Monday, November 25, 2013
Book Review: The Summit Seeker
I wanted to say more and the newspaper column only allows so many words. I also wanted to expand a little more on the places where her book took me, personally. So this version is a book review with my own personal commentary inserted here and there, on what it meant to me, and the memories her book brought back to me. Because it touched me a lot more than most books on running ever do.
There has been a mini-proliferation of books about ultramarathons and ultra athletes in recent years, mostly written by or about the fastest and most recognized names in the sport.
The Summit Seeker is different. Written by Vanessa, a young woman new to the sport, she describes a life experience that differs from many ultrarunners, who are often from middle-class backgrounds, have mainstream jobs and careers, generous disposable income, and fairly conventional lifestyles.
In running as well as other sports, much attention is paid to the statistics: the fastest and most competitive. Unless a person is a high-achieving athlete by these standards, it is rare to hear the human story of what drives them to become an ultrarunner. Those stories need to be told.
I think that people are afraid of telling their own stories. They are afraid to share their fears, mistakes, and rough spots. People want so badly to conform and fit in, because they see the pain inflicted upon those who don’t.
Then there are the ones who are always seeking, looking for what’s out there, to go beyond the fences and limits that don’t really exist. When they express themselves fearlessly, they can pay a price in going against the grain, but the beauty of a diamond in the rough is worth the price.
Vanessa tells her story of growing up with El Salvadorean immigrant parents, who crossed two borders with her to land in Toronto, where Vanessa grew up under conditions of economic and emotional poverty.
After losing her mother at age nine and growing up with a father who imposed his strict religious standards and expectations on her, she became a caretaker for her siblings, and had very little given to her in nurturance and support.
Her inner strength drove her to pursue means of escape whenever possible, her restlessness tempered by self-reliance. She made mistakes along the way, but gained wisdom and perspective in her physical transience, resulting in maturity that often comes later in life.
Her desire to run took her to the streets and cold lakeshores of Toronto until she ran a marathon and decided to break free. She left for San Diego, discovering a new social world among ultrarunners on the trails.
She eventually met her partner, Shacky, with whom she still lives in an RV along with their dog and cat. They travel the country and run as many trails as they can find. Along the way, Vanessa finds herself comfortable and at peace.
Ultrarunning is a sport that demands confidence, self-reliance and outrunning fear. While none of us are ever completely in control of our lives, Vanessa is in control of who she is. She experiences the anxiety of being new in the sport and exploring new distances, but enters them fearlessly, because she knows who she is. Grounded despite her nomadicism, she is determined to live life simply, being true to herself, and enjoy it without guilt, qualities that are rare.
Vanessa has the refreshing voice of a young woman expressing herself in a way that’s self-assured. She embraces the uncertainties of life and plows ahead anyway, she’s a great example to so many people who get sidetracked along the way by unimportant things: appearance, weight, competition, and what other people think.
Women often have a different experience when running ultras than men do. Despite so many changes in our cultural attitudes toward women, some things are still unchanged. Women are held to certain standards and expectations, which varies with many factors. Women are still told what they should and shouldn't do, or can and can't do. To resist means you have to exercise your strength and independence, which does not always gain approval.
I love that Vanessa explores places without fear. I did that from childhood and I can completely relate to going out in places where people would be freaked out by a woman being out there alone. I trust my sixth sense, too, and I don't let other people's fears hold me back.
As a kid I loved exploring the woods in Pennsylvania, and later, the desert and forests in Arizona, whenever I had the opportunity to go off by myself, or with other people who shared an appreciation of the outdoors. Even when I'd go backpacking with other people, once we got to our destination, I'd always go off exploring on my own.
When I started running ultras in my 20s, about the same age as Vanessa was, there were very few women running ultras. It was just something they didn’t do, didn't even think of, had never heard of, and/or didn’t have time for, with families, jobs, expectations.
If I wanted running partners, I had to run with the guys, or I ran alone. Usually I ran alone, and all these years later, I still do. I've been lucky over the years to make some great friends through ultrarunning, in the many hours of covering trails and roads you learn so much about each other.
It's a chance to spend time with a person, shared effort, shared company, shared scenery, and shared pain, experiences we rarely share with other people all at once, in any place in our lives. But I equally, if not more, love the solitude of running outdoors, alone, hearing the wind, seeing the landscape, and taking it all in, unadulterated by others' voices and perspectives.
Reading Vanessa's book, there were several times I found myself so emotionally moved by her words that I found myself crying, at the cruelty of her childhood: the dog that despite her best efforts as a child, got neglected, losing her mom at a young age, how her dad treated her, the hypocrisy of religion that she discovers, her intense restlessness and desire to escape.
My own similar, parallel experiences growing up, I believe, also led me to my own restlessness and desire to escape, and eventually, pushing my own physical limits, living in the back of my truck with my dog in the woods, my independence and the things I did that were far from the norm for women.
Vanessa describes life in her RV, and I remember the times of resisting the mainstream lifestyle, in my 20s moving to Crested Butte and waiting tables, running and mountain biking, living on as little as possible, trying to avoid "getting a life".
But when I finally caved and "got a life", I tried three different times to fit into the "life" and each time I ended up depressed, miserable, and frustrated. There is more to life than conforming. Growing up gifted with many talents it’s hard to find your place in the world. And if you are outspoken, people take it personally and they don’t take criticism well. I'm happy for Vanessa and the life she lives and speaks of, and what she has to say. I hope she lives it as long as she wants to, and keeps saying it.
As I read her book, I remembered some things lost in my memory, that I hadn't thought of in years, and my favorite experiences: an enchanted solo run for hours through a blizzard to the base of Paradise Divide in Crested Butte, the magical night sky in the Lean Horse 100, the stars reflecting along with bioluminescence in the water in the Sea of Cortez on a kayaking trip years ago. And the unmatched wonder of the Death Valley landscape.
The book is a glimpse inside her mind, a beautifully written personal tribute to ultrarunning and all that it means to her. It’s a gift to the sport, contributing her perspective and voice in a time where the voices of everyone but the fastest get lost. It’s written through her uncluttered view of life, from a person who has managed to keep the crazy world from obstructing her vision or blocking her path.
The Summit Seeker will inspire anyone, regardless of running experience. Vanessa prompts us to listen to the instincts of the human animals that we are. Like running barefoot on a trail, it restores our contact with the earth so we can remember what is most important, not necessarily the comforts, but the things that truly enrich our lives.
If you've read this far, then I'm hoping you're interested in reading the book, too. Guess what, there is an opportunity to get a free copy of The Summit Seeker, thanks to the generosity of Vanessa herself. I'm having a giveaway drawing here on this blog. All you have to do is write me at sherunnoftatgmaildotcom and let me know your name and email by December 10th and I will notify you if you are the winner. Please let me know in the e-mail if it's okay if I state your name on this blog. I won't give out your address or e-mail or any personal details, just your name.
If you win, I will write you to ask for your mailing address and you will get a book in the mail in a few weeks. Be patient, it's a small publisher. The book is also available on Amazon. You can also check out Vanessa's website.