Book Reviews · fitness

Please review our book!

I feel a bit like a broken record these days asking people to rank and rate our book. But the thing is reviews matter. Books that have more reviews, good reviews, are more likely to appear as recommended titles for people who use the biggest of the online book retailers, Amazon. So, please do us a big favour and review our book. See Why reviews matter.
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You can also review our book at GoodReads. We have more reviews here and they’re fun to read I think. I especially like the review that described us as having “that peculiarly Canadian style of being earnest, educated, judgmental, ideological, and yet both endearing and inspiring.”

A black and white photo of Sam and Tracy’s book on a window ledge. The window is stained glass.
Book Reviews · fitness

Sam thinks about pain, endurance, and performance (Book review in progress)

I’ve been thinking a lot about pain lately as I emerge from the knee pain fog that took over lots of my life this fall/winter. At its worst I just couldn’t think about philosophy, work, relationships, or my kids while walking. That’s the usual stuff that fills my brain but my knee hurt too much to think. I used to think of my walks as productive time.

I enjoyed the freedom to think as I walked and often claimed I thought more clearly when walking. Like my standing desk, but better. Instead with my knee pain, I had to focus on breathing through the pain, paying attention to my gait to not make it worse. I’d count steps not with a tracker but in my head to help me make it to my office. The walk was 1.3 km and often I’d stop along the way and check messages, take photos of horses, and catch my breath and regroup.

See Pondering pain and its absence.

Thank you knee brace!

There is nothing the world could do to accommodate this pain. I’ve wondered about how to think about injuries and disability and my knee. See this post on getting past the usual talk of injuries and healing. It’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of inclusion/exclusion either. See Andrea Zanin’s post on pain and the what the social model of disability leaves out.

Now I think of myself as someone who is good with pain. And I’ve been thinking about what I mean by that.

I think that of myself I suppose because other people tell me that. That’s part of the story. I gave birth to three kids without pain medication. I’m not claiming I could handle difficult births without drugs but run of the mill uncomplicated easy births didn’t seem to need drugs for me. I hear it too from physiotherapists who make your body move in painful ways as part of the injury recovery process. I do exercises even though they hurt. And once, when a dentist couldn’t get the freezing to work for a root canal, I asked him how long the painful part would take. Not long, he said. Just do it, I replied. And yes it really hurt but I lived to tell and we’re still friends.

I’m also reading a really wonderful book about endurance and I especially enjoyed the chapter on pain. I’ve liked Alex Hutchinson’s work for years. His column Sweat Science is one of my fave things to read and share on the Fit is a Feminist Issue Facebook page. I also follow his work in The Globe and Mail. It’s not particularly feminist but it is evidence based reporting on fitness. That’s rare. His book Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance is well worth reading. Chapter Five is about pain and endurance athletes.

Of course, I’m also drawn to the chapter because it’s about cycling, the sport of pain. Cyclists have lots to say about pain. Lance Armstrong, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” Hutchinson goes for Jens Voigt, of “shut up, legs” fame. Among reasonably equally fit and talented cyclists a bike race is about the willingness to suffer. She who suffers the most wins the race. And the ability to suffer was Voigt’s claim to fame.

Hutchinson details some of Voigt’s successes including his career capping attempt at the record for The Hour. Voigt succeeded but he only held it briefly.

What’s the hour? Says Voigt, “The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. It’s one bike, one rider, one gear. There are no tactics, no teammates, no bonus seconds at the finals. The hour record is just about how much pain you can handle! It’s the hour of truth.” p. 85

What’s so tough about it? Hutchinson explains that for a trained athlete sixty minutes of all out exercise sits in the excruciating gap between lactate threshold and critical power. In other words riders need to find the highest metabolic rate that is also steady state. Done right, writes Hutchinson, the hour is the longest bout of painful high intensity exercise you can endure. p. 97

I haven’t done anything like the hour but I have done various distance time trials in a velodrome with a coach yelling “suffer” at me. If I finished and could walk away with a smile, clearly I hadn’t worked hard and suffered enough! Going fast on a track bike hurts. It’s not about bike fit or about things you can fix. It’s about working your body that hard. There’s definitely pain involved. Rowing was similar.

Hutchinson also reports on various tests of endurance athletes and pain. It’s true that athletes can take more pain than the average person. It’s not that they perceive pain differently. In the tests that Hutchinson reports on both athletes and non athletes report pain starting at about the same point. The tests involve non fun things like holding your hand in ice water or having a blood pressure cuff squeezed well past the point of comfort. But notably, for a given test, where the average person says “stop” at point n, the athlete is still going strong at 2n.

The gap between athletes and non athletes is striking. But so too is the gap between athletes in season and off season. It also makes a difference how you get in shape. Athletes who train using high intensity methods, repeated all out sprint drills for instance, develop a high tolerance for withstanding pain than no athletes who train at a moderate pace.

I’m going to his Guelph launch on Wednesday night. See BOOK LAUNCH: Endure! Award-winning journalist Alex Hutchinson launches his book, Endure! on Wed. May 30th at 7pm in the ebar. And I’m going to give him a copy of our book and hope he spreads the word.

