Mini Book Review of “Only When I Step On It: One Man’s Inspiring Journey to His the Appalachian Trail Alone” by Peter Conti

Plagued by a past injury and chronic pain, this book chronicles author Peter Conti’s quest for healing on the Appalachian Trail. While not technically a thru hiker, Conti tackled the AT over the course of 2 years. His hypothesis was simple, to hike every mile of the AT, the chronic and severe pain he suffered from a hip injury would have to heal and, ultimately, disappear. Conti’s story is very much one of overcoming debilitation. I would recommend this for anyone who is at the wrong end of climb. It could be injury, age, weight, bad circumstances … whatever the obstacle, Conti’s story serves as an example of what can be accomplished with patience, grit, and determination.

Mini Book Review of “Did Not Finish: Misadventures in Running, Cycling, and Swimming” by George Mahood

Parts of this little book were witty and quite enjoyable and George Mahood is a talented writer, however, I grew tired if the random stream of conscience that meandered between running, biking, and swimming anecdotes. It was entertaining at best and irrelevant at worst. It was sort of like reading an extended magazine article … suited well for passing the time in a waiting room, but not much else.

Mini Book Review of “Out and Back” by Hillary Allen

On the surface, this is an amazing story of an endurance athlete overcoming injury to return to her sport. It’s value, however, is at a deeper level. Hillary Allen conquered more then just a physical injury. Basically, the sport of trail running, her passion, tried to kill her. The mental baggage and struggle that ensued would have been too much for some people, but Allen leaned into the tenacity that makes her an elite trail runner to begin with and forged a path to recovery. There is a lesson to be learned from her experience. As a novice, weekend runner, I wonder if it is possible to tap into the same kind of tenacity Allen put on display. Injury? Illness? Obstacles? Is it possible to just keep living and adjust until you are able to overcome?

Hillary Allen has a great deal to teach the reader in this book and I enjoyed my glimpse into the mental space she lives in.

Mini Book Review of ‘Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink’ by Nita Sweeney

Having stumbled upon this author and her running memoir on Twitter, I decided to take a chance on it. I am glad I did as I found myself identifying with it on many levels. First, I enjoyed reading about Nita Sweeney’s journey from non-runner to endurance athlete as it paralleled my own in many ways. Like me, she began with the Couch to 5k Program before progressing to longer distances. Like me, she shed some weight along the way and was an adult-onset athlete (a term I borrow from John Bingham). I enjoyed reading her story because in many ways it validates my own. I have a tendency to regret all the the years I spent as a non-runner. How fast could I be and how accomplished could I be if I had only started when I was younger? Sweeney’s story remind me however that I am a sample size of one. Being older and/or slower than others does not make me less of a runner!

Secondly, I enjoyed reading about the author’s running exploits in Columbus, Ohio. I live forty minutes from Ohio’s capital and was familiar with many of the places she described. I did find myself growing jealous when she wrote about the support and friendship’s she forged in the MIT running group. The running community in my little town is growing, but there is nothing like MIT where I live. That coupled with my own introverted tendencies has prevented me from feeling like I belong in the running community. Fortunately, I am blessed to have my wife to train with!

Finally, I appreciated how the author found running as a coping mechanism for her depression. Like all families, mine has been touched by depression and I have long argued that a trifold approach must be taken when dealing with mental illness; mental, spiritual, and physical. I firmly believe that any approach to mental illness that lacks one of the pillars is insufficient. Sweeney points out wisely that running didn’t “cure” her depression, however, there is no doubt it has allowed her to cope with it. What a great reminder!

I recommend this book for adult onset athletes, those battling with mental health, and anyone who enjoys a good running memoir.

Mini Book Review of “Wandering Ohio: A Buckeye Trail Thru-Hike” by Chuck and Beth Hewitt

I have long entertained the notion of embarking on an extended hike. This book reads like a daily journal sharing what it’s like to through hike the looped Buckeye Trail that traverses my home state of Ohio. I enjoyed reading about this couple’s adventure even if I found myself wanting just a little more specific information about the ins and outs of the trail itself. After reading this one, I’ve reached the conclusion that the Buckeye Trail may be better suited for section hiking than a through hike, but their feat was impressive nonetheless. This is a good read if you are interested in this sort of thing.

It should be pointed out that this not a “how to” guide book. If I understand correctly, the authors have guide book that can be purchased on the Buckeye Trail Association website. This is a journal. You will learn a lot about Chuck and Beth Hewitt and the interesting places they ate and stayed, but you will not get a technical guide on hiking the Buckeye Trail.

Undefeated: How I’ve Managed a Winning Streak Against My Arch Rival

When you hear the term “Arch Rival” what comes to mind? The Ohio State University vs. That Team Up North? Celtics vs. Lakers? Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty? During my run today I was listening to the always excellent Trail Runner Nation Podcast and the hosts were interviewing authors of the book Trail Running Illustrated: The Art of Running Free. A discussion of the word “race” as it applies to trail running came up and the group discussed that trail runners are often “racing” against themselves. As I pondered this, it occurred to me that I am my own arch rival. Rather, the man I used to be is my worst enemy. The Apostle Paul wrote that our “old man” is crucified with Christ that our body of sin might be destroyed (Romans 6:6) … the problem is that my old man is dying a painfully slow death, kicking and screaming the whole way.

