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Among endurance runners, there are thosewho have run very long distances, and thenthere are those who have run very long distancesfor a very long time. Ed Ayres exemplifies the latter; having run in over 600 races acrossfifty-five years, he is arguably the most experiencedAmerican distance runner still competingtoday. A book no one else could have written, The Longest Race is his urgent exploration of theconnection between individual endurance anda sustainable society.
The Longest Race begins at the starting lineof the 2001 JFK 50 Milethe nation’s oldestand largest ultramarathon and, like other suchraces, an epic test of human limits and aspiration.At age sixty, his sights set on breaking theage-division record, Ayres embarks on a courseover the rocky ridge of the Appalachian Trail,along the headwind-buffeted towpath of thePotomac River, and past momentous Civil Warsites such as Harpers Ferry and Antietam.
But even as Ayres focuses on concerns familiarto every endurance runnerstarting strongand setting the right pace, the art of breathing,overcoming fatigue, mindfulness for the courseaheadhe finds himself as preoccupied withthe future of our planet as with the finish line ofthis 50-mile race.
A veteran journalist and environmentaleditor who harbors deep anxiety about our longtermprospects, Ayres helps us to understandhow the skills and mindset necessary to completean ultramarathon are also essential for grapplinganew with the imperative to endurenot only asindividuals, but as a societyand not just for 50miles, but in the longest race we are all calledupon to run.
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About the Author
Ed Ayres has been running competitively for fifty-five consecutive years, and he enjoys it as much now as he did when he joined his high school cross-country team in 1956. Ayres placed 3rd in the first New York Marathon in 1970, and he is the only runner of that race still competing today. Having participated in the early growth of American interest in roadrunning, trail-running, and marathons, he also became one of the pioneers of ultrarunning. He placed third in the US 50 Mile championship in 1976 (in 5:46:52), first in the JFK 50 Mile in 1977, and first in four US national age-division championships at 50K road, 50K trail, and fifty miles. He was the founding editor and publisher of Running Times magazine, and also worked for thirteen years as the editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute.
Table of Contents
1 Boonsboro, Dawn 1
The Start-When Life Begins Again
2 South Mountain 11
The Rush-and the Dilemma of Pacing
3 Appalachian Trail 28
What Are My Running Shoes For? The Journey from Barefoot Hunter to "Boots on the Ground" to Where I Am Now
4 Weverton Cliff 45
The Art of Breathing and the Music of Motion: Do My Feet Have Eyes of Their Own?
5 Keep Tryst Road 61
With a Little Help from Our Friends: The Not-So-Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
6 Towpath 72
Learning from Quarterbacks: The Slower-Is-Faster Phenomenon
7 Antietam Aqueduct 85
Redemption: A Recovering Strength for the Human Runner-and for the Human Race
8 Killiansburg Cave 99
Becoming a Persistence Hunter: The Long Day of Tracking, the Grateful Kill, the Celebration
9 Snyder's Landing 114
The Energy-Supply Illusion: Carbo-Loading, Body Heat, and Naked Skin
10 A Boiled-Potato Miracle 129
Burning Fat in a Carbohydrate Fire: A Secret of the Inca Messengers
11 Taylor's Landing 142
Negotiating with Fatigue-and Turning Long Hours into Moments
12 Dam Number 4 156
Seeing Around Bends: We Came, We Envisioned… We Got Disconnected
13 Country Road 167
The Blessing and Curse of Competition: Why Vince Lombardi Was Dead Wrong
14 Williamsport 181
If You Fall, Then You Crawl. What Is It About Finishing?
15 Late Afternoon 197
The Fading Light
Postscript: 2012 204
Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner
About the Author 242
What People are Saying About This
“Like the expert runner that he is, Ayres perfectly paces his tale and evokes the feeling of being on a long, rambling run with a very good friend. A gifted storyteller, he seamlessly moves between discussing running to exploring larger life issues such as why we run, our impact on the environment, and the effects of the nation’s declining physical fitness. The book is well structured, and the conversation is thought provoking, planting questions and ideas that readers will ruminate on long after the last page is turned. Ayres’ narrative skill makes this book stand out from other accounts of ultramarathons and is sure to appeal to both runners and nonrunners alike.”
