Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running
hardcover, University of Nebraska Press
$24.95, 182 pages
On the third day of the Himalayan 100-mile Stage Race and Mount Everest Challenge Marathon, Rachel Toor—who went on to win the event—reveals a truism about her fellow competitors: “Runners whine…it is one of the things that make us least appealing, us runners, this blinkered self-absorption.”
As a runner myself—albeit a fledging one—I can accede to this judgment. That people running 100-mile races, on trails that weave up and down the tallest mountains in the world, should probably be allowed a little whining, is beside the point. What’s exactly the point is that self-absorption—or, at the very least, self-reflection—is the very foundation of memoir.
Toor’s new book, Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running, is the latest among a virtual series of books about running. Recently, we’ve seen Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and, just this week, New York Times sportswriter Liz Robbins writes about the New York City Marathon in her new book, A Race Like No Other.
Toor’s latest also marks another growing literary trend (though not necessarily a new one): the memoir of pastime. Now that most memoirists have strip-mined the field of family dysfunction, we can look forward to memoirs that are, arguably, more interesting. These memoirs are often records—romances, of a sort—of an individual’s resistance to, acceptance of and ultimate embrace of a diversion, like running or fishing or biking, that gradually grows from simple pastime to life-sustaining passion.
Structured as a series of 26.2 stand-alone chapters—the “.2” represents a fluidly written acknowledgments “chapter”—Personal Record traces Toor’s history with running. It begins with her bookish, non-running days as a Yale undergrad and her introduction to running at the age of 30 from a boyfriend who ran every day after work with her dog (“I grew jealous of their time together, and began to feel left out.”). Then there’s her evolution into a full-fledged runner of marathons, ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles), and scores of other kinds of races, including a relentless little thing called the Ride and Tie, which combines 30 or 40 miles of long distance running and horse racing.
While the structure of Toor’s slim memoir may seem to indicate a tidy relationship with the sport, the reality is that the impact of running on Toor’s life is intense and all-encompassing. Certainly not an obsession, yet far more than a mere hobby, running, for Toor, is as audacious as a jealous lover. It demands time, strength, endurance and, most importantly, love: “During long races, you think about something for a while...And then, the mind goes its own way—slowing down, wandering more freely, giving itself over to the body, and finally, ultimately, to the heart.”
The comparison to an affair of the heart is not strictly metaphorical. Early chapters that elucidate the complexities of even the simplest of runners’ clothing (Gore-Tex and Tyvek and over-the-head bras, oh my!) give way to chapters that reveal the intimacies between runners who train together. Sure, running can be solitary, but rather than re-hashing the quasi-philosophical stereotype of the long-distance runner, Toor pushes past that cliché to highlight the romances that can develop. “Running with another person is an intimate activity…,” she writes. “It’s hard to keep the heart uninvolved.” There was the fast, young (and married) man whose speed and perseverance was, apparently, the embodiment of the Knight Rider on cross-trainers. Eventually, she had to stop training with him (“I still think about him. Still carry him with me, years later now, at every race.”). Then there was the man at the Himalayan race (also married) with whom only one chaste kiss was shared (“Was it simply the recognition that we were both runners, both writers, and that we saw something of ourselves in each other?”). And then there was an actual boyfriend, a man who wasn’t a runner (“Was I lying when I said that it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a runner?…Could running be beside the point?…How much can you expect a partner to share?”).
In only one circumstance does Toor fail to surpass expectations. Though she openly admits her preference to train with men instead of women, at least one circumstance illustrates how such a preference may appear condescending. While trying to pace a first-time marathoner to the finish of the NYC Marathon, Toor prods the woman for her goal time. When the woman responds that her goal is merely to finish, Toor writes, “Of course that’s what she said. She’s a woman.” Although later Toor goes to great lengths to discuss the joys of pacing, the not insubstantial task of helping other people meet their goals, one can’t help but hear an echo of the patronizing tone from the earlier anecdote.
Overall, though, Toor’s inescapable honesty and reflection is handled with acuity and written with precision. Sure, runners may be self-absorbed—it’s not a team sport, after all—but Toor’s concise personal narrative of a “pretentious little intellectual” turned ultramarathoner is as absorbing to the reader as it is to the runner.
Rachel Toor reads from her book Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 PM.