Barefoot Running UK

The winter/spring issue of the Barefoot Running UK magazine is now available online. You can find it here. Read it, enjoy it, and pass it around!


Book Review: The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life

The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life

The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, by Amby Burfoot is a gem of a book.

It’s not about training programs, and it won’t light a fire under your finishing times. It’s a gentle book, written by someone who seems to be a true gentleman (and gentle man). The book’s subtitle says it best: “What 35 years of running has taught me about winning, losing, happiness, humility, and the human heart.”

It’s also a very strong book, one that will (I promise!) inspire you, uplift you, and almost certainly make you a better runner. This is the kind of book you keep at your bedside, or at the kitchen table, so you can dip into again and again. It’s full of simple – but deep – wisdom, gained from decades of running and racing.

Amby Burfoot winning the Boston Marathon

Amby Burfoot winning the Boston Marathon

Burfoot famously won the Boston Marathon in 1968 (and still runs it every five years). In December of 1968, he won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon in Japan in a personal best time of 2:14:28.8, which was only one second from the American marathon record at the time. As of 2008, he’d run the Manchester Road Race 46 times in a row, winning it outright nine times. (The Manchester Road Race is now 77 years old, by the way.) Burfoot was the editor-in-chief at Runner’s World for many years, and currently writes for the magazine and serves as its editor-at-large.

That’s a lot of runner cred for a guy who’s 67 years old this year. It’s what gives the stuff in the book its weight. The man knows what he’s talking about. And he says it very well indeed.

Let me give you an example. In a chapter titled “How to create a life of perpetual new beginnings,” he writes: “Starting lines are among the most important stations in life. We need to more than just avoid them. We need to actively seek them out. Otherwise, we grow stagnant… When you see the first hazy edges of a starting line begin to form in your life, don’t avoid it. Don’t look the other way. Try to bring the starting line into sharper focus. Consider its potential. Remember that if you don’t go to the starting line, you will never view the whole course with all its possibilities.”

The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life is like that. It’s got chapter headings like “Connections,” “Traditions,” “Listening,” and “Simplicity,” and “Courage.” This essays aren’t faddish, empty media fodder, but serious reflections on what it means to be a runner, reflections that have been earned via a life of running, racing, and thinking about it all.

I often say to people that older is better. It’s even more true, I think, that older runners are better… well, better all ’round. Amby Burfoot is without a doubt one of the best examples of that belief. A Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life reflects that goodness.

Amby Burfoot now

Amby Burfoot now

Book Review: Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush

The 1908 Olympics, held at Shepherd’s Bush, England, came at a pretty interesting time in world history. For instance… On December 31, 1907, a 700 lb. glittering ball dropped at Times Square in New York City – the first time in what would become a New Year’s Eve tradition. In May of 1908, an oil well was struck in what’s now southern Iran – the first discovery of petroleum in the Middle East. In September, the first Model T rolled off the Ford assembly line in Detroit. Hawaiian George Freeth introduced surfing to southern California later that fall. In December 1908, Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight boxing champ.

And at the 1908 Olympics, held in London, England, an Italian, an American, and a Canadian duelled for the title of the world’s best marathoner. The Italian won, was disqualified in favour of the American, and the Canadian collapsed and DNF’ed. That contest not only cemented the modern Olympics as a permanent fixture in our world, but also launched marathoning as a huge craze. It was the first wave of marathoning, and it hasn’t subsided yet.

Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze tells the story of a world in change, of the century’s first running celebrities, and of a sport many of us love with a fierce passion.

It’s a grand story, and Davis tells it well. Like all really good sports journalism, it carries you along with same sort of energy as the subjects of the writing. But, like good journalism of any kind, it digs deeper too. In this case, it’s about the world as it was, and as it was becoming something very new and very different.

A quick look at the main players:

Tom Longboat Tom Longboat, for instance, though he was probably the best distance runner of his time, had to struggle constantly against a nasty racism that denigrated him and his talents. Longboat, an Onondaga from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario, won the Boston Marathon in 1907 in a record time of 2:24:24 (on the old 24-1/2 mile course). He collapsed Near the finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon, but won a rematch later in the year at Madison Square Garden. He then turned professional, and in 1909 at the same venue won the title of Professional Champion of the World in another marathon.