It’s that “old man” that is a lethargic, gluttonous couch potato … and I battle him every single time I go for a run.

But it occurred to me today that I am undefeated against that old man. I began my running and trail running adventures as a means to honor God with an active lifestyle. A few years ago I started off with the Couch to 5k Program and slowly advanced from there. Recently, I finished my fist ultra run by completing the Fuzzy Fandango 50k. Along the way I’ve had some good runs, some great runs, and many, many slow and somewhat arduous runs. I’ve suffered injuries, DNFs, and many aches and pains. But the old man has never, ever beat me.

My revelation today was that no matter how bad, every run I’ve ventured out on since my journey began has been a victory — a victory over the old man who would never set out on a run. The old man didn’t know the beauty of the deep woods or the joy of going for a run with his wife. I’ve heard it said that getting to the starting line is the victory and there is much truth to that. It doesn’t matter how fast I am or how long I run because every run is a victory over the old man sitting on the couch.

I suppose it all comes back to how we define a win. I will never win a trail run in the literal sense, but I’ve come to realize that every trail run is a win.

Mini Book Review of Puke & Rally: It’s not about the Setback, It’s about the Comeback by Dr. Rob Bell

This book is about recovering from failure … which literally means at time you have to rally after you puke. I expected a practical guide on how to remain mentally strong after the going gets tough. I was hoping it would have tips I could apply to my future long run attempts. What I got was more of a series of anecdotes about people who have overcome serious setbacks. It was still a beneficial read even if it wasn’t what I was expecting, however, as inspiring as some of the stories were I am not entirely sure how and if they are applicable to my own story. If I understand correctly, this short read is a companion piece to Dr. Rob Bell’s book ‘The Hinge’ which I’ll probably check out in the future. For what it is, Puke & Rally serves its purpose well.

Mini Book Review of A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion by Dean Karnazes

Dean Karnazes is a legend. This book is meant as a companion piece to “Ultra Marathon Man” which helped me fall in love with long-distance running … and its just as good. What stood out to me when reading it is just how much Karnazes loves running. His love for running is obvious as he shares his unique running adventures culminating in his last Western States run. You can’t help but root for him as he describes what it’s like to run Western States as an older, more seasoned runner. It’s incredible read. It’s almost as if you are running Western States with him. I will never accomplish even a tenth of the running feats Karnazes has experienced, but reading this book makes me want to run more. It reminded me that running is not about speed or being the best on the course … but about the adventure.

Trail Running is 90% Mental

Some people may make the case that a person must be mental to go running out in the middle of the woods, but that’s not actually what this post is about. Rather, I am simply making an argument that a successful trail run, especially a long trail run, is mostly about mental fortitude and attitude.

Case in point, I am currently training for my first ultra run; a 50k run in the Germantown Metro Park that will consist of four 7.75 mile loops around the park. Last week for my long run, I set out to do two loops in that park. Basically, I wanted to know what I was in store for. I’m not a big fan of surprises come race day. So, I set out and drove the hour and a half to see the park for myself. My first impression was that there were far more hills than I expected. About four miles into my first loop, the elevation started adding up. I instantly got down on myself and the negative talk began. Perhaps you’ve been there. “You can’t do this. You’ll never be able to complete four loops. You’re not a real runner. You have no business trying to do this.”

I hate to admit this, but the negative voice I hear in my head at times is my own. I have a tendency to focus on the negative when it comes to myself. Perhaps it comes from years of fighting obesity, but I am able to quickly forget how far I’ve come. I forget that I am not the man I used to be. I can do it quite easily. Long story short – I did not complete two loops during my first encounter with Germantown. I hit my limit after just one loop.

I walked away feeling defeated, discouraged, and embarrassed.

Today was a different story. I completed two loops in their entirety. Yeah, it was tough. I even got attacked by a swarm of bees at one point. But I overcame the bees and the hills. What had changed in a week? I’m still basically the same runner I was last week. The handful of training runs I competed over the last seven days didn’t make me twice as capable as I was. I’m still not fast or naturally gifted. The one thing that did change, however, was my mental state.

I went into today’s run accepting that it was going to be tough. I began the run in prayer. I asked God to give me strength, to protect myself and my companions from injury, and to protect me from myself. My negative self talk has the potential to cause some damage and I had no desire to go down that road today. I confessed that to God, asked for His forgiveness, and put my trust in Him.

I then spent the entire first loop focusing on staying positive. It helped that my wife stayed positive as well. Despite some aches and pains from a foot surgery she is recovering from, she stayed more or less in a good mood. That helped – a lot. I am convinced that surrounding yourself with positive people is the most basic way to stay positive yourself. Basically, I just tried to enjoy that first loop. I focused on the blessing of being on a trail with my wife and our son. I slammed my Tailwind to stay hydrated and walked the big hills with no apologies – I had bigger fish to fry.

