Serpentimes Book Review: The Rise of The Ultra Runners


Kristin Duffy reviews The Rise of The Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance by Adharanand Finn.

First, a caveat:

In a running club filled with seasoned ultra runners, perhaps I’m not the likely choice to review a book about ultra running. In fact, I’ve always (and still) identify as more of a triathlete, and even then, would say my least favourite, and often least successful, triathlon leg is the run leg. That, plus the blisters that my feet suffer on the shortest of runs (see Serpentimes Issue 8), have kept me to one barely-an-ultra-ultra, the 50 kilometre short option of the The Stour Valley Path (better known as The SVP).

That said, feats of endurance fascinate me. Whether rowing across hostile seas, cycling over inhospitable mountains or, in the case of many a Serpie, running distances that challenge the body and the mind beyond what most people would consider possible (or sane), I’m enthralled by what people can physically accomplish. And I’ve written book reviews. So, when word went out about reviewing The Rise of The Ultra Runners, A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance, by Adharanand Finn, I jumped at the chance.

The Rise of The Ultra Runners begins with Finn, an accomplished runner, author, and journalist, running his first ultra marathon on assignment for The Financial Times. In this first outing, Finn races through deep sand in the 165-kilometre, multi-day Oman Desert Marathon. Spoiler alert: Finn finishes, but not without swearing that he’s ‘never doing anything as stupid as that ever again’. He could have stuck to his guns, but as all of that happens in the four-page prologue, it would have made for a pretty short book. Instead, Finn goes against his ‘something of a purist’ running tendencies, deciding he needs to find out more about what drives people to such extremes. To discover why ultra runners look forward to ‘digging into the pain cave’ when he shudders at the idea of that kind of pain. So, he does what any intrigued newbie ultra runner might do in his situation – he does some research, finds an iconic race, and goes online to sign up.

Unfortunately, the iconic race that Finn wants to sign up for is the UTMB. For anyone unaware, the UTMB is one of the most oversubscribed runs in all of ultra running. Far from being a simple online sign-up, the UTMB requires three gruelling qualifying races to earn the points to enter the lottery to get a roughly one in three chance of actually getting a race number. And so, The Rise of The Ultra Runners unfolds, with the next 330 pages dedicated to ultra running, the often quirky or downright mad runners who make up the sport, and Finn’s breakneck quest to get the points to qualify for a UTMB spot.

Sadly, The Rise of The Ultra Runners doesn’t move at quite the same speed that Finn uses to reach his goal. Suffering a bit from Finn’s enthusiasm in taking up the sport, there are just too many anecdotes. While the stories of the races he runs and the people he meets are interesting and frequently moving, there are so many people and so many stories that it becomes hard to keep track. As a runner with limited ultra experience, I found myself asking, who is the book for?

A highly-experienced ultra runner will likely enjoy reading about the familiar race adventures, but probably already know the stories of the professionals or the details of the races upon which Finn elaborates. A non-runner or aspiring ultra runner might find Finn’s experiences inspirational, but may feel that there are too many characters or that the book ‘geeks out’ too many times to keep the story moving.

That said, the book does introduce some real personalities and inspiring runners from the ultra scene, there just could have been fewer of them. And Finn shows real humanity – and humility – in his struggle to complete more than the required races to get to UTMB. His curiosity about the sport has him running trails and tracks and everything in between and he takes the reader along for the journey. However, again, there may have been too many races to keep the reader’s curiosity piqued.

The Rise of The Ultra Runners, A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance is worth a read for someone seeking ultra running inspiration or interested in the ins and outs of the sport. It’s just that though the races covered are ultra long, the book didn’t have to feel that way.

Long story short: Three stars out of five.

Kristin Duffy is a slow runner, but a fast talker. Despite the dichotomy, she loves to do both.