Like most people, in late December I make resolutions for the new year. I have no idea how many people actually go through with them but I really try.
I took Gretchen Rubin’s challenge to read 21 minutes per day in 2021. Real actual books, not internet doomscrolling. So of course I’m reading track and field and running books. Here is the first of what I hope will be monthly book reviews.
I picked this up at a local bookstore with a Christmas gift certificate. Hey, looks cool, will motivate me to run, I tell myself. The book is…OK, I guess.
Connelly is a Boston weekend warrior who made a deal with some basketball buddies to run the Boston Marathon. None were avid runners at the time. In the space of a year, he gets himself into good enough shape to survive the Hopkinton-to-Boston classic. His book is a mile-by-mile account of the course, the history of the race, the dedicated and lifelong marathon fans that make Boston unique, and the year of training that went into his adventure.
You may be noticing something, or more accurately the absence of something. Qualifying. Obviously, he and his buddies didn’t and got in as charity runners. That is a glaring oversight since merely getting into the race is a huge deal for many of its participants.
Connelly has clearly done his homework in certain ways. He quotes a lot of books, some related to running, others not. He in fact interjects so many quotes that it at times feels like a glorified college freshman paper, trying to pad the word count. He repeats himself with other space-eaters such as But can I finish the Boston Marathon? (Obviously, you did, buddy, or there’s no book.)
I’m not saying this is a bad running book. I’ve read worse, some significantly so. It’s just not good either. Certainly it doesn’t measure up to Boston Marathon, Tom Derderian’s year-by-year history of the race, because very few running books measure up to that titanic achievement.
Connelly’s book is worth your time if you’re unfamiliar with the course and desperately want to get yourself on that starting line, even if it will stretch you to your very limits. I rate the book as a midpacker, not an elite.
I’d heard much about this book but at first I resisted reading it. I greatly respect Kastor as she is on my shortlist of the greatest American long-distance runners of all time. I knew that the “thinking my way to victory” part included learning to practice gratitude, and that made me a bit wary.
Practicing gratitude has become the big new thing in pop psychology, and sometimes it does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. The ugly downside of gratitude is that it can be used as shaming or bludgeon, to disrespect those who are not relentlessly positive.
A classic example is the quote ” cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet.”, popularly attributed to Hellen Keller (although it does not appear in her writing). It implies that no matter how bad you have it, there is always someone worse off so you shouldn’t complain. (Keller in fact tirelessly advocated for the poor and disabled, railing against “the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society”, and in her time was America’s most famous Socialist and Wobbly. But I digress.)
Let's talk about gratitude shaming…
Gratitude shaming is when we shame ourselves, or others, to feel grateful rather than what we're actually feeling — which might be much more complex or nuanced.
— Sahaj Kohli (@SahajKohli) November 26, 2020
Many of us have felt this over the last year. If you’ve managed to remain healthy and employed, you may think you should feel grateful but you might not actually feel that way. And, I’d say, with good reason. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has not suffered horrible feelings of loss in some way during this pandemic.
So with all of that said, I can say without hesitation that Kastor’s book does not fall into the trap of gratitude shaming.
Kastor was a shockingly talented runner in her youth. Without particularly hard training, she was a national age-group champion at 12, a four-time California state cross country champion/Foot Locker finalist and a three-time NCAA cross country All-American. She was every bit as good on the track as well. But she rarely seemed to show a whole lot of progress from one year to another and left college uninspired. She planned to run through the remainder of the Olympic cycle and then move on with life.
She made an odd choice to join coach Joe Vigil and his all-male training group in remote Alamosa, Colorado. He introduced her to the idea of practicing gratitude.
For example, instead of being upset about running in bad weather, deciding to accept it and even celebrate it as a way to practice dealing with the particular difficulty it introduces.
Before coming to Alamosa, Kastor was trapped in classic “external validation”, where her feelings of self-worth (as a runner at least) were based on race results alone. As the competition got tougher, she lost enjoyment because it was harder to win. Her time with Vigil was as much about learning internal validation, which led to enjoying training—a necessary thing if you’re going to train hard enough to be a pro—as it was about any particular workout schedule.
But – and this is important – she is honest about her feelings. There are times she feels disappointed, hurt, scared, or other negative emotions and she doesn’t hide it. The point of practicing gratitude or other types of mindfulness is not to be inhumanly positive all the time, but to be able to get past our negative feelings and do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt.
Of course, Kastor was dealt a great hand in terms of talent and coaching and eventually played those cards to near perfection. It is a well-written, entertaining, and honest memoir of one of America’s greatest runners. It includes a short section on practicing positive mental habits, but clearly, that’s not why most of us will read this book. It is well worth your time and money.