Considering how much I love triathlon and how little I feel drawn to ultra trail running you’d think that I’d be much more excited about Chrissie Wellington’s A Life without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey than I am about Vanessa Runs’ The Summit Seeker.
But no. In every respect, The Summit Seeker is a superior memoir. Captivating, with universal appeal and a compelling and attractive narrator who, as a reader, you care about, The Summit Seeker is a fine example of first rate first-person narrative non-fiction. You don’t need to be interested in or even care about ultra running to get drawn into the book.
A Life without Limits is the opposite. It’s only because of my interest in triathlon, and perhaps also because some of the story takes place in the little known Swiss mountain village of Leysin where I spent a good chunk of time as a teen, that I persevered through Chrissie Wellington’s book about her journey to becoming the women’s Ironman world champion.
The book proves what I learned as a creative writing student and what I tell my own students when I teach “The Art of the Personal Essay”: a great life story doesn’t guarantee a great book. You need to be able to write it. You need to be able to deliver more than a series of anecdotes (the “situation,” in Vivian Gornick’s terms) and instead tell the story — that’s the narrator’s inner journey, where she struggled, what her moment of epiphany was, and how it changed her, and how she (not just the external circumstances of her life) was different after that change.
That’s the personal narrative author’s most important skill and greatest challenge. It’s not a great surprise that writing is not Chrissie Wellington’s strength. Why should it be? She’s a professional Ironman triathlete. It’s amazing that she had the time and perseverance to write and complete the memoir at all!
There is no denying her athletic greatness. Chrissie Wellington is an exceptional triathlete whose record-breaking accomplishments and fast rise to the top in the Ironman distance have garnered her well-deserved accolades. But for me, her book was an endurance challenge all on its own.
I felt myself wishing for the end, as I do on one of those runs when I check my Garmin all too frequently, more often than not disappointed at what it’s telling me in terms of distance-to-go, pace, and time-to-the-next-walk break. As I read, I jumped ahead for the interesting bits, and even then struggled to read them objectively because I found myself irritated with the narrator’s character and voice. It drags a lot in the first half, talking about her life before she become a professional triathlete, from childhood, through her teens. Again, I would have liked to see how that feeds into the overall story of who she is, but I for one had difficulty picking up that thread and holding onto it.
The book has its moments. She is a wealth of information about what it takes to train for triathlon at the professional level. It’s brutal and demanding. As even amateur age-group athletes know, any kind of commitment to endurance sport requires mental toughness as well as physical stamina. Chrissie tells this story well. The most absorbing chapter is entitled, “The Triathlete’s Life.” Here she gives insight into the day to day of a professional triathlete, not something most of us know anything about.
I wish I loved the book because, as I explained in yesterday’s review of The Summit Seeker, the stories of strong women competitors are few and far between, not nearly as available as the stories of men. All this goes to say that I was positively disposed to liking the book. And I tried. But it’s full of clichés (e.g. “the end of my tether,” “the end it nigh,” “all hell breaks loose,”–none damning in itself, but this tired and uncreative language litters every chapter; a better writer would, upon revision, reach deeper for more impact). Not only that, the narrative voice lacks humility. Maybe it’s hard to be humble when you’re a several time Ironman world champion. And extra-hard when the whole reason your book has an audience is that you’re writing about your experience of becoming that world champion.
But if I’ve learned anything about good first person writing, it’s that the narrator has to be likeable. That is, she has to come across as sympathetic, someone you’d enjoy sitting down with for a long and leisurely lunch (not just to pick their brain about something they’re expert in, but to engage in reciprocal and satisfying conversation). Chrissie may well be a charming and generous person in reality, but the narrative persona she adopts for this book is kind of off-putting and narcissistic. Of course it’s a challenge to talk about yourself for pages and pages, as a first person account requires, and not be narcissistic about it. Again, it takes a certain kind of skill, and who can fault Chrissie for developing (to great success) her other talents?
I won’t go into the book’s shortcomings in great detail. It contains some good information about triathlon training and the experience of doing Ironman triathlons, including the World Championship in Kona. It gives us some insight into her life, her relationships with coaches, other competitors, family (who support her wonderfully), and (eventually) her life partner, Tom. As a memoir, it’s not the best example of a good, gripping life story out there, but it does have these other things to recommend it if your primary interest is to learn about the life of a professional triathlete rather than to read a great book.
And I have to say that as I began to write this review, I started to reflect on whether I would have the same feelings concerning a man who adopted a self-congratulatory and supremely confident tone towards his own achievements as a professional athlete? We expect it of men (for better or worse), but not of women (who are socialized to be more self-effacing, gracious, and other-regarding). I spend all sorts of my professional life talking about why that set of expectations is sexist and unfair. Did I give her credit not just for her accomplishments, but also for the recognition of others? One thing I can say is that while she doesn’t present the most gracious attitude towards her peers, she has a lovely section about her triathlon heroes.
Like Vanessa Runs, Chrissie’s heroes are not the elite athletes who are her actual rivals. Rather, they are the people who endure the Ironman against all odds. Like Rudy Garcia Tolson, a double-above-knee amputee and Sister Madonna Buder, who started training at age 48 (I love that, since that’s about when I started my triathlon journey!) and has since completed over 300 triathlons. You also have to admire Chrissie’s commitment to staying on site until the last competitors cross the finish line. For someone who came in first in such a long and demanding event, that’s quite a wait and says something about her attitude. I would have liked to see more of this side of her in the book.
I know from the Amazon reviews that lots of people liked A Life without Limits, liked Chrissie, and recommend it with a full set of five stars. For me, it’s not quite what I look for in a memoir even though it delivers some good information about the sport.