Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why books about ultrarunning sell like hot cakes and what might be next

Probably like you and most any ultrarunner, there is nothing I'd love more than to earn a living from my passion. How to do it, though?

Well, in recent years we've seen a few New York Times best-selling books about ultrarunning. The ever-controversial Dean Karnazes has published two books that have sold like hot cakes and catapulted him from an anonymous San Francisco working stiff who ran very long distances to a near-mainstream celebrity. While Dean isn't exactly my favorite ultrarunner (a polite way of saying I'm not a fan), he's clearly marketed himself well and found a way to pay the bills through his passion for running. I say good for him. Word is that he has a third book in the works. I think the safe bet is that this third installment will turn even more people onto ultrarunning, ultimately resulting in more early sell-outs, longer odds of getting into the Western States 100, and more old-timers who are aggravated by it all. :)

A few years ago, Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen hit shelves and also earned best-selling status. McDougall's book, which prominently features the Leadville Trail 100 and is, in my opinion, the best book on ultrarunning we've seen since Kirk Johnson's To the Edge and Rich Benyo's The Death Valley 300, has directly corresponded to a huge surge in interest in that fabled race and, in general, ultramarathoning.

Then you have folks who coach others for a living, earning their pay through online and telephone consulting. I've done a few decent things with my legs, but I'm not a good enough runner to coach anyone. Plus, I really think you need some USATF coaching credentials, which I don't have but might one day. While I love providing advice to other runners and helping folks achieve their goals, coaching isn't what inspires me. And I don't have any dreams of opening a running store or of starting my own race-timing business. Writing is it--specifically, writing about running as I've done for three years on this blog (and will continue to do so).

As a writer, I definitely feel pulled toward working on a book about my life as a runner, which I've kind of been doing for the past three years through this blog. I haven't really done anything amazing with my running, but to me that's not really important and it's not what makes people buy books. Running has transformed my life in profound ways. Eight years ago, I was 220 lbs., suffering from a bad back and on a crash course with a life of health problems. Running has allowed me to achieve much better health (I'm 53 pounds lighter and eat a much healthier diet than before), build self-confidence, form new friendships, come closer to my family, explore new parts of the country and truly test my limits. I think I've even helped inspire a few people in the process. I've been in dark moments and euphoric moments and dug deep within my soul. I've gone places--places deep within my being--that few have ever ventured.

When I look at what's happened with the Karnazes and McDougall books, I think many people these days are starving for adventure and fulfillment and have found it in running long distances. Especially after 9/11 and, more recently, the downturn in our economy, a lot of worlds have been rocked as people reconsidered their priorities and what's important. They see these books about running great distances and their imagination goes wild. As you turn the pages, all of a sudden you feel connected to your own spirit, your instincts, your dreams and desires and possibilities you never thought were possible. As you read on, you see that your world doesn't have to be about a cramped cubicle, the Starbucks line, traffic jams, your IPhone, the rat race and constant irritation with the world. You no longer live for the next episode of "Desperate House Wives"; you live for your next trail run. You read about amazing people who aren't that different from you and me, and you feel pulled to this strange world of ultrarunning and are as excited as you are scared. You are truly alive for the first time in years.

In my view, that is what has made the Karnazes and McDougall books best sellers, and what has brought so many new people to ultrarunning in recent years. The success of their books isn't about the stories within the pages of their best-sellers; it's about what people are searching for these days. Many have found it in ultrarunning.

So as I think about what's in my future, I can't help but imagine a future in which running is central to what I do every day...not only on the roads and trails of Colorado, but also in the lives of others. If I can find it in myself to write in a way that inspires people to get out of the proverbial Starbucks line and test their limits through ultrarunning, then maybe I will have accomplished something that matters. Reaching kids is especially important to me. As a kid who was afflicted with ADHD and the endless energy (and misdirection) it brings and was forced into mainstream education when I really needed an education centered around activity, exploration and the outdoors, I feel like I have to do "something." I just have to find out what that "something" is. Is a book the first step?

This is one of the many reasons why moving to Colorado was a dream come true. Here I am, a runner, in an area of the country that captures the imagination--huge rocky mountains, thin air, legendary races, legendary racers, stunningly beautiful valleys, pristine mountain streams and lakes and so much more. This is where dreams come true and where people reconnect with themselves, nature and those around them.


Kirk Johnson's extraordinary Badwater 135 story, as chronicled in his fantastic book, To the Edge, has inspired many. Kirk is a New York Times reporter and was feartured in the documentary "Running on the Sun" about the 1999 Badwater. In about 1997 or 1998, Kirk's brother tragically took his own life, and ultimately Kirk, who had recently profiled ultrarunner Lisa Smith-Batchen for The Times, found himself in a strange new world as he took on Badwater with the support of his brother and sister. Through Badwater, Kirk discovered a great deal about himself and--dare I say--came to peace with his brother's death, while growing closer to his siblings. Here's a very moving clip of Kirk (starts at :49) on the verge of completing Badwater, as shown in "Running on the Sun."


  1. What I and I think everyone likes about ultra running books, is that I can relate to most of it. It’s not all about elite athletes and what they do and the extremely fast times they can run. It’s about normal people like me trying to achieve some very special goals.

  2. Loved your recount of your Leadville race. Congrats on gittin er done! When I was pushing my bike up the steep part of powerline the week before the run I was thinking, 'toughen up buttercup there are going to be people running this in a week at 80 miles in, you got to ride here!'. You guys are TOUGH!!