Memoir and personal essays are my favourite non-fiction forms. I’ve studied them, I’ve written them, and, like a good documentary film, if it’s well-done it draws me in regardless of the topic. For example, John Haines’ collection of personal essays, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, about his time as a homesteader in the Alaskan wilderness captivated me. And when I read Valerie Miner’s memoir, The Low Road, about her Scottish family, I couldn’t put it down.
Right now, I’m on a bit of a roll reading memoirs by endurance athletes. I’ll write more about Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra another day, but today and tomorrow I want to focus on two books written by women: The Summit Seeker by Vanessa Runs and A Life without Limits by Chrissie Wellington.
Women’s stories seem to be less available than men’s. And since I worry about women’s representation in all sorts of things, from philosophy to sport and in between, I’m always eager to seek out their stories when I can.
I stumbled upon Vanessa Runs The Summit Seeker while surfing around for women’s stories a few weeks ago. She’s an ultramarathon trail runner who has structured her whole life around enabling her running and her writing. Her story is a series of reflections on her struggles in a difficult childhood, the way a commitment to running helped ease some of the residual damage, and how she fell in love with long distance trail running (and with her partner in life and in ultra running, Shacky). As far as I can tell, it is only available as an ebook.
The reflections are short personal essays, grouped together into an introduction and three chapters. Chapter One is “Growing Up & Learning to Run.” Chapter Two is “Finding Myself & Discovering Trails,” and Chapter Three is “Traveling Far & Running Ultras.” As she says up front, “My book is about running, but it doesn’t tell you what to do.” In the Introduction, she writes:
I’m a girl who started running during a time of overwhelming stress and desperation. I’m someone whose life changed through ultra trail running. These are the stories of how running restored me, how it shifted my perspective, and how it healed my wounds.
This book tracks me from my first 5K all the way to finishing my third 100-mile foot race. It weaves in personal anecdotes from my life, and shows how running transformed all aspects of who I am.
My hope is that it will inspire you to see running in a different light. Not as a weight loss or fitness tool, but as a journey in your own personal growth.
I hope that it will inspire you to experiment with your running. To run more trails, to try an ultra. Or to just let the quiet beauty of getting lost on the side of a mountain supersede the urgency of PRs and race stats. There is so much more to running than what we have often made of it.
The day after I started reading her book, I was out running a trail in the woods of a small, picturesque town on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. It wasn’t rugged and wild, and it was nowhere near an ultra, but just reading the first few stories in Vanessa’s memoir prompted me to soak in the serenity of my surroundings and let go of my concerns about pace, stats, and distance.
Each chapter is comprised of short personal essays with titles like, “On Self-Esteem,” “On Freedom,”On Perseverance,” “On Surviving,” “On Destiny,” “On Trail Running,” “On Love,” “On Writing,” “On Ultra-Running,” and even one called, “On Steve Jobs.” The structure is simple and inviting. Rather than present a linear story, she offers anecdotes and reflections in a non-chronological sequence, yet in a sufficiently orderly manner that we can find the narrative of her life.
She also has an engaging, humble voice that makes her experience of ultra trail running much more about wonder and awe than about ego and competition. In fact, I’m not sure if the whole community of ultra-running is as she describes or if she’s just settled into an amazing sub-community, but it sounds welcoming and supportive with a real sense of camaraderie. Vanessa is someone who inspires and is inspired. She as a section on “DFLs,” those who come in “Dead F**’ing Last.” Rather than focusing on the elites, she suggests looking at those at the bottom end of the race results:
Here are the people who are on the course twice or three times as long as the elites. These are the people who struggled.
At some point, these runners knew they were in last place. They knew there would be no glory for them. No prizes. No fanfare. They knew that whey they got to the finish line, the crowds would be gone. And yet they pushed on.
…These are my heroes.
She has a way of making you feel good about yourself no matter how fast or how far you run. She laments articles about running faster by running less—“If you want to run less, you should just run less,” she says. And:
I encourage you to run once a week without logging it as a workout, or thinking of it as training. Don’t track your mileage and don’t time yourself. Pay attention to your surrounding, have compassion for the life around you, and work to protect and preserve your trails as well as the people who run them.
The spirit of ultrarunning must always embrace selflessness, generosity, adventure, and strength.
It’s not clear to me that I’ll ever aspire to ultrarunning. But reading Vanessa’s book has re-framed my views about running and about distance in general. I’m slowly pushing myself to go further. An Olympic distance triathlon is hardly an ultra-anything. But for me, it’s further than I’ve gone at a stretch to this point. And the mindset expressed in The Summit Seeker carries over into nonetheless.
It’s a great read. I recommend it.
Tomorrow: Christie Wellington’s A Life without Limits.