Ultramarathons & Human Endurance: The Longest Race by Ed Ayres

The Longest Race audiobook coverWhat a wonderful audiobook The Longest Race by Ed Ayres turned out to be! Both a memoir about running an ultramarathon (any distance longer than the 26-mile marathon) and a meditation on the future of the human race, The Longest Race is also the longest, most successfully sustained (book-length!) metaphor I’ve ever read.

“Over the years,” the author writes near the beginning of the book, “I’d noticed curious parallels between the ecology of human societies under duress and that of an individual human under great stress. I had begun to wonder, Are these parallels more than just coincidence?” Each leg of the JFK 50 Mile – the annual trail race through the hills, woods, and back roads of Maryland – sparks related thoughts, from science to history to memories of the author’s own past, that merge with his concerns about our future as a race if we continue down the path we seem to be on.

Ed Ayres, the founder of Running Times, has written an expansive memoir that seems to have grown organically out of his experience of competing in a specific ultramarathon at age 60 with the personal goal of winning the race in the his age group (60–69), after a lifetime of looonnnng-distance running and a decade of work as an environmental science editor.

The JFK 50 Mile is a trail race that started with John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the U.S. military troops of 1962 that they should be able to do what Theodore Roosevelt said his officers should be able to do: travel 50 miles on foot in 20 hours or less. In the spirit of competition, Army and other military personnel took up the challenge in 1963 (when JFK’s brother Bobby Kennedy also took up the challenge, in his loafers) and the annual race has happened every year since.

In The Longest Race, the author writes specifically about running the JFK 50 Mile race of November 2001, just nine weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thoughts of 9/11, weapons of war, religious belief, international relations, scientific advances, pacificism, the environment, the human body, optimal footwear, the Olympics brand, and much more, are all interconnected in The Longest Race – a personal account of long-distance running and the author’s thoughts on the endurance of the human race. There’s plenty of insight on how best to approach the sport and the author does include helpful tips at the end, but The Longest Race is definitely not a how-to book about ultramarathon racing.

My reasons for entering this race were as complex – or simple – as my reasons for wanting to be alive. I’d been a competitive long-distance runner for the past 44 years, and I was undeniably addicted. I had also just turned sixty, and it can feel disconcerting to a man at that age to find that he no longer has the strength or mojo that he once had, and that has always seemed an essential part of who he is. Part of my motivation was that I wanted to see if I could still run with guys who were in their twenties or thirties – or even forties. I had reasons to think maybe I could.
Possibly the biggest reason I was standing there, though, was about that most irreducible of all human needs – the instinct to survive. An ultramarathon race…is a ritual of survival. In a world beset by ever more ominous threats – now heightened by those tragic events of two months ago – the need not just to hope and plan intelligently but to actively practice the art of survival had put a tightening grip on me.

Still from the book’s first chapter:

The editing work was both intense and frustrating, and after work each evening I’d go out for long runs along the D.C. bank of the Potomac. Running gave me a needed escape, but at the same time I found myself meditating on those remarkable parallels I saw between our fast-growing global industries and our overstressed selves.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I was in a position to draw on what I’d learned about the nature of human capability, whether to power missiles or propel our own bodies, and to use that knowledge to run faster than I once would have thought possible for a man my age.

Audiobook narrator Richard Waterhouse does an excellent job reading The Longest Race, although he sounds much younger than age sixty himself. He places the right amount of emotion on the author’s writing, which ranges from lightly humorous to seriously contemplative without trying to add a false element of suspense or drama to the details of the race itself (which was run over ten years ago, after all.) The Longest Race would make a great audiobook to listen to while on a long run (not allowed on the JFK 50 Mile, though) or a fascinating book to read while resting at home after a long run. You definitely don’t have to be training for your own ultramarathon; non-runners or former runners can enjoy it as a memoir along the lines of Bill Bryson, but more serious.

The Longest Race may appeal most to readers whose foreign policy inclinations are more dove than hawk, but the book struck me as well balanced and thoughtfully written in a bi-partisan, non-controversial way.

Listen to the beginning of the audiobook here.

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance
Ayres, Ed, author
Waterhouse, Richard, narrator
7 hrs., 30 min.

Disclosure: I received a free download of this book from AudioGO through Audiobook Jukebox. Way back last spring, at BEA, I also requested and received an advance reading copy from the print publisher, The Experiment, a company that employs a family member of mine, which is how I first heard about The Longest Race.

6 thoughts on “Ultramarathons & Human Endurance: The Longest Race by Ed Ayres”

  1. I wouldn’t usually be interested like this, though I do enjoy watching marathons on TV, but the context sounds really good. Incredible length to run, but more power to him. I’ll be seeing regular marathons in a whole new light after this!

    1. It’s funny, though, the author ran the race in just under 8 hours and the audiobook lasted just over 7-1/2 hours, so it’s pretty close! I think both runners and non-runners would like this book, but you might need to have some connection to long-distance running, or at least see the appeal of it, to enjoy it most.

Would love to have you comment!