Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

Why long distance running? A toast to insanity

running crazy

The absolutely crazy things that long distance running does to you-

You  lose yourself to the present, and forget the past.

The gold medals, the chubby glory, the time you crashed your mother’s car against a stationary truck, your bad/good relationship, the good friends, the friends who think you’re stupid to be running, the candy you didn’t eat the previous day, the impossible warm up you did before you started running (your head touched your knee, you stood on one leg and pretended to be an aeroplane, all the while concentrating on your core), the fact that if you weren’t running, the past-you would’ve laughed at the present-you for running such unbelievable distances.

Not running hurts.

You snipe at unsuspecting people who made you miss your run, you stare hard at the clouds that brought rain, you frown at your mocking shoes, you read blogs about running that don’t tell you anything new, you think about cross training like a dog thinks about his water bowl. You sass-mouth the universe for conspiring against you, you feel like a fat blob, you feel listless. You snap at people who ask you if you ran.

It makes you eat healthy.

You forgo candy because they give you stomach spasms when you run, you look at McDonald’s as your mortal enemy, you will not compromise on your carbohydrate to protein ratio. You cannot appreciate sweets, you refuse to eat deep fried food. You will stop eating beans and rice. You start appreciating milk more, your love for coffee will be reined in by limiting the number of cups to three, at most (oh, the horror). You start looking at food as if it’s the sole of your shoes, important but invisible, not to be over or under done. Food shall be renamed Fuel, and water rechristened as Hydration (“have you had enough fuel and hydration?”). You attribute your performance during a run to what you ate or did not eat. You see food the way your car sees gas, you attribute your gas to the wrong kind of fuel.

It makes you competitive.

You want to over take him, and her, and that silly kid too! You can’t stand it if some one runs past you, you want to scream booya to every person you overtake, but you don’t. You want to be known as The Overtaker. You feel like Bolt when you leap forward and away, overtaking runners. You can feel your leg muscles crying in joy when you stretch them as you overtake the half dead runner. You want to be at the finish line before your friend can even say finish line. You want to sprint down the last 400m to the finish line because you don’t mind dying after you’ve overtaken happy runners, after you’ve seen their aghast and supremely tired faces. You don’t mind losing a limb, but you want to finish strong. You grow evil, you want to do better than everyone (old, young, friends, enemies, no matter!). You become a do or die person. You run to prove yourself so you run harder than you thought you could. You become the borderline-crazy person that you should beware of.

It makes you positive.

You fall in love with the world, with people you don’t know, with yourself, with the tar of the road, with the sun and the breeze, with the uphills and downhills. You look at milestones as fallible, you believe you can run any distance, you feel you can do anything. You are filled with hope and are blinded by more than the lights of the vehicles coming on the opposite side. You look at a garbage dump and think its stench is a great persuasive force to get you to run faster, away from it. You love the dirt on your shoes, you adore the angry dog barking at you, you know the cat-callers are good people deep down and see them as potential runners themselves. You feel inspired and you feel motivated. You feel light when you’re in the air, you think you’re a bird and that you’re flying, so you fly when you run; and when you fly, you’re more positive than all the positive ions of the ionosphere put together.

Running gives more than it takes, and I believe that to my core. Pun intended.

If you think one would need more reasons to lace up and hit the roads, read I tripped on it when I’d started running 10k on a daily basis.

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