Monday, July 25, 2016

Exploring the World Wide Running Community in the remarkable "Run the World" by Becky Wade

As someone who's run for the last thirty-six years of my life, I didn't need to read Becky Wade's new book "Run the World" to know runners form wonderfully unique communities. But her remarkable book shows just how diverse the strange tribe of runners are throughout the world, all dedicated to the simple act of running.

Shortly after finishing her distance running career at Rice University, which included All-American honors and two Olympic qualifying times, Becky Wade was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year fellowship for study outside the United States. Ms. Wade used this to explore the running communities of England, Ireland, Switzerland, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Finland in the course of a year starting in the middle of 2012. Her book is her story of those travels, followed by a coda of her debut marathon at the 2013 CIM Marathon in Sacramento where she finished in 2:30:48, the third fastest time for any US woman under 25.

The success of travelog books like this depend heavily on the strength of the narrator and the good news is that Ms. Wade is an enthusiastic, talented storyteller. What could have easily been a tedious "bus schedule" of work-outs and weekly events is instead a series of engaging stories of the people and cultures she encounters who share her devotion to running.

It helps that Ms. Wade clearly used her elite connections to hook up with numerous running clubs and meet elite athletes, including distance running stars Vivian Cheruiyot and Haile Gebrselassie. A scene with Gebrselassie crazily dancing as he hosts a party is one of the more memorable scenes in the book. Ms. Wade clearly has a knack for adapting and blending in to each new place she visits, enhancing her impressive powers of observation. While the various running clubs and training groups she joins on her worldwide tour include runners of all abilities, the book focusses more on elite runners hard at work pursuing lofty goals than those running for recreation or personal growth.

Yet, even within this narrow elite focus, we find there is a wide spectrum of different approaches to running throughout the world.  In Ethiopia, Ms. Wade trains with the Ya-Ya Girls, three aspiring young elite women runners who never keep a log, start their runs with no set time or distance, spontaneously running through rugged, high-altitude terrain in whatever direction they feel like. A bad run by one of the Ya-Ya Girls is ominously chalked up to "The Devil was inside of her sapping her strength". Yet in Japan, she encounters a group of elite male marathon runners stoically running lap after tedious lap in small parks at tightly regimented paces and seemingly suicidal training volumes. Somehow through these opposite approaches both the countries Ethiopia and Japan both dominate world class running. The other countries she visits all approach training some where in the middle of these extremes, often reflection the national culture. For example, the Swiss stress more precision in their workouts while the Irish tend to be more freewheeling.

What we discover in Ms. Wade's book is that despite all the cultural differences, the hard work of running creates a universal bond and respect within each running community, whether in sprawling European clubs full of runners of all abilities engaging numerous post-run social events, or with the Ethiopian Ya-Ya Girls, cloistered in a small room at the foot of the mountain treating Ms. Wade to a traditional coffee ceremony.  Ms. Wade's historic debut marathon to conclude the book has a certain inevitability to it, as if she could not possibly fail to achieve a great marathon performance after cramming so much valuable running experience during her year abroad.

Unfortunately, it's doubtful "Run the World" will find much readership beyond the running community.  That's too bad, because it carries a message that seems to be missing as our nation seems increasingly divided. "Run the World" shows while racial and cultural barriers certainly exist, the hard work, patience, and understanding required to achieve a common goal will overcome them.

(Harper Collins provided an advance copy of "Run the World" for the purposes of this review.)

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