Before I ever got into triathlon, I was into books.  I still am, of course.  I have two degrees in English literature and I read as obsessively as I train.  Novels are my favourite, but since getting into running and triathlon, I have been hugely inspired by some tremendous sport memoirs.

These books have helped me push my limits, helped open me to the possibilities of what the body can achieve.  They inspire, they lead by example, and they encourage.

Some of my favourites:

 

Born to Run:  A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

I think by now, most runners have read Born to Run.  It’s so good, I made both my non-running parents read it.  Hidden tribes, superathletes, secrets exposed, myths debunked – it’s a real page-turner.  But seriously, the author starts out not being able to run 5 miles without getting injured, and by the end he can run 50 miles.  It’s such an epic read precisely because it could be about anyone.  You, me, and the superathletes.  We are human, he explains, and we are born to run.  It’s amazing.

Scott Jurek runs with Arnulfo Quimare in Mexico

Reading Born to Run is what made Tom and me want to run ultra marathons.  It suddenly made the idea of going out into the wild and just running all day long extraordinarily appealing – and natural.  And my experience in ultras so far has been as positive as the book made it sound.  Running ultras feels natural and fun.

The book also had a major impact on the running shoe industry, provoking traditional shoe companies to invest in barefoot or minimal trainers.  I haven’t gone the true barefoot route, but I do run in minimalist shoes, even for the ultras.

If you are going to read just one book about running, this is the book.

 

A Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey by Chrissie Wellington

A Life Without Limits, for me, was the triathlon equivalent of Born to Run.  It doesn’t hurt that Chrissie is around my age and didn’t really get into triathlon properly until her late 20s/early 30s.  She is just such a smart talented woman who lays herself bare in this autobiography, talking about her eating disorder in her younger days, her need for control and perfection, and the gritty determination that made her World Champion 4 times at Kona.  Above all, she has such an infectious smile (even her Twitter handle is @chrissysmiles), such a positive outlook that you can’t help but think that she would make a great best friend and mentor.

Chrissy is my absolute hero!  And her book is a must read, even if you don’t do triathlon.  I really believe every female athlete should read it.  And the men too.

 

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek

Born to Run introduces Scott Jurek as one of the all-time great ultra runners who comes to Mexico to run with the Tarahumara, so he was a familiar name when his book came out. Eat and Run picks up on that run-all-day philosophy and mixes in Scott’s vegan diet, complete with a number of amazing recipes.  Scott’s vegan chili is now a staple in our house.  If for some crazy reason you want the chili but not the book, you can find the recipe online here.  But that’s just one of many fantastic recipes in the book.

Scott Jurek running Badwater

After reading this book two years ago, Tom – formerly a pretty hard core meat & potatoes sort of guy – suggested we go vegetarian.  Ok, he actually said let’s go vegan, but he didn’t really realise that meant no milk/yogurt etc.  In the end we settled on pescetarian, which isn’t a perfect solution, but the point is, that’s how much of an effect this book had on us.  Faster recovery times, fewer aches, less swelling, all down to diet.

It’s not just a cook book, though (the recipes are truly secondary to his running life story).  It really comes down to the details of how to run, run, and run some more, how to run in the deep snow, how to race Badwater in 130 deg F (54 deg C), how to cope with being one of the world’s greatest long distance runners, and the highs and the lows.  This book made me want to get out there and RUN.

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This was the first running book I read.  It’s a bit different from the other books I’m listing here – Murakami is best known as a writer, not as a runner.  I have read every book he has written and I think he is one of the best modern authors out there.  1Q84, one of his recent novels, is an absolute masterpiece, in my opinion.

But this book is fantastic not only because of Murakami’s masterful prose, but the fact that, again, he is just an ordinary runner.  He is you, he is me, he is the guy next door.  He isn’t particularly fast, nor is he particularly slow.  He just runs, and ruminates while he runs.  He generally runs 10km every day, and he never takes more than one day off at a time.  He has tried his hand at Ironman and at ultras, he runs marathons regularly, but truly he runs because running is his thing.

A great read.