“[Ed Ayres’] broad-ranging interests and accumulated wisdom will appeal to a wide readership, not just runners and environmentalists.”
"The Longest Race is always the story of one epic 50-mile race in all its technical and visceral elements, and also a celebration of the sport of running and of our ability to keep running in changing times."
“Veteran long-distance runner Ayres, a 55-year competitor in more than 600 races, brings the reader along for his grueling trek on the 2001 JFK 50 Mile, the nation’s oldest ultramarathon, explaining some critical insights that enable one to cross the finish line. . . . Using Sheehan’s axiom of “listening to your body,” the author provides runners with crucial information and key tips, ending with his must-have “Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner,” advising on breathing, nutrition, attitude, technique, training, footwear, and terrain. Revealing, savvy, and fast-paced, Ayres’s eloquent book on marathon running is a master class on the priceless life lessons of enduring and conquering obstacles to victory.”
"Ultramarathon runner Ed Ayres is looking for a different kind of salvation—for the soul, for the planet. The races he’s been running for more than half a century have inspired athletes worldwide and reshaped our ideas about endurance and sustainability. . . Ayres’s new book, The Longest Race, is partly a chronicle of his experience in the fabled JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon, but it’s also about so much more. . . . Indeed, with all his talk about “oxygen debt” and “research depletion” it soon becomes clear that this book isn’t just about an athletic race. It’s also about the human race."
“This book reminds us that our strength and vitality can never be separated from the health of the earth we run on, and whose air we breathe.”
—Bill Rodgers, four-time New York Marathon winner and four-time Boston Marathon winner
“In this compelling read, visionary Ed Ayres takes us on a run that may save our nanosecond lives . . . and our planet. Most runners have the potential to be environmentalists, but after this book, we should be morally obligated. Take heart!—as Ayers says, ‘It’s a long work day, but the work is good.’”
—Kathrine Switzer, first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, winner of the 1974 New York City Marathon, and author of Marathon Woman
“Ed Ayres is a legend who shares his many provocative insights and lessons in an informative yet enjoyable way. A true champion, Ed uses his gift to help us all be the best that we can be.”
—Dean Karnazes, athlete and New York Times bestselling author
“In this book Ed Ayres takes us on a journey through the highs and lows, the agonies and ecstasies, of his record-setting ultramarathon. With the head of a scientist, the heart of an endurance athlete, and the soul of an ultra-distance runner, he teaches us good stewardship not only for our bodies but also for this planet on which we tread and from which we draw sustenance. We can all learn from his words.”
—Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift
“An ultramarathon is made up of a million moments, and you’re different at the end than you were at the start—it’s the perfect metaphor, as Ed Ayres makes clear, for the race we’ve got to run now, with focus and grit, if we’re going to deal with the deepest trouble we’ve ever stumbled into as a planet.”
—Bill McKibben, Schumann Distinguished Scholar, Middlebury College
“The most clearly articulated account I’ve ever read as to the goings-on inside the mind of a runner.”
—Brendan Brazier, bestselling author of Thrive and formulator of Vega
“To read this book is to run alongside a seasoned athlete, a deep thinker, and a great storyteller. And Ayres doesn’t disappoint: He is the best kind of running companion, generously doling out hilarious stories and hard-won insights into performance conditioning and the human condition. His lifetime of ultra-running and environmental writing drive his exploration of what keeps us running long distances—and what it might take to keep the planet from being run into the ground.”
—Curtis Runyan, Editor, Nature Conservancy magazine
“One of the nation's leading environmental thinkers, and a nationally-ranked runner over half a century, Ed Ayres embodies the classic ideal: mens sana in corpore sano. Using as template his 2001 record-breaking running of America’s largest and oldest ultramarathon—the JFK 50 Mile—Ayres shows how the discipline of endurance running can lead us as individuals and a nation to environmental sustainability. Ayres confirms what a few of us have long suspected: In our greatest individual challenges, trail running proves itself just like life, only more so.”
