Book reviews: Becoming Forrest; A Runner’s High; Failure is an Option

A trio of running books that I’ve recently finished reading. One of them is a must-read, one’s fairly average, and the third one is, well…

Becoming Forrest by Rob Pope

The arrival of toilet humour on page 110 of Becoming Forrest is when my interest grew. Up until then, it’s an ordinary book about an extraordinary feat.

Recreating Forrest Gump’s iconic cross-country route across America, Rob Pope “just felt like running.” He kept on running, for 409 days and nearly 15,400 miles, matching the efforts of his movie hero. Becoming Forrest is the story of his journey, which is more an observation of America than a toolkit for running.

Front Cover of Becoming Forrest by Rob Pope

For the first few chapters, it’s pleasant enough. Apart from some mishaps – mainly with his motorhome called Jenny – there’s never really a feeling of uncertainty or urgency in his quest. It seems silly to say that given the mammoth task, but the book zips through state after state at a fair pace with little happening.

Then Pope reaches a ghost town in Texas called Gomez, where things get rather desperate. As he writes:

“The onset of explosive diarrhoea just before I reached Gomez was the unexpected and unwelcome diversion. Shit was going down and it was on the verge of becoming literal.

“I now know there are few greater humiliations than asking a complete stranger if you can use their toilet, then enquiring where the toilet paper is when you can’t find it, leaving them no doubt as to your intentions. My guardian angel was Gerald.”

The fun with his new best mate Gerald doesn’t stop there, either.

“He’d watched Forrest Gump for the first time the night before – to be fair, it was on TV a lot in the US – and I worried that his family would return later that evening, hear the story about the film character that came to visit Gramps the night after he watched it and decide it might be time for a care home. I couldn’t imagine Gerald taking that lightly.”

I genuinely laughed out loud when I read that and it’s when Becoming Forrest turned a welcome corner for me. Soon afterwards his partner returns to the UK due to financial issues, leaving Pope to continue his journey alone. Here again is where I found it more engrossing.

Dealing with his lodging on the hoof and repairs to Pramsolo – his equipment carrying buggy, so called because Pope resembled Chewbacca by this stage – leads to a heightened sense of peril. How will he cope? Will he make it? It makes you want to continue reading.

His partner then briefly rejoins him, and then the tone of the book returns to one of being relatively humdrum. It’s fine and very well-written, but there’s no real sense of drama or danger. It just plods along.

The issue lies in the fact the running comes across as being largely effortless, despite the ridiculous amount of daily mileage. It’s almost as if Pope’s being too modest and is reluctant to mention any showstopping injuries. Unless he truly is super human, of course.

Becoming Forrest is worth a read, but it doesn’t do justice to what he achieved. It does a better job of unearthing the real America than it does documenting an epic run.

A Runner’s High by Dean Karnazes

It’s hard to know why A Runner’s High exists, other than to possibly fulfil a contractual obligation. That’s how it feels while reading it, because Dean Karnazes doesn’t say anything noteworthy in this, his fifth running book.

Unlike his previous output, it’s uninspiring and disappointingly dull. The best way to describe it is like meeting an old friend for drinks, then listening to them ramble about boring stuff in an effort to kill time.

Front cover of A Runner's High by Dean Karnazes

In A Runner’s High, Karnazes prepares to race the Western States 100 (again) in his mid-fifties. This time there’s more focus on his family, who he brings along on the journey. Unfortunately, these relationships and their subplots are never explored in any great detail.

His father makes several appearances throughout the book, but for no real reason. So does his son, who nonchalantly insists he helps crew during the race, having never expressed a desire to do so before. The exploration into this has the depth of a puddle and we never really find the cause for the sudden interest.

It also produces some stilted, cringe-inducing and often unbelievable conversations between the two. My favourite comes during chapter 20, when Karnazes wastes six pages living out a scenario that never actually happened. Once he snaps out of his apparent mid-race nightmare, he tells his son:

“Sorry, Nicholas. I was experiencing a strange moment of darkness. But it wasn’t real, thankfully. Just a warning sign. I’ve risen from the ashes.”

George Lucas would wince at such dialogue.

I could continue criticising A Runner’s High, but I think you get the idea by now. As memoirs go, this isn’t an engaging one. Karnazes is an interesting person, but he didn’t have an interesting story to tell at this point of his career.

It’s an opportunity missed to talk candidly about the fear of getting older, and I would’ve preferred a more philosophical exploration on the topic. This, however, barely scratches the surface.

Failure is an Option by Matt Whyman

Without doubt, Failure is an Option was my favourite running book of 2022. It’s funny, absorbing and readers will see aspects of themselves in it as author Matt Whyman goes beyond his comfort zone.

Failure is an Option is about an average runner who advances from parkrunner to an ultra marathoner, before tackling the infamous Dragon’s Back mountain race. His five-year journey is told succinctly and with honesty, and I was immediately caught up in Whyman’s story and couldn’t stop reading.

Front cover of Failure is an Option by Matt Whyman

What sets it apart from other running books – typically penned by top athletes or those able to go on far flung adventures – is that it’s totally relatable. It’s about a mid-packer who leads an ordinary life. Being able to associate with Whyman and his challenges is refreshing and inspiring. He also perfectly captures the folly of ultra running and gives a great account of the effort required.

Like the excellent Rise of the Ultra Runners, this will strike a chord within the running community and it’s a must-read for anyone immersed in the sport.

Picture of Dan Cross

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