Thursday, 14 April 2011

Book review: Running Through The Wall

Running Through the Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon - Neal Jamison (ed)
(Breakaway Books, 2003)

I’ve never run an ultra – I’m not sure if I ever will. To be honest, the idea of running that far fascinates and alarms me in equal measure. 26.2 miles remains the furthest I’ve ever run, and I’ve only done that once (soon, hopefully, to be twice). I’m very intrigued however by the idea of what it’s actually like to do an ultramarathon, so this book, consisting of 39 first-person accounts of running various ultra distances, immediately appealed to me.

A huge variety of people have contributed their experiences – from the Type 1 diabetic (Tim Morgan) to the guitarist in a rock band (Michael Dimkich); from the people who win races (Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer) to the ones who plod along at the back, hoping only to finish within the cut-off time. Some are veterans of dozens of ultras, others have only run one, some DNF. All are included here. Ultrarunning often seems to be a family affair, with husband/wife pairings and a father/daughter combo (Ed and Lisa Demoney) sharing their experiences and many runners paying tribute to their support crews of family and friends..

I hadn’t originally heard of most of the races, which range from 50k upwards, although by the end of the book I felt quite familiar with many of them. A number of races, such as the popular Western States 100, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 and Hardrock 100, among others, make several appearances, and Blake Wood and David Horton recount their experiences of the ridiculously impossible-sounding (and eccentric) 100-mile Barkley Marathons, an event which very few have ever completed, and if you read the description of it in the book it’s perfectly obvious why. (It also incorporates a 60 mile “Fun Run” (!) which sounds like anything but.) One event which didn’t feature, but which I would have been interested to read about, is the Badwater ultra – I guess I’ll have to go elsewhere for that.

There's also an account of a 24-hour event which Kevin Setnes describes how a run-walk strategy helped him to win, running over 160 miles and setting a US record in the process.

I was interested to learn that a number of the races described seem to follow a lap format – typically around 4-5 laps, but in one case (the Umstead 100, recounted here by Tim Morgan) as many as 10. My immediate reaction to this was quite negative but on reflection I suppose it could have its advantages in long and difficult races, particularly with regard to the frequency of support crew/aid stations. Familiarity of terrain after the first lap could be a good or bad thing. I still think 10 laps of 10 miles sounds a bit deadly boring, though. Having said that, there are of course 24 hour track races (and Kevin Setnes in this book ran multiple 1.1 mile laps of a small lake to set his 24 hour record) so I guess it’s not necessarily an issue.

Most of the races covered are American, but we also get to hear about a women’s team taking on – and hoping to win - the Hong Kong Trailwalker 100k, and Jurgen Ankenbrand’s account of his experience at the Marathon des Sables.

Some of the stories are quite emotional and I was particularly struck by Catra Corbett-McNeely’s account of running and racing after the death of her mother, and Tracy Baldyga’s experience of how running ultras helped her deal with severe and enduring mental illness. There’s also an honest and affectionate tribute to Joel Zucker, who tragically collapsed and died in 1998 after completing his third Hardrock 100.

Most of the stories are well written and very interesting to read. Admittedly there’s only so many times you really want to read “I got up at 4.30am and ate my cereal before heading off to the start”, but on the other hand the logistics of such things are an important component and it is good to know how people go about their preparation.

By the end of the book I found I’d lost most of my perspective on how far 100 miles, for instance, actually was. After reading so many accounts of running scary distances, they had started to seem normal. 50 miles sounded quite short, really. A mere marathon sounded like the equivalent of a gentle stroll to the post box and back. I needed to go on a long training run to bring me back to reality…. There are some amazing achievements described herein, from Stan Jensen’s completion of the “Last Great Race” of six 100-milers in 4 months, to the people who overcame incredible odds to run at all.

All in all I found this a very interesting read. As each story is short and self-contained, it’s easy to dip in and out of, and there is lots of interesting and inspiring stuff. Great when you are needing a bit of extra motivation.

So will I ever run an ultra?… well, maybe…


  1. Great review. Reminds me I need to pick this book up and read all the stories again.
    And Sheri, you should definitely consider running an ultra! I know of some great trail races for first timers. You would love it.

  2. Someone told me that any distance longer than 26.2 miles = ultra-marathon, so working on this theory plan on running London marathon (when they let me) and then run on to Nelsons column, ultra-marathon sorted! The statement about getting up at 4.30 am sounds like me anyway so maybe its something I should look in to?!