—Tony Rossmann, environmental advocate, UC Berkeley law professor, and past president of the Western States Endurance Run
“Required reading for any aspiring ultrarunner. An inspirational story by someone who knows more about life on the run, and what it means to us, than many of us could dream of.”
—Robin Harvie, author of The Lure of Long Distances: Why We Run
“The Longest Race tells an extraordinary story of the athletic spirit fueled by, yet transcending, competition. Deep in our souls, it’s a thing we can find only through the hard work of caring and striving, not only for ourselves but for our fellow competitors, for life itself, and indeed for the fate of the Earth. We return to this spirit or we perish.”
—David Meggyesy, author of Out of Their League, Former Western Director, NFL Players Association
“An extraordinary journey of the human body, mind, and soul running together—not as hierarchical powers in a troubled civilization, but as a holistic and exhilarating display of ancient capabilities that lie at the heart of the human experience. This is a breathtaking, feet-on-the-ground story.”
—Marianne Williamson, author of A Woman’s Worth and Healing the Soul of America
“I have been reading Ed Ayres’s insightful thoughts on running and life since I started serious training in the 1970s. By reading The Longest Race I’m sure you will also benefit greatly from Ed’s wisdom.”
—Joe Friel, elite endurance athlete coach and author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible
“Ayres’s tale of the grueling JFK 50 Ultramarathon, where he placed first in his age group, is far more than a gripping account of an aging runner’s competition against self and others. It’s nothing less than a philosophical treatise on how to survive and thrive in a world of dwindling resources, alarming climate change, and haunting violence. It’s about a human race, but also the human race.”
—Larry Shapiro, PhD, author of Zen and the Art of Running
“Brilliant in its simplicity, rich in content, The Longest Race insightfully weaves history, nature, wisdom, love, and the spirituality of sports to help us learn lessons about ourselves and life. This inspirational book will change your relationship with running and other activities of passion. There is much, much love in his words.”
—Dr. Jerry Lynch, distance runner and author of The Way of the Champion
“Ed Ayres’s storytelling is first rate. His mix of historical events and personal history make for a compelling and poignant read about health, nutrition, and the environment. The Longest Race highlights how the fate of the planet is intimately connected to our own personal health. Ayres shows us how we can all make the world a better place through the way we live, the way we eat, and the way we interact with one another.”
—Danielle Nierenberg, Co-Director, State of the World
“Ed Ayres has a talent for drawing the reader into his adventure. You are at the starting line with him, chilly, lean, anxious to start the race. The next moment, you are off and racing through the story as you race through the course. His story details an iconic American ultra that I have been lucky enough to have run. I have seen it from the sharp end, winning it in the past, but also from the middle/back of the pack as it was my first ultramarathon and taught me all about pain, suffering, and, in the end, a special sense of accomplishment that few things can, and that is how I feel about this book: You come away with something worthwhile for the time you spend reading it. Enjoy the journey, it is a fun one.”
—Michael Wardian, 2007 JFK 50 Mile winner and 2011 JFK 50 Mile runner-up
“The Longest Race is ostensibly about Ed Ayres running the JFK 50 ultramarathon, a historically rich course that includes a number of Civil War battlefields. As he carries us with him along this course, he deftly uses the past to inform the present. His overarching question: What does it take for an individual as well as a civilization to go the distance without collapsing?”
—Lester R. Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute
“Ed Ayres frames The Longest Race within an eight-hour period at a single event—the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile race. Then between its start and finish lines he deftly weaves a lifetime’s experiences and observations: a memoir of a pioneering ultramarathoner and professional writer, a primer of advice on going long distances, an anthropological study of humans as runners, and a set of environmental/ecological essays. Each topic alone would have made a good book. Together they yield a great one, richly detailed and finely written.”
—Joe Henderson, former editor, Runner’s World
“Ed Ayres has masterfully intertwined his world view, gleaned from over 50 years as a runner and an astute observer of societal trends, with a stirring account of his quest to break the 60+ record at the JFK 50 Mile. The result is a compelling story about one man and mankind.”
—Phil Stewart, Editor and Publisher, “Road Race Management Newsletter” and Event Director, Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile
“This is not just a book about running—about putting one foot in front of another—it is rich in history, it is thoughtful, intelligent, often very personal, and provides an exploration of our sport. By using comparisons from everyday life events, Ayers makes our sport become more real…more human. A brilliant and fun read for runners and non-runners alike.”
