Welcome to Running and Rambling! Stay updated on product reviews and all new articles as soon as they're posted by subscribing here.

August 31, 2010

The Best Running Books Ever!*

*Or, more modestly, A Runner’s Fall Semester Reading Curriculum

In my school days, one of the highlights of starting a new academic year was receiving the required reading list for the semester. A good list usually featured a combination of classics that lend themselves well to multiple readings, well-known titles that I’d always heard of but never dove into, and some less-established selections that turned out to be pleasant surprises.

In my running years, fall has always been an ideal time to stoke my running mojo. Refreshingly cool temperatures, leaves on the trail, and a crowded race calendar make it easy to find motivation to get out the door and log some high mileage before drifting into a winter hibernation.

So in the spirit of both those ideas, I’ve compiled a recommended reading list for runners to tackle over the next few months; some you’ve probably already read, others you’ve heard of, and some others you might not have. Obviously, the selection process is biased, and although the books listed here happen to be my personal favorites, they may or may not appeal to you; that’s what Amazon.com reviews are for, which I’ve linked for each one. Pick one that looks interesting - or if you’re really ambitious (not to mention really bored), dive into the whole list.

Since the inspiration for this post was a Monterey Herald article I published here in July, I figured I’d make this an audience participation exercise, and include links to all of the reader recommendations that I received following that post. If for some reason I’ve still missed something, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

And since someone’s bound to ask: no, Once a Runner isn’t on this list. Here’s my brief take on Parker’s book: it’s a fair novel which happens to focus exclusively on running – and because it was released in a time when running-themed books were a rare commodity, it somehow developed this fantastical cult following that I’ve never fully understood. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point any further here.

That seems like enough of an intro … so let’s get to it, shall we?

Top 5 Running Books of All Time (in my humble opinion, and in no particular order):

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb: I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that breaking the 4-minute mile was the greatest athletic accomplishment of all time. I mean, more than a few people – respected scientists among them – believed that such an extreme effort would cause an athlete’s heart to burst, resulting in sudden death. In the aftermath, Bannister’s milestone run was the ultimate representation of breaking through the wall, forever changing the way distance runners – and athletes of any persuasion, for that matter – pursue accomplishments that others think impossible.

The fact that the race to 4 minutes also became a three-way intercontinental drama involving two of the most popular athletes in the world, as well as one who never truly got his due, just adds to the compelling nature of this tale – and Neal Bascomb’s account of this golden age of running is the most comprehensive I’ve ever read. It also manages to be a good page-turner, even though you pretty much already know the outcome of Bannister’s quest.

The Four-Minute Mile by Roger Bannister: Hey, have I mentioned before that I’m a big Roger Bannister fan? My father gave me a copy of this book when I was a kid, and back then I thought Bannister’s properness and humility were way too old-school. Thankfully, I re-read the book about 10 years ago – and this time, I found everything about Bannister to be nothing short of admirable. To think that he broke a world record (a death-defying one, at that) while enrolled in medical school, and that he walked away from a competitive running career to focus on his more noble professional calling is simply unfathomable nowadays. For my money, you’ll never find a better role model than Bannister, and his memoir is one of the most impressive reads I’ve ever enjoyed.

Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear: Lear caught lightning in a bottle during the season he embedded himself with the University of Colorado cross country teams, featuring superstar runner Adam Goucher and soon-to-be-superstar coach Mark Wetmore. My lasting impression from this book is the work ethic that is required to succeed in intercollegiate XC. Here’s one example: Lear describes a typical exchange between Wetmore and any students who express an interest in trying out for the XC team. Wetmore’s response was basically, “Run 100 miles per week, every week for a year, and then come talk to me.” Even more astonishingly, one kid actually did it.

Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes: Sure, Karnazes is a polarizing guy now, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that his personal story is quite inspirational, and this book helped launch the fringe sport of ultrarunning into the national conscious. Karnazes encouraged legions of new ultrarunners (including me) to give the sport a try, and he’s probably more responsible for the modern day perks (plenty of ultras all over the country, with new ones every year) and drawbacks (lotteries, early registration periods, and hints of “celebrity” culture) of modern day ultrarunning than any single person.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall: A modern day classic. Launched the current barefoot renaissance. And I’ve already written a full review of this one, so we’ll stop there.

So there you have my top 5: are you inspired yet? If not, perhaps a secondary category would help? …

Best Non-Running Books that Runners Will Enjoy (at least, I did, and I’m a runner … so maybe you will too):

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer: One of the most gripping tales of adventure, danger, hubris, and athletic extremism you'll ever read. This book ushered in a whole new genre of non-fiction: the high-mountain drama, which has since been imitated by countless authors, very few of whom combine their climbing chops and gift for storytelling quite like Krakauer. The original remains one of the best and most memorable in the category.

