Runner writes memoir based on JFK races

November 11, 2012
  • Ed Ayres of Green Valley, Calif., won the JFK 50-Mile Race in 1977. He wrote his memoir based on his experience in the race in 2001 at the age of 60.
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Name: Ed Ayres

Age: 71

City in which you live: Green Valley, Calif.

Day job: Retired environmental editor

Book title: “The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance”

Genre: Memoir

Synopsis of book: A runner attempts to break an age-group record in America’s largest ultramarathon, and finds himself on a journey of discovery as well as a test of physical endurance.

Publisher: The Experiment (New York)

Price: $23.95

Tell us a bit about your background.

For half a century after graduating from Swarthmore College in 1963, I pursued two passions: environmental science and long-distance running. For 14 years I was editor of Running Times magazine, which I had founded on a shoestring in 1977. Later, for another 14 years, I was an environmental editor at the Worldwatch Institute, publisher of the annual State of the World, in Washington, D.C. Both interests began in my youth when playing in the woods and meadows of rural New Jersey, where I grew up. My Quaker parents wouldn’t allow a TV in the house, with all its violence and noise.


Then I discovered the pleasures of cross-country and track in high school. Those interests became even more compelling to me after 1970, the year of both the first Earth Day and the first New York City Marathon. I had worked with Earth Day co-founder Gaylord Nelson on an editorial project, and I ran in that inaugural New York Marathon, finishing third. I never dreamed, at that time, that these two interests — endurance running and environmental science — were as closely related as I now understand them to be.

What inspired you to write the book?

My work as an environmental editor was incredibly stressful. In the early 1990s, the scientists I worked with began issuing warnings that global warming would generate extreme weather events of dangerous intensity — the very kinds of events that later began to occur with Hurricane Katrina, the past year’s unusual tornado activity, and the recent East Coast Superstorm. But those early warnings were largely shrugged off by the politicians and media, and I felt a lot of anxiety.

After work in the evenings, I’d go out for long runs along the D.C. bank of the Potomac. Running gave me a needed escape from the stress, but at the same time I found myself pondering the parallels I noticed between our troubled industrial civilization and our overstressed selves. A smokestack or tailpipe emits waste carbon gas, and so does the exhalation of an athlete. Could our bodies be microcosms of our industries?

I sensed that humanity was in a race for survival, and it struck me that what an endurance runner does in a long distance race can offer important clues to what the human race may be facing in the years to come. That triggered the book.

Say a bit about your views on applying endurance to a person’s life, as portrayed in the book.

Over the past 30 years, evolutionary scientists at Harvard University and the University of Utah have confirmed that humans evolved not just as biped walkers, but as long-distance-running “persistence hunters” who could outrun animals like mammoths and wild horses, not by outsprinting them but by wearing them down. It was endurance — not power and speed — that enabled early humans to bring home the meat and to survive.

It was endurance and patience, not power and speed, that made us human. Yet, in our power- and speed-infatuated modern world, we have begun to abandon those very qualities that enabled us to develop and build civilization in the first place.

We have forgotten what brought us to the dance! If we want to achieve sustainability as a civilization, we’ll need to rediscover our endurance and toughness as individuals.

How did you come up with the idea of using the JFK 50-mile race as the backbone for ruminating on modern civilization, memories, purpose and endurance?

For endurance runners, the annual JFK 50-Mile is an iconic race. It was originally inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s call for Americans to become more physically fit in a dangerous age, and the first running took place just three months before Kennedy was assassinated.

The JFK is the oldest and largest ultramarathon (out of about 550 ultras each year) in the country. I got the thrill of my life by winning it in 1977, so it has a special place in my heart. The course this race follows also evokes vivid memories of our country’s history, as it passes the Civil War battle sites of South Mountain, Maryland Heights and Antietam and Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

It was the perfect venue for exploring both our turbulent past and our now incredibly challenging future.

Who was your primary audience? Runners? 

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