Thursday, October 23, 2008

dean karnazes "50/50" book review

dean karnazes' new book, "50/50," has a ridiculously long subtitle: "secrets i learned running 50 marathons in 50 days - and how you too can achieve super endurance!" that long-winded and infomercial sounding subtitle was reason enough to consider this book suspect. as a fan of dean’s first book, "ultramarathon man: confessions of an all night runner," i had looked forward to the first hand account of dean's endurance 50 stunt - where he ran a marathon a day for 50 consecutive days across all 50 states. unfortunately, 50/50 doesn't live up to the hype of its subtitle, and more disappointing, it's pale shadow of "ultramarathon man."

the short version: 50/50 suffers from trying to be two different books at once - and doesn't succeed with either objective. more specifically, dean tried to the story of the 50/50/50 and, at the same time, a training guide for newbies. i suspect most readers (and this was especially me) were only interested in one book - namely his first hand account of the endurance 50. i'm not interested in a training guide (or gratuitous tips, for that matter) when that material intrudes on the primary story line.

the most glaring structural problem, and in the final analysis made this a frustrating read for me, is the endless stream of sidebars that continually interrupted the flow of the text. i can’t imagine something more annoying to a reader than repeatedly getting distracted from the text by an endless progression of irrelevant sidebars. irrelevant because they didn't further the story line! i quickly realized that dean constantly interrupted his own narrative with these marginally interesting asides.

beyond breaking up the narrative, one has to wonder who is really be interested in that sidebar material? the very first one, "how to avoid sickness during a race," took up half a page in the first chapter. two pages later we get this, "after the marathon," another half page sidebar. and sandwiched in between those two punch lists came the "quick take," which expounded on the virtues "raw ginger" as "a wonderful digestive aid for minor upset stomach and nausea."
i'm sure there is a following for this stuff, but i'm not part of it.

as for coverage of the 50 marathons themselves, it’s a given that the story line for 50 straight races might get a bit repetitive. it requires something more than the format: we drove all night, got to the next city, with very little sleep I toed the line, and after 4 hours (give or take) i crossed the line with my fellow runners very satisfied with our accomplishment. the post-race routine followed this format: i hung out for a while with the finishers, signed a few autographs, took a few pictures, did a little media, the crew packed up our stuff and then we drove off to the next city. maybe that thumbnail sketch is too harsh?

even with variations to explain the weather, course conditions, and the interesting local character of the marathon, or personalities found there, it can become tedious stuff. that may probably explain why dean (and/or his publisher) felt it necessary to insert all the sidebars - as filler (or distraction). honestly, this 280+ page book could easily have slimmed down to under 200 pages without the sidebars and "extras." and, in the process, it could have become a tighter, much more focused and interesting narrative. it's the marathons we want to read about!

i will add that i participated in the 49th marathon, in new jersey. i ran only the first loop (half marathon) together with the nyc marathon the next day as a dry run for the upcoming disney goofy challenge. a couple of my friends were at the new jersey marathon too. my friend sal ran the full marathon both days, in nj and in nyc. my friend anthony, who I hadn’t yet met at that time, ran the new jersey marathon with dean. i was completely underwhelmed (and disappointed, in fact) with dean's description of that particular event in chapter 31.

on page 247 he stated: "the field of participants for the new jersey marathon was capped at fifty. two hundred and fifty runners showed up at the starting line. if this had happened on the second day of the endurance 50 instead of the second to last day, we would have imploded. now we were so much better at expecting the unexpected and adapting as necessary that we were hardly fazed." but something important was left unsaid.

no where did dean mention the "extra" 200 runners were there because they were registered to run with dean as part of a concurrent series of distances (quarter, half, full marathon) - and each received an endurance 50 long-sleeve tech shirt as part of registration. more importantly, the monies raised from those additional runners also went to charities (net proceeds to long branch and monmouth beach youth-based programs). was that a case of dramatic license? i found myself speechless to learn that as one of those two hundred registered runners we were somehow "unexpected" and his team had to "adapt" to us joining him!

i was thrilled to read, however, that other "unexpected" runners got more upbeat coverage. my favorite part of the book, in fact, was reading about my friends bekkie and joe in chapter 23. they ran all 6 of the new england marathons with dean, self-described as the "new england six pack!" and dean gave a nice mention to our group, marathon maniacs, as well. bekkie and joe also joined dean at the post-nyc marathon finish festival - where emmy and i stopped by to say hello after the race. small world!

here are some photos from the 49th marathon, in new jersey.

while "50/50" was a let-down from his excellent "ultramarathon man," it is still worth a reading on it's own terms (sidebars and all). but, i borrowed my copy of the book from emmy, who in turn, borrowed that copy from her library. so my practice pointer: borrow "50/50" from a friend - or take it out from your library. if, on the other hand, i were to buy a dean book - it would be "ultramarathon man," already a classic.


Laura said...

I was a bit disappointed with 50/50 too, though for slightly different reasons. I didn't mind the sidebars, but I thought they were all pretty elementary. I realize that not everyone is a crazy consecutive marathoner, but I can pick up any marathoning book to read those tips - I'd much rather read about advanced tips specific to running 50 marathons in 50 days.

Like you, I was also disappointed with the dearth of good coverage of the races themselves. Just from writing my own reports, I've learned there is a lot to say about the course, about the people you meet, about funny things that happen to you along the way, etc, and I didn't like Dean really captured all of that.

rundangerously said...

about the race coverage, my sentiments entirely laura!

dean didn't need to cover all 50 with that level of detail - maybe just a half dozen of his favorites?

but i thought he left too much off the table in his race reports.