Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously

Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously
By Bill McKibben
191 pages $23.00
Reviewed by J.T. Horn

Bill McKibben is best known as an environmental writer, author of The End of
Nature, he is credited with writing the first book about global climate change
for the mainstream press. His latest book, Long Distance: A Year of Living
Strenuously, has the author embarking on a more personal journey to become a
competitive athlete. McKibben, a self - professed gangly weakling as a kid, was
never involved in serious competitive athletics. At the age of 38 he decides to
see if he can reshape his body and his mind into that of a competitive cross
country skier. He gives himself a year to focus on this goal and see how good
he can become in competitive skiing. He gets a coach, a heart rate monitor, a
workout schedule, and starts training. The reader (as well as the author)
questions about how much effort he can give, how much can he learn in one year?
How fast can one ski if one really focuses for a whole year on building
endurance and speed? How competitive can a 38 year old become? What is it like
to give a "supreme effort" at the very limit of what your body can do?
Questions many of us probably ask ourselves, but don't have the luxury of taking
a year off to train in order to find the answer.

His journey begins in the winter of '97-98 and he goes off to Craftsbury to the
home of consistent and deep snow. He happens to arrive in time for the January
1998 ice storm - not an auspicious start for a year of training. That first
winter McKibben gets his first taste of racing. He enters a citizen race and
gets the first taste of that focus and drive that only a competition can offer.
His appetite is whetted, despite a crash or two, lost glasses, a wrong turn and
thick fog. He finishes in the middle of the pack for his age group.

While we follow his progress over the year of living strenuously, McKibben leads
us down a series of tangents and anecdotes about skiing, each one well told and
meaningful to the novice and the expert skier alike. We listen as he describes
the heart and circulatory system of an athlete. We watch him obsess about which
wax to use (I could relate) and we see him get exposed to gear worship when he
sits down with the factory reps from Fischer and Swix. He gives a detailed and
vivid description of getting VO2 max tested on the treadmill at the Olympic
Training Center in Lake Placid. We also share in his secret worship of Bjorn
Daehlie. The male readers will wince and the female readers laugh as he forgets
his windbrief on a cold blustery day (Ouch!).

What McKibben also shows us are the more personal sides of this year of
training. In the beginning we are introduced to his family and his parents.
His father in particular is portrayed as a kind and gentlemanly person,
self-assured and devoted in his professional and family life. As the story of
McKibben's training regime progresses his family tragedy also unfolds. His
father becomes ill and is diagnosed with brain cancer. His vigor is cut in a
matter of weeks and he undergoes a series of radical procedures, all of which
are just to buy time, with a cure never offered as a possibility. So, the
author's year of improving and refining his body and mind, are juxtaposed by the
decline of his father's physical and mental capabilities. McKibben, even when
feeling his most powerful and vigorous, is never allowed to savor the feeling as
his father's cancer forces him to face mortality almost every day.

In response to this tragedy, many others might have given up on the training
regime, the author instead keeps up his workouts and we get the sense that it is
one of the things that keeps him going. At times, the 4 hour workouts seem
trivial compared to his father's struggles, but they also are a release. In the
end he finds that the "zone" of race day is one of the few times he is truly
able to focus and find some peace.

He finishes having accomplished much. He improves his VO2 max by 7%, decreases
his body fat percentage to 6%, and has skied in many impressive places:
Australia, Vermont, West Yellowstone, Canadian Ski Marathon, Lake Placid, in
addition to his beloved Garnet Hill Ski Touring Center in the Adirondaks. In
the end he refines his technique enough to become competitive in his age group
at the Masters level. And he manages to give a "supreme effort" in the Canadian
Ski Marathon outside of Ottawa.

It's a great read. The book is well paced and held my interest throughout. I
could relate to the stories of being in the company of much better skiers and
was inspired by McKibben's drive. He's writing about life as much as he's
writing about skiing, but it's not a preachy book at all. The anecdotes and
tales are at times humorous and always heartfelt. He writes in the way of
telling a story to a friend. The impression I left with in the end is that
McKibben is a hell of a guy and an excellent writer, not to mention an above
average citizen ski racer.