The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life: Book Review

  

The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life was written in 2000 by Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon.

I bought the book because it appeared on the Amazon list of the 25 bestselling books on running. It is only available in print not in e-book format. 

Most of the other books in the list were about the mechanics of running or preparing for a race. I put myself in the fairly seasoned runner category and so now I don’t really go for the how-to books anymore. And having read Murakami Haruki’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I wanted something more autobiographical. 

The version of the book that I bought was adorned with only one testimonial. I am used to seeing at least five or six on the cover, in the inside jacket and on the back cover. So the marketing of this book is somewhat understated.

The book’s only testimonial appears on the front cover on one of those mock stickers: by Benjamin Cheever of Runner’s World, who describes it as “one of the five best books on running”. I’m sure that with a guy as well connected and respected as Burfoot, Skyhorse Publishing could have found a different or even a more inspiring testimonial. The big problem is that Cheever is a colleague of Burfoot’s. So hardly an unbiased endorsement.

Yes, there are a few high points throughout the book, but on the whole, it was a bit pedestrian for a book about running. I was often left feeling “So what?”

He covers why humans run (because it’s natural and doesn’t require any skill), and how life is about beginning new things all the time (the starting line of a race is a proxy for overcoming the fear of starting new things in life). 

Burfoot then goes on to discuss connections and networks. He obviously has great running groups and many friends that he runs with. He also talks of the deep conversations he has had while running. Being an introvert, running for me is a solitary activity. But I can definitely see the benefit of group running in pushing one another to go faster. So why didn’t Burfoot get some of these people to write a testimonial then?

Burfoot is a winner. He won Boston in 1968 and set his fastest ever time (2:14:29) in Fukuoka, Japan later the same year. Now that he is older, he sees the other side: how most regular runners feel.

One of the great benefits of running is that it teaches us to value the individual–our self. We run a race with 75,000 others, but we’re primarily concerned about our own outcome. 


For us foot soldiers, we are in it to beat one person: ourselves. In our hearts, if we beat our target or get a personal best, we know we have won.

Winning is not about headlines… It’s only about attitude. A winner is a person who goes out today and every day and attempts to be the best runner and best person he can be… Winning is about struggle and effort and optimism, and never, ever, ever giving up. 

He doesn’t just talk about winning. He addresses the other side of the coin too. It’s a cliche by now that in order to succeed we must first encounter failure. Burfoot talks about missing out twice on qualifying for the Olympics. In hindsight he was able to go on and achieve in different areas. 

I have learned that there is no failure in running, or in life, as long as you keep moving. It’s not about speed or gold medals. It’s about refusing to be stopped. 

Burfoot chooses to run without earphones. He likes to hear his own thoughts. When it snows, he enjoys the crisp noise underfoot. He makes an interesting observation that in all the seminars designed to make him a better listener, there is one thing missing:

The more meetings I attend, however, the more I believe that something crucial is being left out. Yes, it’s important to listen to everyone around you. But it’s even more important to learn how to listen to yourself. Whether a decision is purely personal or involves dozens or even hundreds of others, you alone are the only person who has to make it, and you can only do it after listening to your own internal monologue. 

Good advice. Running is definitely my thinking time when I resolve some of the issues of the day. I run with music, but find that when I am deep in thought, I don’t even notice the music. I might try to run from time to time without music.

My biggest takeaway from the book is the importance of mentors – both learning from those who come before us, but also passing wisdom and knowledge to the generations that follow. Unfortunately, this author really didn’t get through to me in the same way that other writers have done through their prose.

I was really hoping that Burfoot would get to one kernel of truth by the end of the book: he promises the meaning of life. Sadly I was disappointed.

If this is one of the top 5 books on running, the bar is pretty low.

New focus: two birds with one stone

Today, my daughter officially started primary school. I have been promising her for a few years that when she is at school I will run a race with her.

Just like this time last year (post marathon) I have been slumping a bit lately with no race in the calendar to keep me motivated. 

So today I will register my daughter and me to run in Kashiwa in May. We’ll run 3km together and then I will take on the half marathon.

Should be fun and now both my daughter and I have something to focus on! 

As it is my first half marathon since around 2000, and I managed to get past the halfway point at Kyoto in 1:43:05, I am going to aim for 1:40:00, which is around 4 mins 44 secs per kilometre. Hope that it won’t be too hot and muggy in May!

Kyoto Marathon in numbers

Today I had a lot of fun in a masochistic sort of way!

Starting out, I took it nice and slow – keeping a sensible pace. For the first ten kilometres, I was enjoying playing the running tourist, taking pictures of the crowds supporting the runners as well as the sights visible from the road. I will post some of these pics in a later blog.

The temperature didn’t reach the 11 degrees that the forecast promised us. In fact, it was pretty chilly and rained two or three times during the race. But this for me was a good thing.

