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A Marathon Runner’s Lessons for a Saner Civilization

Long-distance running demands that athletes pace themselves and keep the future in mind. Might they have something to teach those who want to create a sustainable society?
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The Longest Race book cover

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance
by Ed Ayres
The Experiment, 2012.

The bestseller Born to Run launched a debate about what role shoes play in pure running form and inspired a generation to leave the pavement in favor of natural running surfaces. A new book, The Longest Race, deserves an equally large audience for the connections it makes between individual endurance and environmental sustainability. Author Ed Ayres, a veteran campaigner for global environmental issues, has been a competitive runner for 55 years, excelling in ultramarathons.

Just as distance runners must pace themselves to avoid oxygen debt and reach the finish of 50- and 100-mile races, so societies must avoid resource depletion to avert ecological and economic collapse. In metabolic terms, writes Ayres, our civilization has "gone into a dead sprint." We must choose between a vainglorious run of a few decades and a way of life that would be sustainable across millennia. Sustainability is "endurance writ large."

"Ultrarunning won’t save the world," Ayres acknowledges, "but it’s a practice of the kinds of skills and outlooks that ultimately can help change the world’s course." He encapsulates the best of these lessons in the book’s final section. Allow enough time, be cautious of "techno-assists" that compromise self-reliance, and—his basic principle of biological and ecological health—vary everything.

Ayres’ running of the 2001 JFK 50-miler, the nation’s oldest and largest ultramarathon, drives the narrative. At age 60, Ayres returns to JFK, a race he won in 1977. Can he break the record for men his age? Across the miles, he recalls the joys and lessons of his running life, drawing equally on the insights of deep ecologist Paul Shepard and poet Emily Dickinson ("inebriate of air am I").

Born to Run promised that the primal act of running could make our individual lives more meaningful. The Longest Race goes further, challenging us to reflect on what shared skills, perspectives, and values best safeguard the future of the human race.

Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored. He has completed 49 ultramarathons, including the iconic JFK 50 in 1998.

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