Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review - 50/50

I really disliked runner Dean Karnazes' last book, Ultramarathon Man; I thought this chronicle of one man's descent into self through the magic of running impossibly long distances was self-aggrandizing and profoundly unhelpful to the beginning runner. Karnazes has run 350 miles without stopping, has run a 199-mile relay race by himself (six times), and has some good finishes in standard ultramarathons. He is a fine runner, if not at the very top of the sport. But UM was a book dedicated to all things Karnazes, as one unhappy man finds himself through the magic of long-distance running.

But it worked for him. In a sport full of modest, self-effacing champions, this tireless self-promoter got himself on the best-seller list, on Letterman, and was able to make himself into a professional runner. That he is more of a professional stunt runner than a racing champion is of less consequence, I guess.

So I was prepared to dislike 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days - and How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance! (2008) - as it turns out, I give it a "Huh." It wasn't quite as bad as I anticipated, but neither is it what it promises in the title, nor much of anything else. It's a book without a purpose, unless it serves as inspiration to get other people running - and it may do that for some.

The book is ostensibly a chronicle of the Endurance 50, a Karnazes-created event in which he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. A lot of people picking up this book will likely be impressed by the running of a marathon a day for 7 weeks. Those of us who have run ultramarathons will not be so impressed, because a well-trained person can do that; we know of the Self-Transcendence 3100, a race around a block in Queens that requires runners to go 3100 miles in 51 days or less. There have also been races and solo runs across the country that have required far more than 26 miles per day.

What we do want to hear about is the logistical nightmare this must have been, and this is the first disappointment of the book. Karnazes is a spokesman for the North Face apparel and gear company, and, once he talked them into sponsoring this event, he was pretty much out of the planning and allowed to focus on the running (and the signing of autographs, about which we hear a little too much). As he admits, he becomes "the so-called talent. The small star of a very big show."

And in just the way that you don't ask an actor how a movie gets made, because he sits in his trailer and runs lines while the technical folks do the work, neither should you ask Karnazes how this got done. He wakes up, runs, signs autographs, gets back in the bus, eats, and moves on down the road. The runs, each of which is held over the same course as a real marathon (in a few, he runs in the real event), are organized by locals in conjunction with a traveling band of professionals, and there is very little insight into any of this.

So, perhaps, it's a travel book. We will hear about the 50 states, the places, the people. No, actually, we don't. One of my main criticisms of UM was that it ignored the fascinating people in the sport of ultrarunning, that Karnazes would introduce someone (often not by name), then drop that for more focus on himself. 50/50 slightly improves on that, as we get glimpses of people and places, but it isn't consistent.

The subtitle promises that we will be told how we "can achieve super endurance." After all, a guy who can run 350 miles, someone who's finished Badwater (a summer race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, 148 miles, one of the epic tests in sports), should have a lot of great tips for starting or improving our own running.

And there is some of that here, but, alas, not enough. There are a couple of training plans in the back, some advice scattered through the book (and good luck finding anything specific - in addition, there's no index). Some of this is fine, some, particularly the boxes on dietary supplements, more questionable. The problem is that there's not enough here to supersede any of the fine running guides that are already out there (Galloway, Henderson, Higdon, Fixx - all have written better books for the new or ramping-up runner, and that is by no means an exhaustive list). There is nothing that allows you to believe that you're getting any real advice from this very publicized runner.

On the good side, what I most feared, that we would be treated to several hundred pages of Karnazes self-infatuation, didn't really come to pass. He gets off to a bad start, as page 1 chronicles a family road trip in which Karnazes can't sit still for more than an hour, so he hops out of his RV and runs 26 or 27 miles. The family is left to itself as to driving, amusing the kids, getting to the picnic ground, preparing and setting up lunch - at which point sweaty Dad shows up, ready to eat (though he did manage to pick up the parmesan cheese on the way). The earlier book is full of stuff like this, where the whole family is seen as revolving around one person's running. Mom Karnazes is home taking care of the children and being a dentist, while Dad is cruising a couple of hundred miles at the end of which he expects to be picked up. (I understand that every family's dynamic is different, and Mrs. Dr. Karnazes may be fine with all this, but you can't tell an Everyman story when your own home situation is so patently unrealistic. I mean, my wife is supportive of my running, even enjoys it herself, but there would be problems if I spent essentially every weekend and most evenings out on a 4-6 hour jaunt.)

50/50 avoids some of this, which may be due to co-writer Matt Fitzgerald. It's still clearly a Dean Karnazes world, but it's just possible that one needs an ego of that size to accomplish what he has and to turn it into his life's work.

So what is this book's purpose? The only thing I'm left with is that it's meant to inspire, that Karnazes is legitimately committed to getting people of their duffs and get them out the door. He has a charity, Karno's Kids, and he seems sincere about kids getting outdoors, getting active, running or some other activity. And he seems proud of inspiring other adults to take up running, people who read his first book or have seen him on TV.

Since I firmly believe that it is a very good thing for people to hit the roads or the sidewalks or the trails, and it seems that Karnazes has managed to connect with quite a number of people on this topic, I find it hard to be totally critical of him. 50/50 offered very little to me, as I have several books on my shelf which are either more informative or more inspirational (one of the greats is Meditations from the Breakdown Lane: Running Across America by James Shapiro; though 25 years old and out of print, it is well worth looking for).

But, for whatever reason, Karnazes reaches people in a way that superior runners like Tim Twietmeyer or Ann Trason have not. I don't have to read his books, but other people are, and they're getting motivated to go out and try running for themselves, and that's a good thing. So I hope Dean Karnazes will keep going, whatever the limitations of his books.

No comments:

Clicky Web Analytics