Friday, April 6, 2012

Read This Book: Bill McKibben's "Long Distance"

Somehow my city doesn't support a bookstore at the moment, although there is a record store which includes a sizable book selection and an antiques store where several sellers include books among their offerings. For supplementing my bookshelf, though, the best option in the area is a used bookstore called The Book Barn (topic of a future Greatest Thing of Anything). There's an extraordinarily wide selection, including a sports section with titles on not only the big-time activities like baseball and football but more specialized things like boxing and mountaineering.

I'm not a big sports nut, but I do enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing and tend to visit this section to see what's available. The skiing section is usually disappointing. Cross-country is lumped in with downhill, and the latter tends to dominate what's available. The section as a whole is usually made up of outdated guides on ski areas or yellowing guides on the best practices for Nordic skiing in the 1970s.

But then one day I came across this:


There were two copies of Long Distance by Bill McKibben, and a cover photo that nicely captures what it's like to take a secluded ski on a crisp winter day. And no, you can't judge a book by its cover but it certainly helped that the book had earned kudos from Bill Bryson, author of the Appalachian Trail book A Walk in the Woods, and Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Into The Wild.

McKibben isn't the first person to take a break from their everyday activities and try something to test their body and spirit. Instead of hitting the Appalachian Trail or Mount Everest or backpacking around some exotic country, however, McKibben took the unusual step of taking a year to undergo Olympic-level training for cross-country skiing. He didn't have any illusions about actually competing in the Winter Games, of course, but expected that he would take part in several challenging races and experience a change in his health and attitude.

McKibben's name may have rung a bell when I saw it, but it wasn't until later that I found out more about his background. He's a former New Yorker staff writer who has since become a leading writer on the environment and climate change, including the books The End of Nature, Fight Global Warming Now, and Eaarth. He also founded, a movement whose goal is to strive toward reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million.

It's not to knock McKibben's writing or environmentalism, but the only times when Long Distance really falters are when he brings the green message into the book. It's a big part of his persona, but it doesn't quite work given the main impetus of his journey. The year he chose to train was a terrible one for snow, and it's certainly frustrating for skiers when we want to hit the trails and instead are treated to rain and mud in December. Yet I've always understood global warming as involving subtle but far-ranging changes: increases in average temperature, damage to fragile ecosystems, extreme conditions in summer and winter, etc. McKibben's references basically seem to suggest that global warming is to blame for any winter with lackluster snow, something he certainly wouldn't be contending if he had tried this last year when New England was getting hit with blizzards seemingly every five days. I think the idea that any blizzard disproves global warming is why the concept has changed to climate change over the years.

And why it's so easy to find things like this online (

The major strength of the book is its seemingly effortless ability to capture the experience of cross-country skiing. I raced in this sport for about 10 years, and though I've fallen off it as I've moved away from major ski venues there are still plenty of things you remember about it. McKibben is a newcomer to skiing, and writes in such a way that non-skiers will be able to understand what he's talking about and people involved in skiing will enjoy the way he describes various aspects of the sport. He hits upon the frustration of not being able to ski in poor conditions, the thrill of pursuing other racers, the exhaustion of a long race, the tranquility of a good solo ski, and the constant pursuit of a good kick for classical skiing.

Given that McKibben is doing Olympic level training, the book also offers a glimpse at other aspects of skiing that you wouldn't get if he had simply done one-on-one with a coach at a local ski area. He visits races around the world, ending with the original Birkebeiner in Norway, and gives memorable descriptions of his time on a roller-skiing treadmill at the Lake Placid training facility. The one in this video is in Calgary, but you get the idea:

Long Distance also expertly incorporates another theme into the narrative. Partway through his training, McKibben's father came down with a terminal illness. For awhile, both McKibben and his father are dealing with their own personal challenge: McKibben to improve his racing performance, and his father to stay alive. The juxtaposition between McKibben's growing strength and his father's weakness comes with some touching reflections on losing a parent and what McKibben's father meant to him.

Granted, McKibben doesn't have much competition when it comes to non-instructional books on cross-country skiing. But Long Distance is well worth a read by athletes and non-athletes alike.

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