Johnny Hayes Hayes was a scrappy Irishman from the tough part of New York city, and was ever fighting to prove himself in the larger world. Hayes started his athletics career with a fifth place finish at the 1906 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:55:38. He improved on that the following year by finishing third in Boston with a time of 2:30:38 and winning the inaugural Yonkers Marathon. In 1908 he finished second, 21 seconds behind Thomas Morrissey in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:26:34 and thus qualified for the London Olympic Games.

Dorando Pietri Dorando Pietri was a poor Italian from a small town, and had to struggle to find the means to get to running’s big events (until he found fame and fortune as the winner of the Olympics). Pietri débuted in a distance race in 1904, finishing second in a 3,000 meter event in Bologna. The following year he achieved his first international success, winning a 30K race in Paris. On April 2, 1906 Pietri won the qualifying marathon for the Olympic Games to be held in Athens that same year. However, in that race he had to to retire because of intestinal illness. He was leading by 5 minutes at the time. In 1907 he won the Italian championships. He was by then the undisputed leader of Italian long distance races, from 5000 metres to the marathon.

Around these three athletes was a complex world of promoters, gamblers, fans, and naysayers. Not much different from today’s sports world, to be sure, but it was all very new at the time. On the way to the 1908 Olympics, there was a growing rift between amateur athletes (the ideal of the English upper-classes) and professionals (a more modern and much grittier world view). That rift grew wider and clearer with the numerous “grudge matches” between Longboat, Hayes, and Pietri (and a host of other, less well-known, runners) which took place in England, the U.S., and Europe. There was a lot at stake in these matches, which were staged in places like Madison Square Gardens, and to sold-out crowds numbering up to 30,000 people. National sentiments were sharpened, large sums of money were won and lost, and runners’ health was placed at risk because of the grueling schedule. (Not to mention the “performance enhancements” of the day, which included, for example, a mix of brandy and strychnine given to runners who flagged.) The hoopla was part business, part entertainment, and partly the growth of a sport. Because of the 1908 Olympics, marathoning secured its place in the popular imagination, and the Olympics themselves became an institution.

To date, I’ve run five marathons. I’m a recreational, not an elite, marathoner. Crowds don’t follow my running career, and no-one (as far as I know, anyway) has bet on my finishing times. But it’s a good feeling to know that I’m part of a tradition like this one. David Davis has given me that, and I’m grateful. This is a good book – read it, and you’ll probably feel much the same as I do.

A Runner’s Library

I’m always reading (see this blog’s What I’m Reading page), and at any given time at least one of those books will be about running. Backstory, exercise science, training models, they’re all grist for this runner’s mill. So I thought I’d share with you what’s sitting on my running bookshelf right now.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. It’s simply what I’ve read, valued enough to keep on the shelf, and go back to time and time again.

A Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, by Amby Burfoot
Simple, elegant essays by the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and senior editor of Runners’ World magazine.

Advanced Marathoning, by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas
I used one of this book’s training programs to prepare for the 2012 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, my first barefoot marathon. Lots of good training stuff here.

Barefoot Running Step by Step, by Ken Bob Saxton and Roy Wallack
Ken Bob’s the granddaddy of barefoot running. This book’s a must-read, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall
This is probably the one book that’s got more people running (and thinking about running) than any other in recent years. A great read!

Heart Rate Training, by Roy Benson and Declan Connolly
The first half of this book is about the theory behind HR-based training. The second half offers training programs for a number of distances. It’s an excellent resource – I’m using it for all of this year’s training.

Run Strong, Run Free: An introduction to the science and art of barefoot running, by Anna Toombs and David Robinson
To date, the best book on barefoot running I’ve come across. The sub-title says it all.

Running Within: A Guide to Mastering the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection for Ultimate Training and Racing, by Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott
The more I run, the more I believe that the mental side of the sport is even more important than the physical. This book explains how to get good at it.

Slow Burn: Burn Fat Faster By Exercising Slower, by Stu Mittleman
This is the first explanation I ever found of running slowly as the way to build endurance. From a guy who, in 2000, ran from San Diego to New York City (3,000 miles) in 56 days (i.e., two marathons a day for 56 consecutive days).

