Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance

Review by Thomas O'Grady

Adharanand Finn's The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance is a book that takes readers on an awe-inspiring journey into the world of ultra-running. Ultra-running is a sport that pushes the limits of human endurance to the extreme. Finn is an accomplished runner in his own right, having run a personal best in the marathon of 2:50. Finn is admittedly more of a road runner, but sets out to discover what drives people to push themselves to the extraordinary limits needed to complete ultramarathons. It is this quest that leads Finn across the globe to some of the most challenging locations and fascinating characters n the sport ultra-running.

Finn's first stop is the blistering heat of the Oman Desert to complete a multiday event. It’s clear from reading about Finn’s experience that he is a complete novice to ultrarunning. This leads to numerous mistakes such as packing too much gear and starting out at a pace that is unsustainable for the entirety of the event. It’s Finn’s base fitness from years of running and staying active that carry him through to the finish. Finn learns several important lessons from completing his first event. One of the most important lessons is to respect the event you are participating in and never underestimate how challenging it may become physically or mentally. 

From that first finish in the Oman Desert, Finn takes readers on globe-trotting adventures that are absorbing. Throughout the book, Finn interweaves his own personal experiences with those of the athletes he meets. This provides a personal and intimate perspective on the sport of ultra-running that is informative, engaging, and entertaining.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Rise of the Ultra Runners is Finn's ability to capture the sheer physical and mental fortitude required to compete in these grueling events. Whether it's a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains or a 24-hour endurance run, Finn vividly describes the pain, exhaustion, and mental anguish that runners must endure to reach the finish line. His descriptions of the athletes' struggles and triumphs are inspiring. It made me think of my own running endeavors and my experience with ultrarunning as both a participant and coach/pacer. It was great to personally reflect on these memories as I read the book and I suspect that other runners will equally enjoy the opportunities to reflect on their own adventures. This leaves new readers with a newfound appreciation for the sport and the athletes who compete in it and strengthens that appreciation among the readers with greater background in the sport.

Finn also delves into the science behind ultrarunning, exploring the physiology and psychology of extreme endurance sports. He interviews leading scientists and experts in the field, providing readers with a fascinating insight into the human body and mind's capacity for endurance. Finn also talks about how concerns related to shorter distances (such as use of performance enhancing drugs and cheating) have become a bigger issue in the sport over time as ultrarunning has increased in popularity. Finn further examines the role of technology and nutrition in the sport, discussing the latest advancements in gear and nutrition and how they can make a difference in a runner's performance.

However, what sets The Rise of the Ultra Runners apart from other books on the subject is Finn's ability to weave together the sport's history and culture into his narrative. He delves into the roots of ultra-running and explores the sport's evolution over the past few decades. He also examines the unique culture of ultrarunning and the athletes it attracts, including the sense of camaraderie and community that exists among runners, and the passion and dedication that drives them to push themselves to their limits.

The writing is engaging, witty, and highly entertaining, making The Rise of the Ultra Runners a great read. I found myself looking forward to picking up the book each night and reading it more. His vivid descriptions of the athletes and the races they compete in, combined with his insightful commentary on the sport's culture and history, make for a compelling and thought-provoking read that will leave readers both inspired and informed.

There are no single standout chapters of the book. Instead, we get consistent stories that are entertaining and informative throughout. Finn provides engaging discussions on all the top ultramarathon distance races you would expect in a book covering the rise of ultrarunning including the Marathon des Sables and the Comrades Marathon. Finn covers top competitors in the sport such as Jim Walmsley, Kilian Jorne, and Zach Miller how each has made their way.

While ultrarunning may have previously been a sport that only attracted “hardcore enthusiasts,” the sport has grown at a fast pace and is now thriving. There are hundreds of thousands of competitors each year at ultramarathon events and this has left many to wonder why the sudden increase, and what would attract seemingly sane individuals to race hundreds of miles in extreme conditions and environments. In Adharanand Finn's The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance the reader travels with Finn to investigate these questions and learns a lot along the way.



Reviewer Tom O’Grady is a successful runner, coach,
writer and college professor with a joint appointment
 at NYSDOH/UAlbany School of Public Health. 
Click on his picture to read all that he has written for the
Pace Setter-and it is a lot!
Thank you Tom!

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