I’ve always wanted to hit the open road, but my dreams always included having all the comforts of home around me in the form of a well-stocked RV. For Robin Harvie, this unfettered freedom comes from running: the liberating euphoria of mile upon mile of self-propelled motion in the open air. “Running outside is being in a sort of magical kingdom under whose spell I feel happiest,” he explains in his eloquent memoir The Lure of Long Distances, adding that the challenge to conquer distance and terrain reveals a “world of light and beauty, offering a temporary escape from the human condition. It is the closest thing we, as runners, can get to replicating the explorer’s step into the unknown.”
But it is not all light and beauty; blood, sweat and repeatedly forming and breaking blisters are par for the course (pun intended), and the great outdoors can also be unmercifully cruel. Logging thousands of lone miles in preparation for marathons, Harvie notes “how implacable the natural world can be when we cast ourselves into it with only a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, and our sneakers to protect ourselves.” Despite knowing what agonies lie ahead, Harvie decides to test life and limb in the Spartathlon, the oldest and most rigorous footrace on earth. Modeled after Pheidippides’ legendary trek in 490 BC from Athens to Sparta, the nonstop journey starts at the foot of the Acropolis and ends (for those who finish) 152 miles later in Sparta. (152 miles!)
The Lure of Long Distances attempts in part to answer the elusive question of why we run, but whether it is to escape, to process grief, to feel “intoxicating freedom and self-empowerment” or for any number of other reasons, the motivation is highly personal. Harvie admits us into his world and motivations as he chronicles his progression from marathon runner to ultra-distance runner and his year-long preparation for the Spartathlon. As he chronicles the 6,000 miles he logs in getting his body and mind in condition, he intertwines his personal story with a poetic mix of history, running lore, inspirational anecdotes and pithy quotes such as this from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”—which, like his book, transcends athleticism and speaks to the adventurer in us all.