Chasing the Runner’s High, by Ray Charbonneau
Book Review by Alix J. Shutello
In Chasing the Runner’s High, ultra distance runner, Ray Charbonneau, tells us a story about not only himself, but about the sport of running and how a race can be a nemesis. He engages the reader not only in his personal goals but also in his personal problems. Ray is an ultra athlete who is not afraid to tell you that he needs to put lube between his thighs before a long run or that he had a drinking problem.
Chasing the Runner’s High is about a man on a mission to conquer a race as much as it is a book about running, training, and racing. To those new to the sport of ultra distance running Ray introduces us to a way of life, which is gaining tremendous popularity worldwide. He carefully takes us along with him and allows us to experience his world as he sets goals and achieves them. For veterans of the sport, many may find comfort or familiarity in Ray’s words.
While Ray doesn’t have the name recognition of other top ultra runners, he certainly deserves to be in their camp. He is a talented ultra distance runner with impressive race times from the 5k to the marathon. He is dedicated to his sport, even after an alcohol-induced car crash changed his perspective on drinking and running. Today, Ray would tell you he’s 100 percent committed to two things – his running, and yours; another reason why Chasing the Runner’s High, despite being raw in its prose, is worth reading all the way to the end.
The first half of Chasing the Runner’s High takes you through the mundane yet familiar routines of the running life and daily running behaviors. He shares his thoughts as if he were teaching a lesson. We learn about all the shoes he wears, how he acquired running clothes, and when and how he wears them. We read through all of Ray’s personal behaviors, and yes, even down to the details about jock straps and lube; Ray does not leave out details and at the end of the book, you feel as if you have been part of an interactive class.
In Chapter 6, Racing is a Rush, we discover why racing is really Ray’s drug of choice. From the time he toed the line of his first 4-miler in Somerville, MA in May 1992, he was hooked on the adrenaline of racing. And while initially he was all about winning, he was humbled when he began to run longer races; because he learned that the ultra distance races are about racing the self, not the field of runners you are competing against.
Between he and his wife, Ruth, the couple has collected a whole slew of interesting items or “Running Booty” as he calls it, from beer mugs to T-shirts, but it was the coveted buckle from the Vermont 100 that has eluded him. His first Vermont 100 mile attempt was successful, but too slow. He’d need to train to shave over 3 hours off his time to bring his finishing time less than 24 hours, the time needed to earn the prized buckle.
It is that mission that drove him, but along the way he took time to talk about other people and the races themselves, not just his experience as he slogged through mud or nursed blisters at the end of a long run. Ray takes the time to describe every single aspect of his race preparation, down to the details of what he brings to the race, where he sleeps, and what he eats. He gives the reader a full experience, leaving no stone unturned. If you read about one of Ray’s racing adventures without knowing exactly how he got there, then you’ve missed something. Details are something Ray does not leave out.
When Ray starts talking about his first endurance races, in Chapter 8, Going Further -Ultras, I am glued to my seat. By 2003, Ray was looking to go to the next step in his running career, and joined the Somerville Road Runners (SRR), a group that becomes like second family.
As Ray prepared for his first long-distance race, the Midsummer Lights Relay in Boston, even I was experiencing a lot of anticipation. Who runs around a track all night from 8:25 PM to 8:25 AM on their 42nd birthday around a 3:05-mile track no less?
During the race, I am keenly aware of Ray’s state of mind and thankful that he’s not just slogging around a track. He is absorbing the environment around him, from the view of the Boston Harbor to the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant, to the meandering terrain, Ray lets us in to his point of view and no detail is left out. He ran for 8 hours, 7 minutes, and 10 seconds, completing almost 46 miles.
Once Ray was confident he could make it to almost 50 miles, he registered for the Vermont 50 miler, but uses the SRR 24-hour Ultra Race as a training run, using a crew, two of his good friend, Mark and Karen, who we all learn to rely on to keep Ray focused. Through rain, sleet, mud, bees, sweat (but no tears), Ray endures.
It would not be fair for me to give away his adventures as he prepares for the
Vermont 100 that he attempts a second time, but during his training, we experience a divorce and a new marriage, and a life-changing car accident, and running turned obsessive. In the end we know Ray, a person generous on details and kind enough to let us see what goes on the behind the scenes of an ultra athlete. He spares two chapters to educate readers about running form and how to be a great athlete. I am thankful to Ray because I feel like I’ve lived vicariously through him and most importantly, when it comes to the hard core realities of ultra distance training, I know I have read the truth.
Go to http://www.runnersillustrated.com/?p=1618 for more on Ray.