reviewed by Mike Palmer
“But, but, but, I said. I’ve never run that far. I don’t know if I can do it. It’s up a mountain and back down. It’s the first year of the race – things always go wrong the first year. I could get lost. I often get lost. It’s desolate and deserted up there. There are no previous times to try to gauge how long it will take. It could be wet. It could be cold. (I am always cold.) I will fall. (I always fall.) There might not be enough – or the right kind of – food at the aid stations. I haven’t trained enough. I’m scared.”
– Rachel Toor from Personal Record
What ultrarunner has not had these exact thoughts? This is a good example of the prose of Rachel Toor whose book, Personal Record, chronicles how running became an integral part of her life; from its beginning as a challenge to a boyfriend who went out running with her beloved dog while she sat and read Milton or a George Eliot novel, up through that baptism of ultrarunning: pacing at Western States, and beyond. It starts from her college years as an undergraduate at Yale to mid-life where she is currently a writing instructor at Eastern Washington University. It is not a book about training; it is not a book about “how to run” a marathon or ultra; and it is not about what shoes to wear – although she does devote a wry chapter to “The Watch”. It is not an updated version of the Being of Running genre that was popular during the so-called “running boom” of the 70s. It is a candid and engaging account of how running affected Toor deeply and the various people, deftly portrayed like characters in a novel, she met along the way.
The book is divided up into 26.2 chapters (she has run 40 marathons). The chapters are short; they can be read before or after a workout or on those sleepless nights before an important race. Several of these originally appeared as articles in Marathon & Beyond and Running Times magazine where she is a senior writer. The chapters roughly follow the marathon as a metaphor, a motif: an exciting start (becoming obsessed with training and racing), mid-race doubts and struggles (becoming an experienced runner, encountering other runners during races), and reaching a finish where she contemplates the overall value of the running experience – what it can and cannot do.
Towards the end of the book, when she is in her late 40s, she undergoes a painful breakup with a man and tries to assuage her suffering by (what else?) going for a run. But this is a transient relief at best:
It is not a panacea, running, as much as I wish it were.
I cannot run away. Not from myself.
I step into the shower and begin, once again, to cry.
But this somberness is not the prevailing tone of the book. Many of the chapters exhibit a keen sense of humor. In Rachel Toor’s world the two major food groups are, “chocolate and peanut butter”. Crashing her car while frantically trying to find the start of a 50-km trail race in Montana she arrives late and jumps in; loving the course and the people she meets until, while toasting a marshmallow, she has to contend with an exceptionally cantankerous and autocratic race director. In a chapter entitled “Speed Goggles”, the author rhapsodizes about how a man’s running ability is her gauge of his desirability:
I know lots of great and handsome men who slog through marathons at a slow and steady pace. It’s not that I wouldn’t go out with them, but when I see the cadaverous guys striding out before the gun goes off, my heart begins to race. It’s possible that Khalid Khannouchi, Don Kardong, and Ian Torrence are not attractive men. I wouldn’t know. They look darned good to me.
Throughout the book, Rachel Toor’s prose is consistently engaging. “Becoming a Marathoner”, a chapter about pacing another woman runner, a runner she just met the day of the race at the iconic post-9/11 New York City marathon, is deeply moving.
And for once, pacing a runner at Western States is rendered for what it truly is – stark and surreal, like something from a play by Samuel Beckett where the characters interact in monosyllables, and small gestures take on profound significance, all the while surrounded by darkness:
We approach other runners and their pacers. It’s not hard to tell who has which role. The pacers, many of them women, are happy and peppy. The runners are usually silent. ‘Looking good,’ we pacers say to the runners and to each other. The runners grunt thanks and carry on.
‘How about a gel,’ I ask.
A few minutes later he takes a gel from his shorts. I help him get the water bottle out of his pack, he drinks, and hands it back to me. I stuff it back in his waist pack. We talk about how good our crew is, Paul and Roz. Cindy. We run.
‘You’re doing great, Ralph.’
‘Thanks. Thanks,’ he says, ‘for doing this for me. I really appreciate it.’ I can hear the fullness in his voice.
‘It’s my pleasure,’ I tell him honestly.
‘You doing okay?’ he asks.
‘Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.’
Just as she sometimes does in a trail race, Rachel Toor goes off-course in a couple of places in Personal Record. She espouses a belief that muscle soreness is caused by an accumulation of lactic acid. Carl Andersen’s name is misspelled: Karl Anderson (I doubt this is the first time that has happened to Carl). She writes, “Apparently someone once asked Ann Trason…if, at the end, she ran from aid station to aid station.”
Most ultra veterans probably know that Trason’s famous answer, “I run from tree to tree” was in response to Frank Shorter’s question when he literally jumped from the bushes near the end of the Western States 100 and thrust a microphone in her face during the filming of that race for the Wide World of Sports. The quote has earned a permanent place in the ultrarunner’s version of Bartlett’s Quotations.
But Rachel Toor quickly gets back on the trail, and on course. Nowhere is this more evident than in this amazing passage from “On the Road”, a chapter that could easily stand alone as a short story. Her prose is concise with an edgy resonance reminiscent of Raymond Carver or Leonard Michaels at their transcendent best. Her attempt to describe the deep attraction she has for a man she met at the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race and Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon (she was the first woman in the marathon and came in second in the 100-mile race; he was the third man in the marathon) is the best writing I’ve ever read about the mysterious, powerful, and ultimately ineffable (and more often than not, ephemeral) bonds that can occur between runners as well as the ephemeral nature of running itself:
“Perhaps we will see each other again, maybe at a race; maybe we’ll hook up for coffee if it turns out we are in the same place at the same time. Perhaps. We will embrace and smile and catch up. Perhaps I’ll meet your wife; I’m sure I will like her. We will laugh a bit, reminisce. But it won’t be the same. We shared this time in a time that was extraordinary; it was all in the now. No future, no past. We were present for each other, there and then, in ways that we could not be in normal, daily life. We were together in that liminal space, on the border, on the threshold of what’s real.”
Following Rachel Toor as she leads you on these trails will take you to remarkable places. You won’t think about running in the same way and you’ll be richer for the experience.