This summer’s post-collegiate reccommended read: Running with the Buffaloes. Yeah, you’ll put this page-turner down, but only because it makes you want to run so badly. My full length review:
When reading Running with the Buffaloes, Chris Lear’s detailed account of the 1998 University of Colorado men’s cross country team, the word obsession comes to mind. The men are consumed by running. Miles are meticulously recorded, the pace of today is always compared to that of yesterday, weekend partying is an understood afterthought, and the pursuit of a national championship exists simultaneously with the pursuit of a more efficient body, a faster time. Head coach Mark Wetmore sets the tone. The self-educated man – at one point he states, as a matter of fact, that he once read 500 books in a period of three years during his coaching days at a less prestigious program – puts his athletes through one of the most grueling and unique training programs in the country under the mantra, “to be serious is the greatest joy.”
More than document the arduous journey and dedication of elite runners, Running with the Buffaloes does the sport a greater service by illustrating its parallels to the rest of division I athletics. As unimposing as these men may appear – Adam Goucher, the team’s number one runner and heavy favorite to win the individual national championship, looks, at best, like a starving boxer – their behavior is as brawny as the Notre Dame football team. The snippets of dialogue, gathered by Lear on foot and bicycle during the team’s daily runs, reveal not conversations of great intellectual depth, but mainly one-liners about running that are just as (and probably more) entertaining. One runner admits to using Creatine (before the drug was banned and linked with steroids), while others freely confess that running supersedes school work.
Goucher, in a statement that brims with irony and contradiction only because his college sport is running, vows during the season to “not become a model student like last year and stay up studying until 2 am the week before nationals.” He admirably returns for his senior year to win the individual crown that has eluded him – not to graduate with a degree. He is more Andrew Luck, temporarily turning down riches, and less Maya Moore, who had no reason to leave early for the cash-strapped WNBA.
And then there are the injuries – enough to squash the title chances of any Big East basketball squad. Nary a Buffalo escapes the daily grind of 13, 14, and sometimes 20-mile runs at obscene paces (Goucher rolls 5:35’s for 22 miles one day), as Lear reveals to the reader (if they didn’t already know) how stressing the sport of running can be. Hence, this book isn’t about the act of running, with the image of the easy-striding jogger leaving pine forest and beach sand in his wake. No, Running with the Buffaloes is about the sport of running, the math, the science, the sacrifice, the brutality, and the business. Though everyone on the team would say they run because they love the sport, one has to wonder if some of them, like a poker player with a decent hand and many chips already in the pot, have run so many miles they have no other choice.
Lear’s writing style caters towards the runners of which he writes – not in its straightforward manner, but in the incessant reporting of distances and times for nearly every practice throughout the season. Though the non-runner may tire of this practice, the countless numbers are a welcomed stroke for the hardcore fan. It’s just another reason why the seasoned runner always chooses Running Times over Runner’s World.
Lear’s characterization of the men follows this calculating style. The reader learns about the runners mainly through their place on the team. Other tidbits are gained through scattered personal stories that provide interesting backstory.
Yet one cannot help to yearn for more. Rarely are the men depicted in disagreement or in lengthy conversation. Runners not named Goucher tend to blend with the rest of the team. One must remember that Lear, a former runner himself, becomes close to the team (as Goucher mentions in the prologue), and there are certain elements of the running/college experience that seem neglected out of respect for that relationship (see Sports Illustrated for a more twisted example). In light of this, the earnest reports of times and distances become even more important, for he so fastidiously divulges this information.
On the contrary, there is a certain charm to Lear’s clinical approach. One gets the sense that the men are machines, born and bred to run high up in the Rockies (in fact, most of them are native Coloradans). Lines that would otherwise pass by the reader’s attention suddenly infuse with sly humor. In his next (and less successful) book, Four Minutes, which documents Alan Webb’s freshman season at Michigan (the title makes no sense, by the way, because a four minute mile is not only slow for Alan Webb, but would also just piss him off) Lear less deftly manages this relationship.
Besides the preoccupation with the numbers of the sport of cross country running, one of the most fascinating and underrated aspects of this book is the strategic mind of Mark Wetmore. From his training philosophy (take as much punishment as possible; run all miles in one daily session when most programs use doubles to ease the burden) to his race day tactics (go out controlled and pass hoards of people during the last mile), Wet’s (Just joking. None of the runners would ever refer to him as “Wet”), unorthodox formula for success is strangely reminiscent of the one used by Mark Wahlberg’s character (Mickey Ward) in last year’s blockbuster, The Fighter. Ward wins fights by incurring heavy abuse (i.e. the Buff’s training) and staging improbable comebacks (like the Buffs do in the last mile/later races in the season). It’s fascinating to see such attention to strategy in a sport where much of the outcome is determined by the training beforehand. Furthermore, Wetmore derives a disproportionate success from his walk-ons – his Mickey Wards – or, as he refers to them, his (insert the name of a former walk-on success who happens to pop into his head)’s. Not only do readers gain access to some of the best athletes in college sports, but they can also form connections with the underdogs of the team hoping to make the championship roster.
Read this book!