Looking at the splits for the whole race downloaded from the official website, we can see that my pace was very consistent throughout. Split times refer to the time measured from the start to a given point along the way, while lap times refer to increments within the race. Except for the first 5k and the last 5k lap (35-40k), I managed to run each kilometre in less than five minutes.

Here are the times laid out in a chart:

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Graphically, with the y-axis set to between 4 minutes and 6 minutes, you can see the consistency of the lap times in the middle of the race. Evidently, my split times got faster on average as I went through the race. This is because I sped up somewhere around 8 or 9 kilometres and held my pace consistently for most of the rest of the race. This had the effect of canceling out the slow start. As we approach the end of the race, you can see the split time starting to go up slightly as I got tired. I don’t mind admitting that resisting the urge to walk was quite a battle of the conscience!

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Over 42.195 kilometres, even a few seconds per kilometre up or down on average pace makes or breaks a full marathon. Today was my best ever time by about 6 minutes. This translates to around an average 8 seconds per kilometre quicker than last year’s Tokyo Marathon. It took me 4 minutes 54 seconds to run a kilometre today, while in Tokyo it was about 5 minutes 2 seconds. It just goes to show that every second counts.

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Carb-loading

Are you one of those people who gets annoyed by social media posts of food? I am!

Today I’m going to break my own rule and risk alienating my small blog audience with a quick rundown of my carb-loading ahead of tomorrow’s run in Kyoto – Japan’s former capital. With a full marathon ahead of me, I have been piling in the carbohydrates today to get my energy reserves ready for the big day tomorrow.

Carbohydrates are really important for distance runners as they fuel the body with energy. Foods such as pasta, rice, fruit and potatoes are rich sources of carbs. Of course for couch potatoes, carbs are the enemy, but the opposite is true for long distance runners.

Breakfast
Today was our children’s nursery happyokai (発表会) – literally “announcement meeting”, where the children show off on stage with all sorts of performances for their parents. They’ve been practicing for months and today was the culmination of all their hard work. It’s a bit like me with this marathon, I suppose! The happyokai meant an early-ish start as we had to be there around nine to meet the kids’ grandmother visiting for the day from Osaka.

My breakfast consisted of a peanut butter and banana toasted sandwich and a cup of coffee. Peanut butter is said to be one of the best foods for a runner because it packs a lot of calories and gives a real boost to the muscles. This is perfect for me as I have liked peanut butter ever since I was a kid. Bananas contain lots of carbohydrates as well as potassium and so are also a great food for runners. Finally the bread is also an excellent source of carbohydrates.

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Lunch
Today I’ve had two lunches: a fairly light social lunch at the family restaurant Gusto with my wife, kids and mother-in-law; and a second “bento” on the Shinkansen heading down to Kyoto. We ate fairly early (just before noon) after the happyokai.

As is usually the case when we give the kids a choice of where to eat, they say Gusto. It’s not a bad place – fairly cheap and cheerful and it keeps everyone happy. I chose steak and avocado with salad on a bed of rice – quite a balanced meal. The rice in particular contains plenty of carbs. Avocado is quite low in carbs – somewhere around 9g per 100g serving. Meat doesn’t contain carbs, though there are plenty of calories with the protein and of course the fat. Gusto doesn’t publish an exact breakdown of the nutritional information but the meal is listed as 970kcal.

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I opted for more meat and rice for the Shinkansen: Iberico pork on a bed of rice. As you can see from the label there are lots of numbers written all over it. It contains 111 grammes of carbohydrates (炭水化物), 67.9g of fat (脂質), 20.4g of protein (蛋白質) and a whopping 1152 kilocalories. The price is fairly whopping too at 1100 yen, but I feel I deserve it! This meal alone is just under half the recommended daily amount of calorific intake for an adult male.

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Dinner
Sitting on the Shinkansen as I write, I plan to eat a dinner of ramen noodles in Kyoto some time between 7 and 8pm.

Addendum: Here’s the photo of the noodles – complete with the touristic gimmick nori seaweed on top:

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Other snacks
Today is Valentine’s Day and my lovely wife and daughter made me some nice biscuits to munch on for my trip. So I will be partaking of these in between meals.

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I also have a few muffins (again excellent carb sources) to choose from in between should I get peckish. These muffins from Bagel & Bagel are devilish. I probably won’t eat all three of these before tomorrow’s run but they should restore me nicely after I finish the race tomorrow!

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Numbers don’t lie… or do they?

Every day, I receive a motivational email from Runner’s World. Often their quote of the day really gets me thinking. One such recent quote is by the famous American runner Frank Shorter:

Numbers don’t lie. You always seem to remember your workouts as being a little better than they were. It’s good to go back and review what you do.

This blog is about critical thinking while running – at least it is if you read the tag line! It unites my passion for running with my critical eye for looking at numbers and patterns.

Let’s take a look back at my numbers from January. Below are a few points which I feel will develop into key themes as the months roll by.

Stated Targets
Will I hit my big target if I miss the incremental ones?

First and foremost is my slight disappointment in not achieving my stated target to run at least 150k during the month. My goal this year is to run 2015 kilometres. Based on simple division, this is approximately 168 kilometres per month, though I committed to 150 each month as I know that there will be some big 200k-plus months in the mix. Sadly, according to Runkeeper (which until now I have used as my de facto basis for measurement) I missed my mark by less than 8 kilometres – one solitary run – in January.

There’s a Japanese word: omoikomi (思い込み) that literally means to get deep into thinking something. It doesn’t carry the suggestion of deep thought or consideration that my clumsy translation suggests. This word usually has the nuance of prejudice or assumption. It can also mean a preconception or an unquestioned thought. For some unknown reason, I decided that Sunday was the last day in January. This was factored into my thinking about 2 or 3 weeks before the end of the month. On the last Saturday of the month (actually the 31st), I felt shattered from taking my kids to a theme park and let myself sleep early – thinking I could cover the last 8k and then some on the Sunday.

It wasn’t until the next day after my Sunday run when Runkeeper gave me a running total for January (and February!!) that I realized my mistake. Of course, as it was set in my mind that Sunday 1st February was the last day in January, it never occurred to me to open a calendar! I won’t make that mistake again! But to answer my own question, a few barely missed goals here and there is nothing to beat myself up about as long as it doesn’t become a habit.

Running total for January and February in Runkeeper
Running total for January and February in Runkeeper

Surprises
Am I faster in the morning or at night?

I care about the answer to this question as I am aiming for a pace of 4:45 per kilometre. So I want to optimize my running times to increase my chances of hitting my targets.
First glance at the data, I was surprised not to be much faster in the morning than at night. But then I realized that my morning runs start in the dark.

As I would expect, my afternoon runs have been fastest (as well as closest to my target pace). But two runs in clear daylight this year do not a pattern make. Through the rest of the year I will be looking for this pattern to optimise my pace. Clearly with work and family commitments, running in the afternoons is a rare luxury for me. I will be looking forward to the end of winter when the sun will rise earlier so I can get daylight runs in before work.

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Numbers do lie (somewhat)
Which numbers do I believe? Or should I believe any of them?

I swear by measuring all my activity as I run. I like to compete against myself along similar courses and similar distances. In a later post, I will discuss the various tools I use. In this post, I will just merely point out a discrepancy between my two key running wearables (Runkeeper on my iPhone; and my Garmin Forerunner watch). A look at the data will show a number of differences between the distances, times, pace and calories.

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On the subject of target pace, my Garmin watch consistently reports a quicker pace than my Runkeeper app. To strip pace back to its constituent parts, there are two factors: total time spent and total distance covered.

Distance is supposed to be measured by GPS and so in theory, there shouldn’t be a discrepancy. However, on occasion, my Runkeeper app gets an anomaly reading as something interferes with the signal and causes huge bounces where I might suddenly “run” a whole kilometre in just a minute or even occasionally a few seconds. The craziest instances were in amongst skyscrapers in Hong Kong where the signal bounces off windows. I try to avoid running in areas that are too built up, but this is a hazard in Tokyo too! Anyway, I usually notice this when it is a big bump, and I go back later and correct them with the map editing feature in the desktop version of Runkeeper. But maybe it’s the smaller bumps that I’m not noticing. Not that I’m going to be so anal as to check my route online after each run. I just simply don’t have the time or inclination for that. So I will aim to paint a picture over time of any average discrepancies and factor these into my total measurements. I may also try the old-fashioned approach of getting a city map book and measuring my routes on paper with a piece of string and a ruler.

January according to Garmin Connect
January according to Garmin Connect
January according to Runkeeper
January according to Runkeeper

The other factor in pace is time. I know through habit that I tend to turn my Runkeeper on first as I start my run, and turn it off last afterwards. There is therefore a difference between these numbers too, but it is usually simply a matter of a minute or so. After my January 10th run, I remember forgetting (oxymoron?) to turn it off until I was already back inside the house! This was a good five or six minutes after the run, hence the large discrepancy between the Runkeeper “Duration” and Garmin “Time”.

The critic in me makes me question these numbers. Twelve days is not enough to develop a clear pattern. So as the year progresses, I will start to build a hypothesis and hopefully get closer to understanding which ones I can trust more, or whether the reality is somewhere in between. When I get round to it, I will also factor in past data from last year.

Being the closet geek that I am, there are other ways I measure my activity. I won’t go into them here for now, but I have noticed discrepancies with other data and am really starting to wonder what affects them.

Of course, I have to be careful not to disappear under my own pile of big data… 😉 But it would be great to hear your suggestions on what other influencers to measure: mood, impact of sleep, weather…9 As Douglas Hubbard says, you can measure anything!