Subtitled Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, this in-depth survey of then-current (2018) scientific knowledge on the subject is written in the extended-magazine-article vein of Malcom Gladwell, who penned its foreword. For a distance runner, it’s riveting stuff; as researchers ferret out the relative importance of physical versus mental fitness, of food, oxygen, hydration and heat, etc., etc. For anyone else though, it’s likely to be too much by a multiple of miles.
All that science can use a little drama, so in addition to sprinkling in the anecdotes, Hutchinson wisely brackets segments of his book with the story of Nike and Eliud Kipchoge’s attempts to run a sub-2:00 marathon. The technology and resources devoted to that goal are staggering, as is the idea of what that pace demands of a human animal. An inspiring milestone, despite the questionable advantages employed to achieve it.
Even Hutchinson confesses by the end that it is all a bit confounding, and the best advice is still pretty simple. His response is to quote this haiku by trainer Michael Joyner:
“Run lots of miles
Some faster than your race pace
Rest once in a while”
Practicing your craft and pushing your limits regularly are nothing new. Perhaps the most significant piece of insight Hutchinson discovers is the importance of believing in your own potential to exceed past performance. All the rest may make a small difference at the margins, but when race day comes it is often inspiration and commitment that make the difference between elation and disappointment.
My own thoughts at the end of this read were less about how to maximize one’s performance in endurance events, than of what that performance can mean to other aspects of life. Running a marathon is never going to change the world (unless you are one of the genetically- and socially-blessed .001 percent, and even then will change it in only a very slim aspect), but having run a marathon can give one the confidence and strength to be better at any or all of the other things one does. And that, I believe is where the real value lies, in the endurance of life itself.