Review of The Trail Runner's Companion by Sarah Lavender Smith

A very readable and useful guide for anyone starting ultra running. Big thumbs up.

I wrote about my first 50k a few weeks back. I still smile every time I think about it. I’m already signed up for a 40 miler in the Glen of Aherlow in September (3 loops, so I have a get-out-of-jail) and I’m trying to decide what my first 50 miler will be. Suffice to say, I’m really getting into this whole trail running thing. And one of the main reasons for that is the brilliant work done by YouTubers, Instagrammers and Podcasters in this area.

My two fave Ultra/Trail podcasts are Ultra Runner Podcast and East Coast Trail and Ultra Podcast. They are verrrrry different beasts (pun intended) but both awesome resources for getting excited, inspired and educated about ultra running. Eric on URP is often joined by Sarah Lavender Smith and I always look forward to those episodes due to the depth of her knowledge and utter likability.

Which brings us to books about running. I have to admit I’m not having a lot of success with these. Most of them are written by runners, not writers, and you can tell. I was genuinely sad to find Lizzy Hawker’s book to be basically an unreadable mix of “and then, and then” with fortune cookie quotes. Lizzy is an absolute legend of a runner and I’m in awe of her achievements. At the other end you have books like “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, written by Haruki Murakami, a famous author. I have to admit I found this mind-numbing too. I have a few others on the Kindle I’ve started but given up on. I even gave up half way through Dean Karnazes audiobook. And he’s another person I idolize.

So to-date, I’ve only really enjoyed three books about running:

  1. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
  2. Nowhere Near First: Ultramarathon Adventures From The Back Of The Pack by Cory Reese
  3. The Trail Runner’s Companion by Sarah Lavender Smith

Born to Run is that got me into running in the first place and would make even the most dedicated couch-potato excited. It’s also the reason I ran in VFFs for a few years. Christopher’s other book, Natural Born Heroes, is also a must-read. It’s sorta about running but really it’s about a lot more.

I discovered Cory’s book in Sarah’s book. As I mentioned in my 50K post, I read the entire thing the night before my first Ultra and it was a huge help in settling my nerves. Cory is funny, genuine and full of grit. Even if you don’t run, buy the book, it’ll make you want to do more.

And so on to The Trail Runner’s Companion. I didn’t just enjoy this book, it’s the one I’ll be reading over and over. It’s a practical instruction manual for doing ultra trail running well. It’s mixed with lovely anecdotes and all of the nuts and bolts instructions are done in a really approachable way.

The more I read it, as I approached the 50k, the more I realised just how badly I’d prepared. It turns out that running around a few Irish forests and hills for 4 or 5 miles, plus doing a few road marathons, is not really how you approach an Ultra. Of course I bought the book so close to the event, that I had no chance to actually implement her advice.

The really important aspect of the book is that anyone of any level of ability can use it. I find a lot of online advice assumes you are already a fast runner and you are just transitioning to trails. Sarah doesn’t do this. So a blob like me can still apply her instructions without ending up in the physio’s office with everything torn and out of action for months.

If you want one take-away from the book, it’s “do more hill repeats”. Something I avoid like the plague but which I’m really going to have to embrace.

I said it in the last post and I’ll say it again - “Inspirational” should mean “Inspired me to action”. And that’s what books like Sarah’s do. You read them and you think “ye know, I could do that, I just have to try”. There are things I have no interest in ever doing like 24 hour track loops. But there are others that I am now seriously considering. Events like OCC, CCC, UTMB, JFK50 and hell yes, even Western States (I know, I know). Sarah’s book gives me the training map for getting myself to a place where these are not ridiculous ambitions for a heavy 49 year old who staggers around 26 miles on a regular basis.

I’ll extend something I wrote in 2015 after the London Marathon:

If you told me in 2008 that I’d ever run a 10k, I’d have laughed at you. If you told me in 2009 that I’d ever run a half marathon, I’d have laughed at you. If you told me in 2011 that I’d ever run a marathon, I’d have laughed at you. If you told me in 2014 that I’d ever run two marathons in 5 weeks, I’d have laughed at you. If you told me in 2015 that I’d ever run 5 marathons in a year, I’d have laughed at you. And if you told me in 2016 that I’d ever run 50k cross-country, I’d have laughed at you.

I’ll update the quote again next year :-)

Finally, I couldn’t do a post about running this week without mentioning The Pacemakers documentary. It ties in perfectly to what I’m saying above. It’s about a group of highly competitive athletes who are attending the World Championships. The twist is that they are all over 90.

The trailer:

I want to be 95 and running down a track against some other 95 year olds and trying to whip their assses. Don’t you?

If you have access to a UK VPN, go watch it now before it disappears off the BBC site. If you are Netflix, please buy broadcast rights from the BBC. If you are the BBC, please distribute this worldwide.

Now go buy Sarah’s book and get started on your journey.

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland