The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the case for Human Endurance
reviewed by John Medinger
“Ultrarunning is not separate from the rest of life.”
That’s the opening sentence to the Appendix in Ed Ayres’ new book The Longest Race, and it is also a good one-line summary for the entire book.
Ayres, the founder of Running Times magazine, is in love with the JFK 50 and in many respects the book is a paean to the race. He has run JFK 15 times, won it once, and recounts his race in 2001 as an instrument to share his thoughts. Each chapter starts with a description of a section of the course (Antietam Aqueduct, Taylor’s Landing) as he makes his way from Boonsboro to Williamsport.
In 2001, Ayres had just turned 60 and he uses the race as a measure of his fitness, a reflection of his life’s work as a writer, editor and environmentalist, and a vehicle to share running-related stories.
Subtitled A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the case for Human Endurance, this is no ordinary running book. Like most of the other books of the genre, Ayres recounts many running tales, some inspiring, some amusing, some enlightening. He is a gifted storyteller and – befitting someone who spent most of his life as an editor – the book is full of well-written prose, something not commonly found in the running-book world. Readers will enjoy stories of the early days of the running boom, the problems encountered when Running Times published the first (and some would say, last) honest shoe reviews, and the rich early history of the JFK 50.
The story of his 2001 JFK race, woven throughout the book, is engaging. Ayres is hyper-competitive, and more than a bit bemused by his inability to simply pin on a number and enjoy the process. He is fixated on his time and position in the race, and even after it’s over spends hours geeking out over split times. But he is also keenly self-aware, and the thoughts that run through his mind during the race are spot-on; many among us will find much familiarity in them.
The book has been released just in time for the 50th annual JFK 50. Ayers, now 71, will be toeing the line in Boonsboro on November 17 along with 1,500 other runners. No doubt he will be as competitive as ever.
For the ultrarunner, or the aspiring one, there is a brilliant appendix that provides a foundation for success in a sport with so many variables. It’s not so much a “do this, don’t do that” approach. Ayres uses his 50-plus years of experience and looks at the entire process, always simplifying and synthesizing. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making things complicated that don’t need to be – his ten notes neatly cut through all the clutter. The Appendix alone is worth the cost of the book.
But this is much more than a simple running book, and it’s when Ayres’ thoughts depart from running that the book shines most. Ayres manages to interlace cogent contemplations on subjects as widely divergent as climate change, macroeconomics, Darwinian evolution, processed foods, energy efficiency, and popular culture. He is a Renaissance man at heart, and it shows. You will not likely find many books referencing Thomas Hobbes, Wendell Berry and Stephen Jay Gould alongside Ted Corbitt, Bill Rodgers and Michael Wardian.
Using the JFK 50 as a metaphor for life and indeed our entire civilization, Ayres asks: what does it take to go the distance? Like any good scientist, he fully admits he doesn’t have all the answers. But his overarching thesis is that honest contemplation lies at the heart of human experience.
We can all learn from his words.