The second loop started after a changed shirt and a PB&J sandwich – calm down, it was was sugar free jelly, natural peanut butter, and low carb wheat bread! Both Stef and Zach opted out of this loop, which left me on my own. The aftershokz went on and my running playlist was engaged. My running music is comprised of loads of positive, upbeat praise and worship music. Casting Crowns, P.O.D., Skillet, and Toby Mac. Before long, I found myself singing out loud; much to the chagrin of the various hikers I passed. I find it impossible to focus on negative things when I’m praising God.

This strategy worked well. The second loop seemed to be flying by. That is until mile 11. As a rounded a corner I saw a dog harness, cell phone, and various articles of clothing strewn about the trail, which is weird, but my brain didn’t even get a chance to process it before I was attacked by a swarm of bees. Before I knew what was happening, I had probably been stung about a dozen times. Eventually, I realized all the stuff on the trail belonged to another runner and his dog who had been attacked as well. The dog had accidentally stumbled into a hive and upset the bees. This was at about the same point the hills began.

Everything post bee attack was tough. Real tough.

My heart rate skyrocketed and I had some breathing issues. Fortunately, the inhaler I carry on my trail runs helped some. The hills were made tougher with the pain of the stings, but I had to take moment and thank God it hadn’t been worse. I also prayed for the dog, because she seemed to take more stings than the rest of us. The bee incident did manage to shorten my planned 19 mile run to just under 15, but on a positive note, I managed to complete two full loops.

The only change was my mindset an my attitude.

God’s Word tells us to to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … excellent or praiseworthy” Philippians 4:8. I’ve learned the mind is the most powerful weapon a trail runner has. Sure … it would be nice to have the endurance and lungs of Jim Walmsley, but let’s face it, that’s never going to happen. Through dedication and hard work, I may be able to slightly improve my running performance … but nothing will have a more dramatic impact on my running than an improved attitude!

My advice for trail runners, regardless of their skill level?

1. Stay positive! Don’t allow negative thoughts to get a foothold.

2. Focus on those things lovely about being on a trail! There are plenty of people who wish they could enjoy a train run, but for whatever reasons can’t. You are blessed!

3. Begin each run in prayer and praise God frequently throughout your run. You are never alone in the woods!

4. Finally, prepare yourself mentally before the trail gets tough. Spend time in God’s Word and in prayer during the week before your long run. Don’t wait for hills to talk with God … know that the hills are coming, and talk to Him in preparation!

I’m a work in progress, but this lesson is going to stick with me.

Mini Book Reviews of ‘Into the Furnace: How a 135-Mile Run Across Death Valley Set My Soul on Fire’ and ‘Stronger Than the Dark: Exploring the Intimate Relationship Between Running and Depression’ by Cory Reese

A few times in my life I’ve enjoyed a book so much I immediately pick up something else by the same author. It almost never works out for me. Perhaps it’s because of my high expectations or maybe it’s the mathematical improbability of one writer making magic twice in a single lifetime, whatever it is, I am almost always disappointed the second time around. I recently took a chance on ultra runner and author Cory Reese by reading two of his books back to back. I really enjoyed Into the Furnace and then took a chance on Stronger Than the Dark. Oh my, I was not disappointed! What follows are mini reviews of both titles.

Into the Furnace: How a 135 Mile Run Across Death Valley Set My Soul on Fire: On the surface, this is a book about Badwater, but in reality, it is about so much more! Funny, heart wrenching, and honest. As a 50 year old wanna be ultra runner, I’ll never run through Death Valley, but there are some philosophical gems in the pages of this book I can apply to my life. Such a good read!

Stronger Than the Dark: Exploring the Intimate Relationship Between Running and Depression: In his latest book, ultra runner Corey Reese takes a deep dive into the ocean that is his depression. He is powerfully, and somewhat painfully, transparent. He discusses the cause, symptoms, and side effects of his depression honestly. In doing so, he gives the reader permission to be honest about their own pain. Ultimately, Reese argues that running saved his life. But it’s not just the simple act of running long distances, that seems fo have saved him, rather, running is the vehicle used to transport him to a place where he could experience healing. This is an important book for anyone who has experienced depression. I honestly had difficulty putting it down.StrIn his latest book, ultra runner Corey Reese takes a deep dive into the ocean that is his depression. He is powerfully, and somewhat painfully, transparent. He discusses the cause, symptoms, and side effects of his depression honestly. In doing so, he gives the reader permission to be honest about their own pain. Ultimately, Reese argues that running saved his life. But it’s not just the simple act of running long distances, that seems fo have saved him, rather, running is the vehicle used to transport him to a place where he could experience healing. This is an important book for anyone who has experienced depression. I honestly had difficulty putting it down.

I highly recommend both of these titles for anyone interested in running or ultra running. Reese has a way of using running to address bigger, more important subjects. I hear he has a third book as well, and I can’t wait to read it.