It’s winter here in the Pacific Northwest. And while I appreciate the mild temperatures that allow me to get outside (compared to my previous home in Chicago), the rain (and snow) have taken their toll. I’ve tried to stay positive regarding my training, but it hasn’t been easy. From unexpected ice on steep trails to downed trees from overwhelming winter storms, to shoe-sucking mud that pulls you down like quicksand in a cartoon, I’ve found it difficult to keep a smile on my face. I have more cuts and bruises on my body than I’ve ever had before. Every piece of running gear I own is stained with mud and blood.
After my successful first 50k race back in November, I was feeling confident. A little too confident, probably. I had beaten my goal time, felt amazing afterward, and was optimistically anticipating another unseasonably dry and warm winter. So I signed up for a 100k race in April. Then the rain came. And the storms blew through and wreaked havoc on every trail in the Gorge. And winter dragged on and I started missing my long run goals. An alcohol-fueled late night online shopping session found me trying to avert the training blues by signing up for an upcoming 50k in a warmer, drier climate. But even that hasn’t fully inspired me to hit my training goals, even though the 50k is just two weeks away.
Queue my last-resort secret weapon of choice: running books. From fiction novels to encyclopedic training programs, nothing inspires me like a good running book. There are several I keep close at hand for just these situations. Some are stories of challenges overcome, some feature the ins and outs of endurance training and racing, and others feel like a perfectly targeted kick in the pants. No matter what, I’m always much more eager to lace up my filthy, mud-caked trail pigs for another extended jaunt in the elements. I’m including links to each of these, but keep in mind that these are all available from the library — many as audiobooks or digital downloads. Let’s get started, in no particular order.
Once a Runner by John L Parker, Jr.
I’ve never been a competitive runner. Not really. I didn’t run cross-country in high school or track in college. I never ran around my block until I was 33 years old. My 9th place finish in my age group in the 2015 Lincoln City Half Marathon remains my best showing, but there were only 15 men in my age group. But something about this book seems to speak to the competitive nature in me that I didn’t even know existed. This is a fictional account of a competitive college-age runner. There are incredible details related to the sort of wonderful and terrible feelings you experience as a runner when you push your boundaries. I see this book now has a sequel and a prequel. I haven’t read either of those, partly because I don’t want to ruin the special relationship I feel with this book.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This nonfiction account of Murakami’s life as an endurance athlete is a significant departure from the surreal fiction he’s known for. This book helps to keep me grounded while also reminding me that my greatest rival will always be me. Admire the athletes who surround you while training and racing, but don’t compare yourself to them. Everybody has their own road to travel.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
This is the gateway drug of running books. Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, the Tarahumara Indians, El Caballo Blanco, Ann Trason, Eric Orton… The list goes on and on. This account of mostly true early ultra running folklore introduced me to some of my most heralded endurance athlete heroes. Just try to read this book without seeking out Eric Orton’s The Cool Impossible or Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run, Jenn Shelton’s terrific essays or Ann Trason’s trophy history. Hollywood is turning this one into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey as El Caballo Blanco. Hopefully, the focus of the movie is the same as the book: overcoming incredible odds and pushing beyond previous limits. They’ll probably turn it into a terrible love story.
Eat & Run by Scott Jurek
This book is a great introduction to Scott and a killer recipe book as well. From his difficult family situation at a young age to discovering his passion for endurance athletics, the book doubles as a memoir. The Seven-time Western States winner has a lot to say about his mental training for endurance racing and he shares the recipes he relies on to keep up his intense training effort. The onigiri recipe has become a staple of my long distance nutrition plan.
Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell
This is an unflinching look at what it takes to become an ultra runner, but it also features solid advice for anybody hitting the trails. Honest and straightforward advice comes from several heroes of the trail running community. Even if you never run anything longer than a half marathon, I believe this book should be part of your running education. There are training programs for several distances that you can apply to your own race plan.
You’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can. – Ken Choulber, Leadville Trail 100-mile founder
Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner
If you’re really going to go for it in the ultramarathon world, this book deserves a spot on your shelf. Hal Koerner is a legend in his own right and his advice is indispensable. This comprehensive handbook will prepare you for running any ultra distance, with training plans, nutrition suggestions, race day advice, and gear suggestions from one of the masters. This book is more fun than it should be and always inspirational.
These are the books that inspire and motivate me. There are several more that I could have added to the list, Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra, for instance. But the list of favorite running books can be a rabbit hole and I wanted to keep this list just to my absolute favorite books. What do you think? Am I crazy for suggesting any of these? Am I obviously missing any? Comment to let me know.