—Nancy Hobbs, Executive Director of the American Trail Running Association
“An epic story of how important our fitness as individuals may be to the long-run sustainability of our national and global security.”
—Jacqueline Hansen, two-time world-record holder for the women’s marathon, Boston Marathon winner, and first woman to run a sub-2:40 marathon
“The Longest Race takes you inside the head of one of the pioneers of the modern running movement. Ed Ayres has devoted his life to running, was a national-class runner, and is the former publisher and editor of Running Times, one of the first and premier magazines written exclusively about running. Reading this book should help you understand the passion for running that he shares with devoted runners everywhere.”
—Gabe Mirkin, MD, former Medical Editor, Runner’s World, and Host of the The Dr. Gabe Mirkin Show
“This is a story of critical connections—between ancient sunlight and the prospects for the dimming future; between the wind in a long-distance runner’s face and the astonishing ability of his Paleolithic hunter-ancestors to have survived on a planet of far faster, more powerful predators and prey; between the secrets of the deep past, which we unknowingly carry in our DNA and anatomy, and the guidance we need to form a more vital and viable civilization in the coming years. It’s about the dawning realization that we need to rediscover how to think not just on our feet but with our feet.”
—Thom Hartmann, Host of the Thom Hartmann Radio and TV shows
“This is an excellent attempt by Ed Ayres to highlight the numerous parallels between an individual’s strategy for surviving a long-distance race, and the human race’s urgently-required strategy for pure survival.In both cases, sustainability is the key.It’s relatively simple for an individual to plan and control his own race strategy, but in a world where short-term excesses always seem to be handsomely rewarded, who is able to take the long-term view regarding the survival of the human race? We undoubtedly need visionary leaders to take us out of the mess we are in. But perhaps it’s not just our politicians who need to read books like this. We all do.”
—Julian Goater, former English National Cross-Country Champion
“Ed’s book is a great read! Felt like I was there running the JFK 50 with him. A good testament to human spirit and it’s endurance in utrarunning.”
—Catherine Harding, Ontario Ultra Series Coordinator and Ultra Runner
“In a culture addicted to quick hits, fast times and unrelenting over-stimulus, Ed Ayres speaks with the voice of wisdom, simplicity, and acceptance of what is. The Longest Race offers many life lessons learned through Ayres’s long-time practice of endurance running. He speaks volumes on two things we could all use: more simplicity—and a sense of pacing. We highly recommend this book to anyone ready to step off the speeding train and do a freefall into the present.”
—Danny and Katherine Dreyer, authors of Chi Running, Chi Walking and Chi Marathon
“By the very nature of their endeavor, ultra runners have lots of time to think. In running and writing The Longest Race, Ed Ayres shares what ran through his mind during a memorable JFK 50 Mile—and it wasn’t just nutrition, pacing and tactics.
In one thought-provoking passage, Ayres compares the impact of oxygen debt on a human runner with resource depletion for the human economy. Anyone who has ever been short of breath, for whatever reason, should understand that analogy as well as the need for us all to do something to stem the tide of resource depletion.
The thoughtful reader will find much to ponder in The Longest Race. Here’s hoping most readers turn thoughts into action on behalf of this earth.”
—Keith Peters, Director of Marketing and Promotion, Nike
“I found the book to be a page-turner effectively telling multiple stories with sage-like insight. The book succeeds in providing many life lessons that tie human endurance with a healthy planet. Ed Ayres is a student of life. From environmental research to human evolution and some Civil War history, he ties it all together as a long-distance runner in his life-learning race with insight for all. The book documents the importance of JFK’s fitness challenge to the country, a challenge still needed today by many.”
—Gary Corbitt, son of Ted Corbitt, Founder and first President of the Road Runners Club of America
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an amazing book. It's about so much more than running long-distance. While portraying the experience of running an ultra-marathon at age 60 in great detail, the author uses each leg of the race to illustrate much larger concerns, like climate change, global politics, the effect of time-saving technology, and more.