Book review: ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance

When I first picked up the new book “Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance” by Alex Hutchinson, my first thought was that Hutchinson really could use an editor for his title. I mean, he practically gave away everything about the book right there on the title page. It took me several minutes just to read the title, and I began to wonder whether I’d learn anything new when I started reading the book itself.

Alex Hutchinson is a Canadian runner and scientist whose primary claim to fame is that he used to be a writer for RUNNERS WORLD. Now in exile at that small-time publication OUTSIDE, I can only guess that the folks at Runners World lost patience with the fact that Hutchinson tends to give everything away with the headline. Plus they needed the extra space for their monthly fluff features like “You’ll Love this Run Outfit for Spring Weather.”

Turning to the first page of the book, I see that Hutchinson has made yet another blunder by pawning off the writing of his foreword to some guy named “Malcolm Gladwell,” an amateur runner who apparently is looking to make the transition to writing. Good luck getting your OWN book published in this crazy world of e-books and podcasts. As an author of a book myself, I can tell Mr. Gladwell that it is much harder than it sounds!

When the actual text of the book finally started, I was ready for a nap. I awoke two hours later to find the first chapter of the book was something Hutchinson stole from my idea of taking a two-hour nap: “Two Hours.” It was about a race that marathoner Eliud Kipchoge had against a Tesla. The question: Could Kipchoge run a marathon before the Tesla’s batteries wore out? The car would last two hours; how long would Kipchoge last? Hutchinson had been reporting on the race during his glory days at Runner’s World and decided to re-use that material for his book. I have to say, this is the first example of smart thinking I’ve seen on Hutchinson’s part. That said, if you really want to finish a marathon in under two hours, I’d say you just need to get a bigger battery for your Tesla.

Instead, Hutchinson spends the rest of the book describing all the kooky things scientists have done to try to get marathoners like Kipchoge to run marathons in two hours (spoiler alert: they still haven’t figured out how to do it). I have to say, they have done some truly unbelievable stuff all in the name of getting people to run faster than a battery-powered car. If they really want people to run faster than something that runs on batteries, they might want to choose a vehicle that’s not so fast, like maybe a “Redley the Retriever” walking pet puppy toy. I can easily beat mine across the living room without subjecting myself to an ungainly array of scientific torture experiments.

In one test, a researcher made volunteers dunk their hands in ice water for as long as they could bear it. He found that people who were crazy enough to participate in a 64-day race across Europe were also crazy enough to hold their hand in an ice bucket for MUCH longer than normal people. But who is crazy enough to beat a Tesla in a marathon? Over the next 300 pages, it seems like just about anyone is. They’ll implant electrodes in their brains, sample just about any drug cocktail you offer them, and wear shoes that look like your dog barfed them up, all just to run a tiny bit faster in a race no one cares about except skinny, diet-obsessed nerds.

Apparently there a lot of those people, as Nike has proven by making progressively uglier shoes and selling them for progressively more money, then learning that people want more of them than even Nike can possibly produce. Some guy in the boardroom at Nike must have been joking one day about charging $250 for a pair of shoes, when the guy in accounting overheard him and thought he was serious, and to everyone’s astonishment they sold out in a few hours and and the skinny, diet-obsessed nerds were paying $400 a pop for contraband pairs on eBay.

By the end of the book, we are as exhausted as Kipchoge must have been chasing down that Tesla. I won’t spoil the end for you unless you already read the article Hutchinson wrote for Runner’s World last May. If you’ve read this far I can only assume you have, so Kipchoge didn’t make it. He watched the Tesla drive off into the sunrise as his dreams of a sub-2-hour marathon were shattered. That’s good news for scientists, because it means they still have more crazy pain tests to administer and electrodes to implant in people’s brains to make them run faster. It’s also good news for Hutchinson, because he gets to write about all those studies, albeit for his small-time gig at OUTSIDE. The good news for you is that unless you like reading about progressively crazier ways to make runners suffer just a little bit more without dying, there is now absolutely no need for you to read Hutchinson’s book. The only person who could possibly enjoy a book like this is someone who gets up early in the morning or dashes off after work to run some implausible number of miles – like, say, anything more than three. You’re not that crazy, are you? Then this book is definitely not for you!