Books about running that aren’t about running

I’m not a fast runner. I’ll never win a major race, and I’m not particularly interested in going after a big marathon. I just like to run. Similarly, I’m  kind of a lousy reader— slow, prone to mixing up letters and words, easily distracted. Yet, I love to read, and I love to run. I also love to read about running. And I’m in luck: there is lots of great writing on the subject, from technical manuals to memoirs to novels to philosophy. While I love a good geek-out, it’s these latter categories that really grab me. Maybe because running can be so solitary and long miles give us time to think, writing on running is often perceptive and introspective. In fact, much of this writing is really more about living in the world than it is about putting on foot in front of the other. 

I certainly haven’t read every book about running (yet). But I find myself coming back to some favorites. The books I return to share a theme of running not just as a sport, but as a conduit for humanity. The first one that pulled me in was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Fans of Murakami’s fiction will recognize his voice: keen observation, simple description, slightly magical air. He writes about the routines of running, the suffering, the odd sense of comfort, and how these mirror the writing life. Reading it was meditative for me. Another classic, Running & Being, from the so-called “philosopher king” of running George Sheehan, delighted me in a different way. The chapters are titled things like “Living”, “Discovering”, “Learning”, “Racing”, and “Meditating”. Sheehan, like Murakami, is preoccupied with the suffering of running. Is this the secret sauce? Suffering? I don’t know, but there’s something about it that compels runners and writers alike.

Then, there’s Christopher McDougall’s 2009 hit Born to Run. Yes, this is the “barefoot running” book, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a journalistic tour de force, weaving history, personal narrative, and adventure. It’s a book I still like to just disappear into. The characters, the mountains, the history and philosophy of trail running. Speaking of philosophy: this book also introduced me to another well-known running philosopher, Joe Vigil. He’s a storied and successful running coach, but his work is most striking around mindset, attitude, and the way you live your life. Elite athletes can improve based on mechanics and volume to a point, but the rest of the work is done with your head and your heart. Deena Kastor writes at length about his lessons and their effect on her in her recent book Let Your Mind Run. I’m listening to her read her memoir as an audiobook now, and it’s inspiring. I’m impressed by her athleticism, sure, but more by her studentship of Vigil’s approach. She worked to learn mindset and attitude, which were harder for her than learning running. There’s a life lesson for you.
Here’s an incomplete list of “running books” I’ve read over the last few years, not including the more technical ones:

  • Novels about running or featuring runners: The Front Runner (Patricia Nell Warren), Milkman (Anna Burns).
  • Philosophy: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami), Let Your Mind Run (Deena Kastor), Can’t Hurt Me (David Goggins),  Running & Being (George Sheehan)
  • Memoir: The Incomplete Book of Running (Peter Sagal), Ultramarathon Man (Dean Karnazes), The Road to Sparta (also Dean Karnazes), Finding Ultra (Rich Roll), Eat & Run (Scott Jurek), My Year of Running Dangerously (Tom Foreman). 

What should I dig into next, running and reading friends? What should be on this list?

2 thoughts on “Books about running that aren’t about running

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  1. Reading about running is my favorite hobby (right after running, of course!). The inspiration is great, but I tend to focus on some of the more technical aspects of the sport. I’m a pretty slow runner as well, so I want to learn how to do everything right and hopefully get a little faster. Reading books about running was one thing that really helped transform and develop my identity as a runner:

    1. You have some great ones there! I can alway use more technical advice, too. I find I need to focus on one thing at a time, though, or it gets overwhelming. I see you like Matt Fitzgerald– he’s always got digestible, sensible advice. Thanks for the thoughts.

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