Lance Armstrong's War by Daniel Coyle: Sure, Lance’s autobiography got all the attention, but this account was more memorable to me for two primary reasons …

1) Without reading this book, it’s almost impossible to fully appreciate the single-minded focus and determination that Armstrong (along with his coach, Johan Buuyneel) devoted to the Tour de France every year, and how ferociously he devoured every perceived obstacle in his way – even, in some cases, those from within his own team. Also …

2) There’s a classic description of how the cyclists and coaches can all tell who’s in shape and who isn’t by looking at each other’s backsides. More specifically, there’s this explanation:

“The ass check is an unobtrusive art. It is practiced from a distance, and requires not only a keen eye but also experience. An ass, properly examined, is one of the best available calibrations of potential … ‘First you have to know the guy. Then you have to know the ass.’ Bruyneel says. ‘After you know it, it tells as much as powermeter numbers.'”

For some reason that passage stuck with me – but maybe I shouldn’t say that out loud.

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz: No physical discomfort you ever encounter in life will seem significant after reading this book, but there’s another reason I mention it here: Gretchen gave it to me as a thank-you after I paced her at Tahoe. In other words, the story of a Siberian prison camp escapee who endured the most horrific pain and mental anguish imaginable on an endlessly laborious journey through extreme depths of despair naturally brought to mind the long night she spent with me. I’m not exactly sure if that’s a compliment.

And we’re into the homestretch with our final category …

Reader Recommendations from July (and whatever random comments I can come up with, since I haven’t read most of these):

A Step Beyond by Don Allison: I’ve never read it, and don’t know anything about it, except that apparently Amazon doesn’t carry it – but according to the lone reviewer, Ultrarunning magazine does.

Run Like a Mother by Dimitry McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea and The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard: Two things are notable about these:

1) They’re both self-published, which means they don’t have as much street cred as anything from established publishing houses – but some independent authors are just as qualified to see their work in print as a lot of authors out there, and even have a good shot of being financially successful. I honestly believe that. Firmly, fervently, passionately believe it. And yes … that’s also a bit of foreshadowing.

2) I received a copy of Robillard’s book in the mail this week, and I’ll have a review posted here in the near future. Stay tuned.

Lore of Running by Tim Noakes: I looked at this in a bookstore once; it seemed awfully thick. Based solely on probability, there must be some good stuff tucked away in there.

Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels: I actually have a fantastic story to share about an interaction between coach Jack Daniels and my friend Mike, but I can’t tell it, because all of the funny parts are rife with F-bombs. Here’s a hint: they didn’t come from Mike.

The Complete Book of Running by James Fixx: My dad had this book as well; I think he purchased it during the two weeks he tried to become a runner. It pretty much sat on the shelf and gathered dust after that, but it’s still kind of a nice memory.

Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhoff: Never heard of it, although my first impression is that it runs contrary to the barefoot philosophy that there’s nothing wrong with our feet just the way they are, thank you very much.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami: This is the book that’s most intriguing to me, only because no fewer than three people mentioned to me that they thought I’d love it, as Murakami’s writing style is similar to mine (although since he’s the one with the mainstream publishing contract, I guess that means my writing is similar to his). From the Amazon review, it’s apparently about diary entries, reminiscences, life advice, pop culture references, all revolving around a lifelong habit of running. So … yeah. I think I should probably read that one someday.

As for you, you’re all set to get reading anything on these lists during the new school year – and best of all, there’s no test at the end of the semester. Feel free to share your thoughts on these or any other books in the comments below, and maybe we can start our own little discussion group.


Gretchen 8/31/10, 11:18 PM  

Clearly you have a strong bias toward non-fiction, thus the not liking that fiction book you mentioned. I can't believe we're friends. That's my favorite book on this list, and I've actually read most of them. But oh yeah, you're right, we've had this conversation. ;)

I also must publicly confess to having recently read, and actually liked, Born to Run. Both of those facts are surprising since no fewer than 40 people told me I HAD to read it, and that I would LOVE it. Dammit, I hate it when the masses are right! (Although "love" is definitely taking it too far, and I'll still roll my eyes at Mr. McD for his penchant for presenting hyperbole and opinion as fact just for the sake of good story-telling, but yeah, it was a good story.)

adam 9/1/10, 5:10 AM  


As a former rower I suggest Blood Over Water. I bought it a couple of years ago when it was only released in Europe but now it's in the states as well. It's a story of two brothers who raced against each other in The Boat Race.

It truly is an amazing book that rowers and non-rowers will love. The brothers wrote the book and do a great job of describing the dedication to row and compete at that level.

Check it out if you get a chance

Michael Shane Helton 9/1/10, 7:24 AM  

I have read most of those, but a couple new ones I must try. I usually pick up a good fantasy story when I do find the time to read.

I highly recommend Jason Robillards Barefoot Running book if you have any interest whatsoever in that arena (and I must admit personal bias here).

Also, LOL at your comment on Fixing your feet. It is a MUST HAVE for distance runners wearing shoes. All you ever wanted to know about foot care and blister prevention.

