Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review - Personal Record

Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running (2008) is, at its essence, a memoir of the running life of author and teacher Rachel Toor. And you will enjoy it to the extent that you enjoy Toor herself.

What you will not get is any sort of guide to running, or, with a few exceptions, any sense of why running is a good thing to do. Toor took so naturally to running that you will garner no sense of the struggle it takes to become an ultrarunner (that is, a runner of races longer than a marathon). And there is nothing in this brief volume (162 pages) about the biggest challenge that faces any long-distance runner, the difficulty of juggling the real priorities of life.

(Note here for those who are not regular readers: I have run four ultramarathons and six marathons in my long, ongoing running career. I would like to have run more, but, as is true for most of us, life has presented a series of trade-offs. As attractive as I might find running four hours on Saturday and six on Sunday, I have a career and a wife and a home and other interests [and, now, a blog], and each of these things has to be arranged and put into its proper perspective.)

For Toor, none of these things has been a problem, at least not from the evidence presented here. And, for a writer, Toor offers very little of the lyrical, no descriptions of the type, "The Bitterroot Mountains loom over me as I begin my eight-hour run in the sub-zero January chill, blinking back the tears as I hear the loons making their sunrise calls."

Toor didn't start running until she was about 30, so this is a chronicle of her last 15 or so years, but only though the prism of running. Toor the writer? We find out very little. Toor the teacher? We find out nothing. Either running means everything important to her, or she has chosen to exclude vast tracts of her life from this book; which isn't clear.

It will come as little surprise after spending some time with this book that the most affecting chapter, "The Western State" (where Toor paces a gentleman through the last 38 miles of the Western States 100 mile race), was written for another publication. But it took me a while to figure out why, then it hit me: the chapter is, for a change, not about her, but about Ralph. It's not about ex-boyfriends (all of whom think Toor is keen) or her large bust (two mentions in the book) or her medals and ribbons, and that is so refreshing.

And it was around that time that I realized what the underlying theme to Personal Record is: Rachel Toor is a stereotypical man. She has commitment issues, seemingly in large part due to an attraction to men's physical features. She has arranged her life around her hobby. She prefers, at least on her frequent long runs, the company of men as they compartmentalize away everything but their single-minded focus on running (she likes that she can run for years with someone and never find out if they have a wife or children, but she does get to know their farts and belches).

This is not a wholly unlikable book by any means. Toor has huge helpings of the appealing Kinsey Millhone detective character so winningly drawn by Sue Grafton in her long-running series. She's independent, tough-minded, likes to win, and these can be admirable qualities. She seems very comfortable with the trade-offs she has made, even if they are not discussed explicitly.

But this is not a book that belongs in the 796 section of the library. It is not a sports book, though I'm guessing that selling it as such offers more of a potential audience than selling it as the memoir it is. Because running itself as a palpable presence never really emerges here as anything more (or less) than Rachel Toor's road to self-insight - that's neither good nor bad, it's the book she chose to write - but it is rarely a book that needs to be about running.

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