Book review: Running The Edge by Adam Goucher and Tim Catalano

I admit that I am skeptical of self-help books. On the other hand, I am a full-on running book junkie. So what to make of Running The Edge, a new book written by former Colorado Buffaloes Adam Goucher and Tim Catalano? It is the running book I have always wanted to write. Let me explain.

While I do enjoy reading about running, the formula for running books is usually the same. If it is a training book (Daniels, Vigil, Simmons), there is the definition of terms, the explanation of principles, some sample workouts, and maybe a little bit about race strategy, sport psychology and being “tough.” If the book is more of a fiction or biography, then it’s a story. I like stories, and I like stories about runners. The story usually goes like this: runner discovers running, runner has dreams, runner works too hard and something bad happens, runner picks him or herself up off the ground and has a good race anyway or has a bad race but learns a lesson. This is not to say these types of books are not inspiring. They are. But I’ve always struggled with the idea of running as a normal pursuit. These books are mostly written by runners, for runners, and so they don’t really break the fourth wall and address the question of: what the hell are we doing here? Running The Edge does that.

Running The Edge is a book that attacks head on the problem of how to be a really good runner, and maintain a normal life, too. The solution to the problem is: you can’t. And you shouldn’t. And it’s ok not to. This is refreshing. I’ve been looking for a way to tell people (the athletes I coach, friends, family) that, if we want to be honest with ourselves, if we really want to get the most out of running, we have to get a little crazy. It’s not going to be normal. The only two people that I’ve heard give such advice quite so obviously are Mark Wetmore, who talks about being lopsided in this video, and my high school coach. Not coincidentally, Wetmore was Goucher and Catalano’s college coach. My coach, meanwhile, distributed a letter to some of the athletes on our team that was drawn from a book of the same title by Dr. Keith Bell, called “Winning Isn’t Normal.”

How do these two young men, maybe too young to be writing a book of philosophy, go about this? Catalano’s background as a psychology professor allows him to apply principles of self-examination to the runner’s life. He’s lived and taught all around the world. Goucher has had many lifetimes of experience as a runner: he’s been a national high school, collegiate and post-collegiate champion, an Olympian; he’s been hurt, and battled back; he’s a husband, a dad, he’s suffered from the death of a close friend. These guys know their stuff.

We often hear that there is no magic pill, no secret ingredient to success. If that’s true, then why don’t more people achieve what they set out to achieve? The bold claim in this book is that “all the training, flexibility, strength and diet advice in the world will have little effect” without the secret ingredient, the catalyst (see page 10 of the introduction, available for free online). What is it? It’s personality. It’s not what great runners do (most runners DO the same kinds of things), it’s what great runners are like that sets them apart.

The book invites us to look into six mirrors, to see how our initiative, responsibility, determination, adaptability, integrity and person-ability has limited us in what we’ve been able to do as runners, and as people. Runners will instantly connect these mirrors to their running life: initiative is getting off the couch and getting the runs in; responsibility is understanding that only you can do the work necessary to succeed; determination is the ability to push through; adaptability is knowing when not to; integrity is being honest with yourself about your fitness; and person-ability is how you interact with the rest of the running community.

The authors then invite us to try to improve ourselves in each of these six areas of our running life. They claim that these characteristics are what separate the good runners from the great. And then they take another big step. They ask us to apply all that we know about running to other key areas of our lives: to our education, career, family, friendships, and passions. This mirrors something a great Toronto-area coach, Don Mills, would tell his athletes: You can be good at three things. One of them must be work or school, another must be your family. The third thing is running. Goucher and Catalano divide work and school and family and friendships, but the point is the same: identify your priorities, and focus on them.

They don’t suggest that we be balanced. They suggest that we throw everything we have into what is important, and let the unimportant things slide. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Just like running. It takes a lot to look yourself in the mirror and admit your failings, then refocus on what you need to do to improve. They end the book, not with a successful run, a winning race, or a “happily ever after.” They end the book with the admission that they, like us, are works in progress.

Is this book dangerous? Yes. In a good way. Because if it inspires people to get out and do what they are truly capable of doing, then heads are going to roll. The world could be changed. By runners. Imagine that.