very different world of elite American college running, where recruitment and sponsorship loom large, but the runners’ ability to compete and suffer is the same. Runner and writer Chris Lear spent the 1998 season embedded with the University of Colorado men’s cross-country team. His book is a chronological, detailed account of that college year, from the late summer practices to the NCAA cross-country championships. It’s an enlightening look at the high-volume training load of this successful college team, and at how some runners thrive and some break down. While there may be too much detail about training sessions and workouts for the casual reader, keen runners will relish the access Lear gets to the runners and coaches and the ‘shining, glistening days of collegiate cross country’.

Something different

For those just wanting to dip their toes in, the 2010 book, Going Long: Legends, Oddballs, Comebacks & Adventures by Runner’s World is a brilliant read and one I return to again and again. It’s an anthology of the best sports writing from Runner’s World magazine – the US edition – so the subjects are mainly American. It covers topics such as the legendary 1982 Boston Marathon as well as inspirational stories of ordinary runners, like the runner and her dog who got lost in the desert or the New York fire officer who was told he’d never walk again after a catastrophic accident, but went on to complete the New York Marathon.

There are many personal memoirs about running from people who have overcome adversity, who run for their mental health or run for a cause; one that I really enjoyed was another recommendation from my running and reading group: Bryony Gordon’s Eat, Drink, Run: How I Got Fit Without Going Too Mad. Gordon is a Telegraph journalist and author of a memoir about her struggles with severe depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Her warm-hearted and insightful running memoir covers the year she spent training for the London Marathon, as well as many other life events. Gordon isn’t a competitive runner, but her descriptions of her increasing fitness and how covering ever greater distances on the run gave her the confidence to tackle more of what life threw at her will resonate with anyone who’s been taken by surprise by how much their body can achieve. It’s funny, brutally honest about living with serious mental health issues and, ultimately, uplifting.

In a very different style, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running also looks at how running and life can overlap and mutually complement one another. Murakami, a best-selling Japanese author better known for his fiction, is also a keen runner and this short, lyrical autobiography drifts between his work, his life, his running and his memories. This was the first book about running I ever read that wasn’t a ‘how to’ and it absolutely charmed me – the ease and conversational nature of the writing make it feel like a chat with a friend on a run, and the parallels he draws between his writing and running show how central both are to his life‘.

The Fast Five

The Dublin Marathon: Celebrating 40 Years

By Sean McGoldrick

Packed with photos and memorabilia chronicling the history and origins of the Dublin Marathon and celebrating the inspirational stories of Irish marathoners – from the elite athletes to the club, charity and recreational runners.

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

By Neil Bascomb

In 1952 three world-class runners on three continents – Roger Bannister, John Landy and Wes Santee – were determined to be first to break the 4-minute barrier. A compelling story of sporting heroism.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

By Christopher McDougall

Takes the reader deep into the Copper Canyons of Mexico in search of the secrets of the great distance runners, the Tarahumara, and introduces an amazing cast of characters from the world of running along the way.

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

By Scott Jurek with Steve Friedman

World-class endurance athlete Scott Jurek tells how he got into ultrarunning and shares race advice and the vegan recipes that power his training. For the fan of popular science.


Finish Line

Running can take you many places – both physically and mentally – but there’s only so much running we can fit in to our lives. Reading lets us travel the world and discover runs and races, trails and mountains in far-flung places. It takes us into the heads of others where we can find common ground or be inspired by their approach and attitude. So much of running, training and competing is mental, and reading can be a real complement to that aspect of running. So, whether you need to be instructed, inspired or stimulated to try something new, there’s a book for you!

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