The Road to Sparta
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Karnazes has already published a few books on ultra-running, which I haven’t yet read, so here we get a potted history of why he took up the sport and how he has progressed to being a bit of a celebrity in the field. This book is mainly about his embracing of his Greek heritage and attempt to run the incredibly gruelling Spartathlon (fortunately, this run that takes in the path of the first marathon runner has off-road bits, horrible hill climbing and really strict cut-offs, so not something I’d ever consider attempting). He also attempts to bring the story of Pheidippides, that original marathon runner, to life and explain just what his achievement really was, as he feels this has got lost in history written by people who don’t understand (ultra) running.
Although lots of people have mixed history with “in the footsteps” books, they have usually been historians first, and some of the historical writing does feel a little bit clunky – but bravely done, with his heart and soul put into it, and he’s clear where he veers off into conjecture. He has a bit of a flowery writing style, too, which reads sometimes more like a talking style, but that’s easy enough to get into.
One thing I was surprised by was that he wasn’t as arrogant as I’d expected (I don’t know why I expected that, just from his exploits, I suppose, as every ultra-runner I’ve known or met has been very nice). He’s pretty self-effacing and humble, and he talks about being dyslexic, even “not that bright” and with not-great people skills: he manages to be very engaging in his book for all that (it’s worth mentioning here that I don’t feel his writing style is indicative of his dyslexia at all, but I wonder if he worked with recording his words first, hence the similarity to spoken language). He’s suitably grateful to the people who support races and respectful of his fellow runners, which is typical of most runners but lovely to read.
The book’s also funny – for example when he signs up (alone) for a 199 mile relay race in order to get the distance in, wondering whether the organisers will be confused by every member of the team having the same name. He runs a marathon in a toga, just to see what it’s like, and gets some interesting chafing. He also admits his errors, running on empty and not doing basic self-care routines during Spartathlon, but mentioning that this is hypocritical, as it’s something he tells newbie runners firmly not to do!
Exciting and engaging, the book winds up with a description of the end of the race (though has he run all the way himself?) which involves being given a wreath and touching a statue, so not your usual race finish! He has some true things to say about how even the marathon winkles out your weaknesses, and I will certainly be picking up his other books.
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