Books Why We Run

Published on September 24, 2013

Why We Run: A Story of Obsession

RunningMonkey’s interest in Robin Harvey’s Why We Run: A Story of Obsession was largely drawn by the fact that he details the Spartathlon – the legendary 152mile race across Greece (with a 36-hour time limit) which is firmly on our ‘to do’ list. Judging a book by it’s cover, the saying goes, is something you should never do – so, it turns out, is judging by either title or publisher’s blurb.

The style is clunky and truncated and the book ponderous, heavy-hearted and oh-so pretentious; full of references to Plato, Nietzsche, Goethe, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf and others. More an exercise, we felt, in proving how well read, rather than how well trained, Harvey is. Naturally enough he also name-checks all the usual ultra-running suspects – Christopher McDougall, Dean Karnazes, et al – but if your interested in endurance running you will already be familiar with their (infinitely superior) books.

Worse, Harvey offers up so much irrelevant or downright inaccurate information you suspect the research was limited to Bing. Try this: ‘No ultra-distance marathon in the UK can be run continuously’ (really?) or how about quoting VOMax as percentages? Or that ‘hitting the wall’ is something that happens at around mile 20 due to lactic acid (sooner, surely dependent on blood sugar and carbs with lactic acid playing, if anything, only a very minor role.) Or claiming: ‘Outside the world of elite athletes and running clubs, only rudimentary advice can be found on how to train for a marathon.’ Okay, perhaps he didn’t even use Bing, because the internet is awash with advice, some of which is excellent.

But the greatest failure of this book is a complete and utter lack of joy and humour. Whilst he quotes Joyce Carol Oates as saying: ‘Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be’, there is no evidence whatsoever that Harvey believes this. Personally we’ve never run an ultra, however tough, where the defining quality of those involved hasn’t been one of humour (even if it is, on occasions, of the gallows variety).

There are rare moments of interest to be found – some good potted histories of various aspects of the running revolution – but ultimately Why We Run would more accurately entitled Why I (Robin Harvey) Run, and that, frankly is not of much interest.

Why We Run: A Story of Obsession (ISBN-10: 9781848541764) by Robin Harvey is published by John Murray, RRP £9.99 paperback, £5.99 Kindle – available from


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