 

I’m Here to Win: A World Champion’s Advice on Peak Performance by Chris McCormack

This book took me out of my comfort zone.  I’m the sort of athlete who goes into a race saying to friends, no, I haven’t trained enough, no, I’m not expecting much, I’m just going to see how it goes.  But then when I am racing, I am 100% in the game and will always try my best.  Macca’s book delves into the psychology of winning and specifically winning at Ironman.

 

What stuck with me the most was his method during the race of overtaking someone while running really hard, but trying to make it look as easy as possible – easy breathing, relaxed.  And as he goes by, he says to the person he is overtaking, “You’re doing great!” And then he tears away, making it look like he isn’t suffering, that he can talk and run, that it’s easy.  And more often than not the person he overtakes like that will give up just that little bit, letting Macca get in front, not realising that as soon as he is out of sight, he is gasping for air, choking on the effort it took to go past like that.  But the psyche-out takes root and the overtaken lets himself be beaten.

It doesn’t always work, though.  Macca told everyone going into his first Kona that he was going to win it, and he ended up with a DNF.  I’m not sure I’d be able to handle that sort of humiliation.

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Finding Ultra:  Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself by Rich Roll

 

World’s fittest man?

While I find the title of this book a bit daunting and over the top, it’s actually really good.  Rich is an overweight alcoholic who completely turns his life around via running, Ultraman (3 x Ironman), a dash of yoga, and a whole lot of green juice out of his Vitamix.

In case you were taking Rich too seriously….

Confession:  the first thing I did after moving to Florida (more space!) was buy a Vitamix too.  It’s pretty darned amazing.

And who does an Ultraman when he hasn’t even done a triathlon?! (Well, my friend Karis did an Ironman after just a sprint triathlon, but that’s a story for another day – or have a read of her blog at See Kay Tri.)

This book yet again shows you what we humans are capable of when we put our minds to it.  And also why you should buy a high-powered blender.

 

Ultramarathon Man:  Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes

There is a theme here…. again, Dean was in his 30s, hadn’t run since he was in high school, and was drinking too much… and then on his birthday, he left the bar, and started running in his jeans, and didn’t stop running.  He ran through the night, ran to another city, and then rang his wife to come pick him up.  The ultramarathon man inside him had been awoken.

Dean is a legend in ultramarathon circles.  He has run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, he has run from one major city to another just in time to toe the starting line of that city’s marathon, and he orders pizza while out running in the middle of the night, has it delivered to a street corner and rolls it up and eats it like a burrito… while still running.  Don’t believe me? Watch this.  Yeah, he is pretty cool.

 

This book is an inspiring get-off-the-couch read.  I particularly enjoyed the section where, as a beginner runner, he sees a couple of US Marines training for the Leadville 100 (a mountainous 100 mile race) and asks them what they’re doing.  They scoff at him when he expresses interest in the race.  He nonetheless qualifies for the race a few months later and enters it, only to beat them.

Yeah, I’d like to do that too.  Leadville 100 – one day!

 

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth:  What Going to Space Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything by Chris Hadfield

This book choice may seem like the odd one out, because, well, technically speaking, it’s not about sport.  Why have I included it in this list?

Because it’s £$%$^ awesome!!!!!!!

But seriously – look at the the second half of the book’s title is:  “….Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.”  That could come directly out of triathlon.  Chris talks about choosing a goal and doing whatever it takes, with all the drive, determination, and grit required, to get to where you want to be.

And there is this.  If you haven’t seen it…. Chris made a space video cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.  I LOVE this:

 

Other books?

This is far from a complete list of books to read.  For example, Paula Radcliffe‘s My Story So Far can’t be left out.  The men’s marathon world record keeps getting broken… Paula’s 2:15:25 marathon world record has remained unbroken since 2003.  That’s nearly 12 years now of world domination?! Incredible. I also think it is important to recognise and support strong female athletes just as much as we do the men.

Paula knows how to embrace Rule 5!

The indomitable Killian Jornet recently wrote Run or Die, a dramatic title that speaks of his need, not love, but actual need to run pretty much since he conquered his first mountain while the rest of us were learning to bump our bums up the stairs.  Running comes so easily to Killian, though, that I found this book somewhat harder to relate to than the rest of the books on this list – somehow he isn’t quite as mortal as the rest of us.

 

What are the sporting books that have helped shape you as an athlete?