Tag Archives: Fitness

Review: ‘The Secret to Superhuman Strength’ by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

The Secret to Superhuman Strength. by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York. 2021. 240pp. $24.oo

Alison Bechdel is on a mission, perhaps the greatest of all, in her latest book which explores the connection between mind and body. Ostensibly, this is a book focusing on fitness but Bechdel, in her distinctive way, has taken things much further. In earnest, but also with a touch of irony, Bechdel is in search of the big prize, a light out of the existential abyss. Well, perhaps Tennessee Williams had his finger right on it when he said, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” Ah, there’s the rub indeed and the perfect jumping off point for Bechdel’s collection of visual essays which unfold into a highly engaging narrative, a new dazzling exploration of an artist and a life.

It’s a mad, mad world–and this is only the gym!

When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out was launched in 1983, it was cutting-edge counter-culture in a bite-sized format. Today, gender issues are much better understood and accepted. What remains most provocative for some might be another aspect to Bechdel’s work, the fact it carries a brainy tone. Americans, in general, have not favored the intellectual. We’ve had smart American heroes but it’s never an easy and obvious thing. That said, the overall quality of a work tends to have the final say. We look forward to Bechdel in the same way we might look forward to any number of articulate writers–sometimes despite, or because, of the cerebral challenges they set up for themselves. Yes, Bechdel tends to overthink things–she’s defiant about it; she revels in it. And, nowadays, there’s no end of material to scrutinize. Bechdel gets it. She even wonders, at one point, just how privileged is it to bring into the world “another book about fitness by a white lady.” Just keep in mind this isn’t just a book about fitness.

A life of mind and body.

Bechdel’s mind likes to take the more esoteric route. When most people are asked to think about fitness, they might start thinking about their favorite workout. Bechdel sees her passion for fitness as inextricably linked to her compulsive need for self-improvement which she attaches to the progressive spirit going back to The Romantics and The Transcendentalists. I happen to enjoy the sort of Byzantine multi-layered narratives that Rachel Maddow is famous for. Well, you’re in luck because that’s what you’re getting here: a book that truly explores the interconnections between mind and body. To be honest, sometimes things are bereft of rigorous intellectual inquiry. When you gotta go, you gotta go. The body has a way of pulling rank, of having a mind of its own!

Can we get there from here? Let’s see!

As with all of Bechdel’s work, this book will charm the reader with its particular pace and rhythm. Bechdel is unapologetically nerdy. And, truth be told, she’s not exactly in the minority. I know I just said that we Americans collectively are anti-intellectual. But, again speaking in general, we are collectively more inclined to be couch potatoes than jocks. And maybe, among all those coach potatoes, there’s something akin to a more thoughtful sensibility. Maybe not totally bookish, but no doubt more nerd than not which is a good thing. It’s safe to say that we have a reliable mass of readers that keeps growing and evolving. With that in mind, I think this book definitely has a vibe with great mass appeal. For more dedicated readers, I’m also sure it is safe to say we can all agree that Bechdel’s book advances the comics medium. In this case, Bechdel provides beautiful passage after passage of extended thought. This speaks to the hard-won lessons learned from doing a comic strip for decades. You learn to pare down text to fit tight spaces. And, when you find you have more space, you come to it with a more nimble and elegant sense of organizing words and pictures. When Bechdel ruminates, she knows how to do it to fullest effect.

Yes, we’ll get there. Feel the burn!

I think Bechdel’s esoteric approach is simply divine. This is such an authentic voice. Basically, think of this book as an extension of Bechdel’s graphic novel format storytelling, with a interconnection to her previous books, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? If you enjoy a book that truly takes a deep dive into exploring human nature, this book will definitely satisfy you. The comics medium is a never-ending unlimited platform for any type of storytelling. You can slice it and dice it, constrict it or expand it. What you want to be careful about is knowing how to juggle those words and pictures so that your story shines and Bechdel is one of our great masters in comics without a doubt.