Past posts on pain:

Greetings from the Pain Cave

Three great articles on the psychology of pain and of pushing yourself

Are athletes masochists?

Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

Here’s a cycling t-shirt I love but I don’t feel the same way about knee suffering as I do about really hard ride suffering:

New cycling t-shirt

A post shared by Samantha Brennan (@samjanebrennan) on

Book Reviews · diets

Two books about what celebrities eat and why

1. Rebecca Harrington, I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting

You can read about it here:

Listen to her read from the book here.



2. Timothy Caulfield, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash

You can read about it here:

Listen to Caulfield interviewed on the CBC here.

And we reviewed Caulfield’s previous book here.


Book Reviews

Review of A Life without Limits

life without limitsConsidering 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.



Book Reviews · running

Review of The Summit Seeker by Vanessa Runs

summit seekerMemoir 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.


Book Reviews · cycling

Bike Touring Dreams: Washington Edition!

One of the very cool things about having a blog is that sometimes people send you things, like their books. I reviewed The Velocipede Races here for example. That was fiction and today I’m writing about a non fiction cycling book. The Cycling Sojourner  is a guide to the best multi-day tours in Washington and it’s made me start looking up air fares to the west coast. Written by Ellee Thalheimer, it’s available from
About Ellee: “The author, Ellee Thalheimer, would choose a dusty pannier, bike, and crumpled up map any day over an umbrella drink and a lounge chair. She has toured nationally and internationally, worked as a professional bike tour guide, and coordinated cycling routes professionally.005-2009, Ellee contributed to Lonely Planet guidebooks, and she authored their bike touring guide Cycling Italy. Her travel writing has also appeared in BBC Online, The Oregonian, Momentum,, Oregon Cycling Magazine, and Cycle California! Magazine.”

I’m a big fan of bike touring. See Cycling holidays, Part 1: Rail trails  and Cycling holdays, Part 2: Organized tours.

“The nine tours in the book provide meticulously laid out nuts and bolts information, including cue sheets, maps, and information about weather, difficulty level, camping and lodging options and how to get to the ride’s start. Yet, the soul of the book lies in the voices of the five authors, four of whom are Washingtonians, who use storytelling, local history, and humor to elevate the book beyond just an everyday guidebook to an inspirational muse that draws out your inner adventurer.”

I haven’t done the tours so I can’t attest to accuracy but the kind of information included looks just right. They’re exactly the sort of things I’d want to know. Also, the guide manages to be a reasonable size to carry with you. It would easily fit in a jersey pocket if you’re a “credit card/B & B” bike tourist as opposed to the “carry your tent with you in panniers” sort. I’ve done both and see merits in both approaches.  Each ride is rated in terms of days. difficulty, season, scenery (“jaw drop factor”). Hills are well marked!

You can like Cycling Sojourner on Facebook here.

Book Reviews · cycling

The Velocipede Races

I’ve just read a great fantasy ebook about girls, bicycling, and gender justice (themes familiar to readers of this blog). Thanks to author Emily Street for sharing it with me. If you’re looking for a gift for a young woman in your life, cyclist or not, have a look at The Velocopide Races. It’s a compelling story set in a world in which bike racing plays a huge role (yay) but in which only boys can ride bikes or race (boo). Our heroine Emmeline sets out to change all that.

velocoverlcpThe Velocipede Races by Emily June Street – 

From the book description: “Cutthroat velocipede racing enthralls the citizens of Seren, and Emmeline Escot was born to ride. There’s only one problem: she’s a girl. Serenias—the high-born women of the city—live tightly laced lives, cloistered by their families before marriage, rigidly controlled by their husbands after.

Emmeline watches her twin brother gain success as a professional racing jockey while her own life grows increasingly narrow. Yet her hunger to ride never dies. Ever more stifled by the rules of her life, Emmeline rebels—with stunning consequences.

Can her dream to race survive scandal, scrutiny, and heartbreak?”

About the author: Emily Street began writing as a child and never really stopped. Writing is the way she relaxes at home after a long day of rolling like a ball at her real job as a Pilates instructor. She lives in California with a husband and two mutts. When not hanging upside down in her Pilates studio or banging on her keyboard, she can be found cycling or swinging high on a flying trapeze

Published by Luminous Creatures Press 

(Founded by Beth Deitchman and Emily June Street, Luminous Creatures Press is an e-publishing company specializing in fantasy and speculative fiction.)

Thanks Luminous Creatures for sharing this book with us!

In case you’re wondering what a velocipede is, here’s Wikipedia to the answer:

“Velocipede (/vəˈlɒsəpiːd/; Latin for “fast foot”) is ahuman-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels. The most common type of velocipede today is the bicycle.The term was coined by Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce in 1818 to describe his version of theLaufmaschine, which was invented by the GermanKarl Drais in 1817. The term “velocipede” is today, however, mainly used as a collective term for the different forerunners of the monowheel, theunicycle, the bicycle, the dicycle, the tricycle and thequadracycle developed between 1817 and 1880.”