The Lore of Running, by Timothy Noakes
The ur-source of running science, by one of the world’s best exercise scientists. If you’re a runner, you must own this!

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, by Neal Bascomb
A wonderfully-written story about Roger Bannister and the two men who challenged him for the four-minute record in 1954. More drama per page than any novel. Highly recommended!

Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?, by Alex Hutchinson
Lays out, in solid, straightforward fashion, some of the myths (and truths) of exercise science. You’ll learn a lot, trust me.

Why We Run: A Natural History, by Bernd Heinrich
A biologist and ultra-marathoner offers a mix of biology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy to explain why we do it.

New Books

Today’s mail brought two books I’d ordered recently – Timothy Noakes’ Lore of Running, and Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile.

The Perfect MileI’m tucking “The Perfect Mile” away for the time being. It’ll be the book I take with me to Sarasota, to read on the plane and to fill the spare moments I have there. The book’s full title is “The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It.” It’s the story of the competition, in 1952, between Englishman Roger Bannister, Australian John Landry, and American Wes Santee to be the first human being to run a sub-four minute mile. Sounds to me like to perfect book for a race holiday trip!

Lore of Running“The Lore of Running” is legendary among runners and coaches. Tim Noakes is is Discovery health professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, director of the medical research council/UCT research unit for exercise science and sports medicine at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and one of 22 founding members of the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Science Academy. To date, he’s run more than 70 marathons and ultramarathons. His book combines the science behind running and racing with training programs and tips. It’s a major piece of work (944 pages in the paperback edition), so I’m going to keep it close at hand for ongoing study and reflection.

Book Review: Cardio or Weights?

Part of what I love about running (a large part, if the truth be known) is experimenting with various training methods, diets, etc. It fascinates me to see what effect these “technologies” have on my performance and my health. The tricky part, of course, is sorting out the signal from the noise. There are a lot of theories out there, and it’s difficult to know how to make sense of their claims. I know I’m not the only recreational athlete who feels this way.

Cheer up! Alex Hutchinson has come to our rescue, with his book “Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?” The book’s sub-title, though a bit of a mouthful, explains in a nutshell its essential thrust. It is “Workout Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise.” Hutchinson, as it happens, is eminently well-qualified to offer an opinion. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia and a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge. He represented Canada internationally as a distance runner from 1997 to 2008. He’s currently senior editor at Canadian Running, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, and a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics. Hutchinson also posts regularly to Sweat Science, one of the best exercise-related blogs I know of.

In Cardio or Weights?, Hutchinson shows that a fair chunk of the conventional wisdom on health and fitness simply isn’t scientifically sound. Instead, he looks at real, honest-to-goodness scientific research around questions like: Should I exercise when I’m sick? Do I get the same workout from the elliptical machine that I get from running? What role does my brain play in fatigue? Will running ruin my knees? To lose weight, is it better to eat less or exercise more? How should I adapt my workout routine as I get older? Does it matter what I’m thinking about when I train? Will drinking coffee help or hinder my performance?

This is a fun book as well as an informative one, whether you dip into it in search of answers to the questions you’ve always wanted answered, or whether you read it all in one big gulp (as I did). Your assumptions and beliefs will be challenged, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll awaken to the sometimes extraordinary lengths scientists will go to to uncover the good stuff.

Given the astounding amount of bafflegab athletes have to deal with, coming from our peers, self-proclaimed “experts,” various training programs, even respected coaches, this book is a godsend. There’s a lot of bad science – and even anti-science – in sport today, and it’s only by looking deeply at real science, as Cardio or Weights? does, that we can become better athletes. Thank you, Alex Hutchinson!

Five stars and a tip of the barefoot hat to this one. Buy the book. You won’t regret it.

Book Review?

I recently finished reading Alex Hutchinson’s book “Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights: Workout myths, Training truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise.” In it, Hutchinson examines commonly-held beliefs about exercise, and looks beyond the “common” at what research science has actually proven. I found it to be informative, fascinating, and well-written.

I’m not the only one who likes it. The legendary Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston marathon winner and currently an editor at Runner’s World, says of it, “Authoritative and easy to use. This book answers all the big questions.”

In my (not so humble) opinion, this book would make an invaluable addition to any athlete’s library. So I’m tempted to write a full review of it. Before I do, though, I want to ask: