An inspired and inspiring memoir of one man’s conquest of wimpiness.
For more than a decade, McKibben (Maybe One, 1998, etc.) 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.