Donald 9/1/10, 7:42 AM  

Gretchen: you'd better watch out - if this friendship keeps up, I may have you running in moccasins by this time next year.

Adam: Thanks for the tip on Blood Over Water; I'll check it out for sure. I almost recommended The Shell Game by Stephen Kiesling or The Amateurs by David Halberstam, which my favorite rowing books, but figured the interest was too narrow. Perhaps I'm wrong.

Michael - I'm looking forward to reading Jason's book for sure.

Jenny Davidson 9/1/10, 7:53 AM  

I liked "Born to Run" and the Murakami book both quite a bit. Daniels' Running Formula is possibly the best coaching book ever, second only to 'Doc' Counsilmann's Science of Swimming!

A book I am confident you would love, if you haven't read it already: Richard Askwith's "Feet in the Clouds: A Story of Fell Running and Obsession":


Another endurance sport book that you'd find well worth your while if you don't know it already is Lynne Cox's "Swimming to Antarctica."

Sarah 9/1/10, 8:05 AM  

Very surprised you don't know and haven't read Fixing Your Feet. Classic that should be part of every distance runners library, imo. Do barefooters and minimalists never get a blister or callous? I think they could benefit from this book too.

Richard 9/1/10, 9:04 AM  

In the non running category I would add:
Gold in the water which is about swimmers preparation to the Olympics. Just GREAT even if i don't enjoy swimming.

Books by Joe Simpson, especially Touching the void. The movie is also excellent! It's about survival after a climbing accident.

Talking of survival, this is a must read about the subject: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

I agree with you recommendations and have read most of them.

adam 9/1/10, 10:09 AM  

I don't think I've read The Shell Game but I love The Amateurs. Another book about the same story, just from Brad Lewis' point of view is Assault on Lake Casitas. Another great story from the guy who won the 2x at the 1984 Olympics.

Spokane Al 9/1/10, 4:22 PM  

If Richard had not beaten me to it, I was also going to recommend Gold in the Water - another story of the amazing efforts elite athletes are willing to give for success and glory.

And I will continue to try not to hold it against you concerning your opinion on Once a Runner. I also really enjoyed Parker's follow up, Return to Carthage, as well.

Meanwhile I will keep my first edition of Once a Runner on my shelf.

Spokane Al 9/1/10, 4:24 PM  

P.S. Running and Being by Dr. George Sheehan is another book that I consider a classic.

Donald 9/1/10, 6:17 PM  

Thanks for the comments, all! This is a nice little discussion.

Jenny: thanks for the leads. I knew of Lynne Cox's book, but haven't read it - although it sounds like it's right at home in this group.

Sarah: blisters yes, callouses not so much. That was one of the cool things about going barefoot/ minimalist - the hard callouses on the inside of my heels and big toes gradually softened since they weren't rubbing against a shoe all day!

Richard: cool suggestions. You're the second person to tell me about Who Lives, Who Dies, so I guess I should check it out.

Al: You're old-school cool! I loved Sheehan in RW, and his books were great as well.

Fe-lady 9/1/10, 8:06 PM  

I didn't like Murakami's book. You are a better writer than he is. And what about Kenny Moore's books about Bowerman and Best Efforts? He is the best writer concerning the history of running and still writes for Runner's World.

Now...the best running movies of all time should be the next topic.

Tezcatzontecatl 9/1/10, 9:51 PM  

Donald, I have now added three of these books to my reading list. Thanks for the titles.

The BIG E 9/2/10, 4:36 AM  

I finished Michael Sandlers Barefoot book. It is a WONDERFUL resource for those who wear shoes and those that do not. It is A-Z. You can find out more at RUNbare.com. No I'm in no way affiliated, jut good info....

Gretchen 9/2/10, 11:25 AM  

We both know I'll be in mocs long before you'll admit that Once a Runner is a great book.

Also, I have to agree with Fe-lady - I thought the Murakami book was okay, but you are definitely a better writer. Nothing against him - it just wasn't a book that particularly stuck with me.

Stuart 9/4/10, 8:47 PM  

Looks like we're on the same page, I have read or listened to 90% of these and like you I don't "get" Once a Runner and Bascomb's is too long

Murakami is excellent
Vonhoff is practical
Alison is inspiring and informative

No mention of Through the Wall though?

Luciano 9/5/10, 8:07 AM  

In the non running related category I'd suggest "Long Distance" by Bill McKibben, insightful and entertaining. At the age of 37 the author took a sabbatical, hired a coach and started training full time as a cross-country skier.

Andy 9/7/10, 1:27 PM  

I've got to throw in Why We Run (formerly titled Racing the Antelope) by Bernd Heinrich. It's a great read for anyone intrigued by the BTR hypothesis that humans evolved as endurance runners. It touches on the biology of endurance in various animals, and ties that in with his own running "experiments" and his bid for the 100k world record.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

  © Blogger template The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP