Eat and Run: Book Review

  

Whatever the problem in my life, the solution had always been the same: Keep going! My lungs might be screaming for oxygen, my muscles might be crying in agony, but I had always known the answer lay in my mind.

Not a bad solution to live by. 

Scott Jurek doesn’t do things by half. He gives his best and just keeps on pushing further and further. I first learned about AQ: Adversity Quotient (a theory developed by Dr. Paul Stoltz) when studying for my MBA a few years ago. Jurek epitomizes this never-say-die spirit.

We meet Jurek as he is vomiting, lying prostrate on the searing ground of Death Valley, his brain being cooked in the heat of one of the hottest places on Earth. He is attempting to run the Badwater Ultramarathon — 135 miles of pure scorching hell.

For those who have read Born to Run, you will know Jurek as ‘El Venado’ or The Deer. Jurek is one of the greatest ultra runners of all time. 

It is not often that he succumbs to the elements nor to his own inner monologue telling him to stop, asking why is he putting himself through it. And as we soon find out, this is not going to be one of those times.
We get an insight into the mind of an elite runner and learn that he is no different from you and me. He too gets that inner voice that says, “It’s ok to stop and have a rest. Just this once.”

The next morning I didn’t want to get out of bed. I could hear music. It was the siren song of a warm bed, a cozy couch, a few hours of reading, or listening to music, or just being. No one was forcing me to run. No one said I had to. No one was going to die if I just relaxed a little. Those were the lyrics of the song. It was the catchy, terrible tune that had seduced so many runners to drop out of races. It was a melody I could not afford to listen to. The song was calling: Rest. You just ran one mountain. No need to do another.

The difference is that he didn’t succumb. He doesn’t succumb. 

Jurek didn’t start out as an athlete. At school, he was a bookworm and spent most of his time studying. In fact, his route into running actually came through skiing. At his high school graduation, he gave the valedictory speech and left his peers with four key messages:

  1. Be different
  2. Help others
  3. Never let others discourage you from achieving your dream
  4. Do things while you are young

Good advice indeed from an 18-year-old. Sounds more like something a 41-year-old might say to his kids! He took his own advice, even if he admits that at the time of his speech, he didn’t know what his dream was. 

As an adult, Jurek remains an avid reader and a student of life. Through various encounters during his time as a runner, he has shaped his own development.  His visits to Japan and to his bookshelf exposed him to the principles of Bushido. He likens the emptiness of the warrior’s mind in battle to the importance of remaining in the present when running a race. A wandering mind loses focus, and in a 100-mile race that can be dangerous. 

His studies do not rest solely with philosophy. He also studies the effects of the foods he puts into his body. He started out as a meat-eater, became a vegetarian and is now a vegan. Jurek cites studies that link the Western diet with the three most common causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer and strokes. He has studied through trial and error and lots of reading the effects of various foods on his performance. This book is not just for runners, but for those who care about what they put in their body. He ends each chapter with a recipe that he himself cooks up for himself or for his friends.

The healthier I had eaten, the faster and stronger I had become. Was it a coincidence that sick people were being served starchy, crappy food?

If you like running, Eat and Run will give you lots of practical tips, from how to breath to what training to focus on. If you like Born to Run, you’ll love this book which has more of a flowing style. If you care about your body, you’ll learn some quick and practical recipes, including a good one for chia seeds. And if you like autobiographies, Jurek gives you a clear insight into his mind.

Willpower

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.

Mahatma Gandhi

Hidden strength

Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.

Scott Jurek, adapted from William James

Bending Adversity – Japan and the Art of Survival: Book Review

  
Currently based in Hong Kong, David Pilling is the Asia Editor of the Financial Times . He was Tokyo Bureau Chief from 2002–8. After the earthquake in 2011, he came back to Japan on a number of occasions. This book covers the recent history of Japan interlaced with interviews with Japanese from all walks of life. 

Bending Adversity takes its name from Pilling’s loose rendering of a Japanese proverb introduced to him by the husband of Japan’s former High Commissioner for the UNHCR, Ogata Sadako:

wazawai wo tenjite fuku to nasu.  災いを転じて福となす。
(Literally: Turn calamity into good fortune)

It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Japan in the current age. 

Starting in the small coastal town of Rikuzentakata a mere 40 kilometres from where I spent the first three years of my life in Japan, Pilling recounts the story of a hotel general manager and the fateful day that changed his life and the lives of 23,000 other inhabitants of the town.

He talks of the miracle Lone Pine that stood while 70,000 others fell on that fateful Friday in March. The before-and-after photos and words on a page don’t fully capture how harrowing the difference is.

The first time I went to “Takata” as the locals would call it was on my second weekend in Japan in early August 1997. I remember eating at the small fast food restaurant near the beach some eighteen years ago, which he describes from photographs:

An entire Mos Burger restaurant, Japan’s equivalent of McDonald’s, floats across the valley like some unmoored boat, its red roof and ‘M’ logo distinctly visible as it sweeps towards the hospital. By the time it gets there, it has been ripped in two.

I remember walking in amongst the trees remarking how huge Japanese crows were (like ravens), and how their voices sounded like grown men’s; picking up a stray volleyball as I walked on the beach, passing it back to some high school kids. Later that evening, I remember sipping beers, eating barbecue meat and camping out under the stars with my new-found teacher mates on the JET Programme. I went back there a few times over the years – to see the annual taiko festival, to watch a traditional street festival where men pulling floats would bash into them into one another, and to eat ramen after running in Ofunato further along the coast. After I moved further north, I didn’t go back there again. Not until six months after the disaster.

I saw the Lone Pine with my own eyes in September 2011 when I went to volunteer with All Hands. I couldn’t help but feel sad at seeing nothing but flat land where houses had once been. And a single tree where a forest had once stood.

In much the same way that we show signs of aging (not linearly but in sudden leaps and bounds) Japan has lurched forward and re-defined its direction through various events. Pilling goes back in time to chart Japan’s forced opening by Commodore Perry’s Black Ships off Yokohama, which brought about the Meiji Restoration but didn’t spell change in the shimaguni (island country) mindset. He also tells the story of expansionist Japan aspiring to be like the Western colonial powers around the turn of the 20th Century; the 1923 Tokyo earthquake; and the devastation of WWII; through the miracle years of growth, surviving not one but two oil shocks in the 1970s; through the bursting of the Bubble in 1990. 
Writing only a year after the earthquake, Pilling doesn’t go so far as to say that 2:46pm on March 11th 2011 was a turning point in history, though he does examine how Japan has defined itself through some very testing episodes. Based on interviews with Murakami Haruki among others, he picks out 1995 (the year of the Kobe earthquake and Sarin gas attacks) as a decisive post-war turning point for Japan, which really spelled the end of the boom years.
Still, the image of Japan in the West is of a waning economic power overshadowed by China. Yet, Pilling reminds us towards the end of his narrative that

[t]hough we have got used to the idea of Japan’s inexorable economic decline, it remains quite comfortably the third-largest economy in the world, the size of the combined economies of Britain and France and three times the size of India’s.

And this in spite of the cataclysmic events of March 2011. According to the World Economic Outlook Database (April 2013) he notes that Japan had a per-capita GDP eight times the size of China’s (or four times in per-capita purchasing power parity terms).

The Tokyo conurbation alone is home to about 37 million people, which is more than the population of whole countries including Canada, Finland or Australia to name a few.

I have called Japan home for nearly eighteen years now. And like Pilling, I can attest that there is still much hope in this beautiful country.