Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously
In his late thirties, celebrated essayist, journalist, and author Bill McKibben —never much of an athlete—decided the time had come for him to really test his body. Cross-country skiing his challenge of choice, he lived the fantasy of many amateur athletes and trained; with the help of a coach/guru; nearly full-time, putting in hours and miles typical of an Olympic hopeful. For one vigorous year, which would culminate in a series of grueling, long-distance races, McKibben experienced his body's rhythms and possibilities as never before.
But the year also brought tragedy to McKibben and his family as his father developed a life-threatening illness. Forcing a deeper exploration of both body and spirit, the arrival of this illness transforms McKibben's action-packed memoir into a moving account of two men coming to terms with the limits of the flesh.
The author of such impassioned and groundbreaking books as The End of Nature and The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben is re-nowned as an original thinker. Here, writing with his trademark honesty and insight, he once again creates a provocative and unconventional book, a fascinating portrait of a man in midlife pushing his body and soul to the breaking point—and learning some unexpected truths along the way.
Read an excerpt from Long Distance
What Others Have Said About Long Distance
"McKibben's description of his decision at age 37 to hire a professional exercise guru and undergo a grueling, year-long regimen of cross-country ski training on a par with that of an Olympian is as well done as his project may seem ambitious. McKibben admits early on, 'I'm not sure where my wimpiness came from.' He describes how, through all his torturous physical training, his most rewarding results have been psychological. 'I came seeking sweat,' he writes, 'and found only enlightenment.'
"A balance of humor and healthy cynicism keeps the sentiment from overwhelming the text. McKibben also steers clear of an obsession with chronology or a journal-entry style that often dogs such projects, instead telling his story in anecdotes and asides, which allows for shifts in scene and subject that keep the story fresh. He incorporates an account of his father's battle with brain cancer, which coincides with his training, but he avoids melodrama when ruminating on his father's decline and weakness in light of his own increasing vigor. The result is a short and satisfying read that, like the author's experience, may not completely alter one's life, but certainly supplies plenty to think about."
"Bill McKibben's Long Distance is an engaging, if uneven, blend of memoir, essay and reporting. It's not about sports or exercise, but the idea of endurance."
"This book documents one man's training to become a world-class long-distance cross-country skier. Throughout, essayist, journalist, and author McKibben shares the lessons he learned while skiing on three continents. As he states, 'I came seeking sweat and found only enlightenment.' This quote summarizes McKibben's mid-life journey of physical and spiritual renewal, in which he pushed his body and soul to the brink of collapse. A well-written, honest, and insightful look at what it takes to reach the threshold of competitive athletics, this is a story of endurance and finishing what you start. Recommended for most collections."
"McKibben sets no records as a cross-country skier. But as a writer, he leaves the conventions and the formulas far behind, and his book succeeds—indeed, triumphs—as so many racers do, on heart as much as talent."
"An inspired and inspiring memoir of one man's conquest of wimpiness. For more than a decade, McKibben has been building a well-deserved reputation as a thoughtful, encyclopedic writer on the environment. His bookish life, he ruefully relates, may have won him fame, but it also left him soft and squishy; never much of an athlete, he nursed hard memories of hating Richard Nixon (not for Vietnam but for mandating 'the 600-yard run, a distance that seemed to me unimaginably long)' and of being humiliated for not being able to do a single pull-up in PE class.
"Having hit 37, 'the age when age starts to seem like age,' McKibben resolved to take charge of his body, and here he provides a spirited account of his transformation from underachiever to, well, a slightly better class of underachiever. 'Almost no one writes about sports from the point of view of the mediocre, offers insights from the middle of the pack,' he cheerfully notes before launching into a fact- and anecdote-laced narrative on the salutary effects of constant striving, constant effort, and constant improvement in every aspect of life. For one, he writes, the exertion of sports (he chose cross-country skiing, perhaps the best aerobic workout around, but he has much to say about distance running, yoga, and backpacking as well) affords 'a feeling of total clarity,' an ability to focus on the task at hand and to still the 'stopless chatter that usually fills my brainpan.'
"He talks to an impressive array of trainers, sports physiologists, therapists, and doctors, and he quotes from the sporting literature authoritatively. But the best moments of this fine book are those in which he finds the obstacles within himself and overcomes them—a process that readers will want to try on themselves. In a league with George Leonard's Mastery and John Jerome's The Elements of Effort, this is a strong vademecum for weekend warriors seeking to change their lives."