'The Longest Race', a book by Ed Ayres draws parallels between endurance athletes and a sustainable society

First published in Mint newspaper on 15th Oct 2012

Alex Kaine at Wari La (190 km) during La Ultra - The High. 

There is more to learn and gain from running than just physical fitness. So it’s a treat when an endurance runner who has been competing for 56 years brings out a book that draws parallels between endurance athletes and a sustainable society. If the pace is wrong, there can be irreversible damage. The problem with all of us, whether runners or not, is that we only learn the hard way.

This book has learnings for all of us.

I started running 31 years ago, and like most people, both new and seasoned runners, all that mattered to me was numbers—Did I finish first or not? Did I make it to the school team? Was my time better than my friends’? What was my speed or pace? What distance did I cover? When I started off, winning meant everything. But today, my whole perspective has changed. Running has been my best teacher for how to deal with life.

So I consider myself lucky to to have read The Longest Race—A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, And the Case for Human Endurance, by Ed Ayres, who has competed in over 600 long-distance races and finished third at the first New York City Marathon in 1970. Ayres has also been the founding editor and publisher of the Running Times magazine.

My concern with an author with such a profile usually is that he can’t connect with amateur fun runners, but Ayres didn’t disappoint me. I’m so glad I started reading it, because it further honed my attitude to running.

Way back in 1977, Ayres mentioned in one of the first issues of Running Times, “As the world gets more complicated, people become more appreciative of the things that remain simple—and few things do. Running is in some ways the simplest of all the sports. All you have to do, to run, is open the door and go out.” But most of us like to complicate matters, forgetting the core appeal of running.

Ayres has also served for 13 years as the editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute, a sustainable development research organization. This is why he has insights into “sustainability” like no other runner. I have found his two very basic learnings very appropriate for long-distance runners as well as life in general. The first being that “sustainability and endurance running are about long-term adaptations”. They don’t happen overnight, which is what most folks expect in today’s short-cut-happy society. There is a set gestation period for everything. If you want to cover long distances in running, you have to start small and build gradually. There simply aren’t any short cuts.

Whether it be for long-distance running or sustainable civilization, if you want to go as fast as you can, don’t rush. We need to calm the commotion inside of us to be able to push the body to the optimal level that it is capable of. You need to learn how to pace it right. The build-up of waste products of industrial metabolism is as quick as lactate build-up in a runner’s legs.

Ignorance will make a novice runner start very fast but soon his race will be ruined because he hasn’t paced it right, and runs out of steam.

The second learning Ayres talks about is “when a trail is treacherous, you have to be able not only to think on your feet but to think with your feet”. This will only happen if you’ve figured out the first one for yourself.

I love to pace other runners for their races—I find it more satisfying than just running for myself. During the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon last month, I was pacing Zubin, a running mate, for 1 hour and 50 minutes. I knew that I would have to slow down drastically, but I took it on for the challenge. To me that time means nothing, but to Zubin it meant everything. Till the 11km mark, everything was going according to plan, but things started to fall apart from then on. I had to slow down drastically to hang on with Zubin. It needed me to not only adjust my pace for him, but also for myself, as there is an optimum pace range for each of us. I now like to get into my zen zone, irrespective of pace, speed, distance or time, and I enjoy the moment.

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, And the Case for Human Endurance by Ed Ayres. Published by The Experiment, $23.95 (around Rs.1,300).

First Published in Mint newspaper on Mon, Oct 15 2012. 08 39 PM IST