Book Review: To Be A Runner

Here’s a great summer beach read for the thinking runner.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Life is a marathon, they say. But what does that really mean? People usually use the expression to convey the idea that life is a long journey. But you can take it even further, and use it as a way to express the notion that running is a very rich metaphor for life–or even the notion that running can teach us everything we really need to know about life.

Millions of runners have discovered this truth. Among them are dozens of runner-writers who have endeavored to explore it in their work, with varying degrees of success. There’s a whole shelf of running philosophy books. The best among them are those that are well written and don’t try too hard.

The newest addition to the shelf is Martin Dugard’s To Be a Runner. The book’s lengthy subtitle lets you know exactly where to shelve it: “How Racing Up Mountains, Running with The Bulls, or Just Taking On a 5K Makes You a Better Person (and The World a Better Place)”.

Dugard is a veteran endurance athlete and seasoned writer who has tackled topics ranging from Lance Armstrong to the Survivor television series in previous books. He writes well, and he brings the virtue of good writing to this volume. Here’s a sample passage I like:

About thirty minutes in, the euphoria of an endorphin rush washed over me, and I knew exactly how it felt to run effortlessly at speed. It wasn’t a heart-rate thing that could be tracked by a band around my chest, or anything having to do with a stopwatch. It was the sun and the moon and the stars and the pavement and my legs and my shoes and my lungs and my brain and the running buddies who had found this awesome pace, converging into aerobic threshold ambrosia.

Yes, but does Dugard try too hard to be profound? Mercifully, no. He uses a very simple device to achieve depth without reaching for it. Dugard works part-time as head cross country and track coach at JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano, California. In this role, he seeks to develop his team members as both athletes and as human beings. In other words, in this role Dugard very naturally teaches life through running, just as he does in the book. Many of the stories that serve as platforms for Dugard’s mining of particular running-life synergies come from his coaching.

One of my favorites is one in which Dugard describes an annual ritual where he has each of his runners write down three dreams before the cross country season starts and then reviews the lists with them individually before the state championship. It shows them just how far they can go in a short period of time.

It’s the stories that make To Be a Runner work. The only way this kind of book can work is by concealing wisdom, Trojan Horse style, inside of stories that are by turns funny, touching, weird, exciting, and fascinating. Dugard has had many adventures in his 30-plus years as a runner, and dozens of them are told artfully in this engrossing, three-sitting read. Among the funniest describes an irate golfer’s attempt to run Dugard down on a golf course. Among the most touching tells of a moment when Dugard’s then semi-estranged father showed up at Dugard’s first triathlon unexpectedly and paced him through a low moment of the running leg.

If you’re looking for the ideal running-related summer read, look no further than To Be a Runner. It is characterized by a rare combination of lightness and substance that makes it a pure pleasure to read, without being the kind of guilty pleasure that so many of the other books we read poolside are!

Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.

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