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Endure review: Pushed to the brink

Endure Alex Hutchinson HarperCollins ₹1,242  

Alex Hutchinson has a Ph.D. in physics, made the Olympic trials for his home country in the 1500 metres in 1996 and now writes a column named ‘Sweat Science’ for Outside Magazine, after having written a much-loved column by the same name for Runner’s World for years. If all that wasn’t enough grounding for him to write this book subtitled ‘Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance’, he’s endearingly Canadian. Hutchinson’s first book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weight? was an attempt at answering several questions such as the one in its title, based on the distilled wisdom of scientific research. His second work is a worthy and much grander follower in the same philosophy of making scientific research accessible.

Beyond smartwatches

As the popular writer Malcolm Gladwell writes in the foreword, “There are many things your Garmin can’t tell. We’ve Alex for those.” For those of us who aren’t sport buffs or amateur athletes, Garmin is a popular manufacturer of GPS devices. Even in India, where endurance running and cycling (at least for amateurs) are relatively recent developments, GPS watch manufacturers, including Garmin, have made inroads over the past decade or so. These days, both watches and various apps have voice assistants, which provide feedback during the activity, but what we learn from reading Hutchinson is something the most intelligent of watches can only aspire to in the future.

The book is of interest to anyone interested in endurance and not just those associated with serious sport or adventure, which is why when Hutchinson wonders about what kind of endurance helps you stay sane with toddlers on a plane, he isn’t joking at all.

Endure is divided into three parts — Mind and Muscle, Limits and Limit Breakers. The book also uses the story of the pursuit of the two-hour marathon to wrap itself around some of the key themes.

The first part of the book focuses on the two pillars of endurance in popular understanding — the mind and the body. Hutchinson takes us through the lives of world class runners, cyclists, divers, mountain climbers, polar adventurers and other individuals while making his points. If you haven’t had enough stimulation being on land and water, albeit vicariously, Hutchinson also takes us into the air, the rarefied version through extreme climbers and balloonists, with an eye on history as well.

He accomplishes this, while sharing the reader’s fascination for the content. That is part of what makes the book accessible. That is no mean feat, given that the entire book rests on the work of cutting edge research, not all of which would be easy to digest for a lay audience. The book is made even more fun reading, thanks to the colourful personalities that dot the scientific (and not just the athletic) universe around endurance. Then there are companies like Nike and Red Bull, which bring their perspectives to bear.

Pain and thirst

The ‘Limits’ section is perhaps the most fascinating. He takes turns examining several unconventional avenues including pain, while challenging conventional beliefs on topics such as thirst. In fact, just the section on the distinction between dehydration and heatstroke, one of the most polarising and frequently misunderstood topics in training is worth the time spent on the book.

It is no minor matter since scores lose their lives every year, and not just in athletic pursuits, because their lives were in the hands of those who don’t understand that distinction. It isn’t a surprise then that a significant amount of the scientific effort in endurance is funded by the defence establishment across the world, some of which features here.

The ‘Limit Breakers’ section is dedicated to considering new-age initiatives to expanding the boundaries of human endurance. For once, Hutchinson reveals a tender side to his scientific self, when wondering about the records in horse-racing and running and why only one of them has advanced over the years.

Indeed, some of the topics on brain zapping, etc., has actually been featured in other magazines, but Hutchinson as expected takes us beyond the hype into the lives of athletes making use of such exploratory techniques. Amongst the multitude of reasons to grab this book, the fact that Hutchinson embeds his own athletic pursuit with not-so-happy endings always makes it that much more endearing.

He re-examines what seemed like success at the time a few years later, wondering whether he could have done even better. Further, he also mentions how the book’s own direction changed during the course of it being written, no doubt adding years to the process. The humility to do so is a welcome departure in the era of fake news and the rush to publish. And that combined with the unquenchable curiosity of the author is reason enough to give it a shot.

Endure; Alex Hutchinson, HarperCollins, ₹1,242.


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