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Filed under Alison Bechdel, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews

Book Review: BORN TO RUN: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Tarahumara-Born-To-Run-Christopher-McDougall

Whatever your interest or background, there is something for you in Christopher McDougall’s book, “Born to Run.” Forget about whether you even like sports, this is one of those books that encompasses more than its subject and is simply a pleasure to read. This 2009 New York Times Best Seller has reached many readers. But there’s still a legion of couch potatoes who would benefit from reading this book. I know I did!

McDougall is a former war correspondent and brings a no-nonsense approach to his work. This is one sharp and vigorous guy. So, when he turned 40 and his body began to ache and stumble, he set out, like a guy, to fix the problem. He wanted to run. But his doctor told him that his large frame was not suitable for running. Instinctively, McDougall knew the doctor was wrong. As if by chance, McDougall discovered the story of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. This is a tireless group of runners, of all ages, who run 150-plus miles at a time, cheerfully in bright colored robes and sandals. If there could be a more whimsical scene, McDougall had probably not come across it before.

To find the free-spirited Tarahumara would require entering an area just as fearsome as any war zone. The Copper Canyons have everything going against you: wild animals, intense heat, narrow gorges, rocky mountainous terrain, and a crazy maze-like environment sure to swallow you up. If a snake or a coyote doesn’t get you, then maybe a drug warlord will. But what if McDougall could find himself the ideal guide? Sure that was easy enough. He just had to find Caballo Blanco.

Born-to-Run-Caballo-Blanco

Caballo Blanco is painted to be somewhere between legend and ghost. He could be a fright to the unaccustomed and was so elusive as to cast doubt on his very existence. McDougall plays with the mystery and serves up a slice of detective story narrative as he relentlessly tracks down his only hope of true contact with the Tarahumara. Caballo Blanco featues prominently in this book. McDougall spends a great deal of effort in unveiling this mystery. But, even after countless attempts, Caballo remains an enigma. This makes sense as you continue to read. Caballo had been out in the Copper Canyons for far too long to ever be fully understood, labeled, and set on a shelf. What McDougall does find out, however, is exactly what he needs to know. McDougall does justice to the man in this book. Caballo Blanco passed away last year.

With great care and enthusiasm, McDougall metes out facts to make his case which involves a leap of faith back to nature. With the sensibility of a novelist, McDougall dove tails from one scene and character to another. He switches back in time and focuses on one subplot and makes his way back to advance the main plot. What he seeks is nothing less than the truth and that runs the gamut from running shoes to all of humanity. He starts out with the idea that he, along with the rest of us, have settled for less. Once he has made contact with the mystical Tarahumara, he is convinced that their joie de vivre is the key to getting his own joy of life back on track.

Born-to-Run-Tarahumara

It’s a question of finding patterns and confirming facts. As he gets to know more ultrarunners, including legends like Scott Jurek, one thing is clear. The best runners are the happiest runners. They run because they love to run. And what is it about running? It seems to be something so basic, primal. More investigating, and McDougall finds compelling information to back up the case that we humans evolved from hunters running in packs. And when did our naked feet lose their capacity to run? Again, the facts bare out a case for bare feet. We are at our best when we run and when we are not impeded by added padding and support. It appears to be a fairly simple truth. But sometimes the easiest truth is the hardest to expose. McDougall knows that.

Simple myths can be hard to overcome. Like the myth that you reach a point when you’re too old to run. The fact is that the human body regains its peak running performance over time. By age 64, you will be back to your peak of age 19. And, thanks to Nike, we can still be swayed by our fear of injury. Nike is always ready to provide pseudo-scientific remedies of added padding and support. But there is absolutely no need to be swayed by all the hype. A simple shoe is more than adequate. The pros train barefoot and some even run barefoot. The essential takeaway from this book is that we never needed running shoes before Nike “invented” them. All that padding and support keeps your feet from landing properly and, ironically, leads to the very injuries you are trying to avoid. Here is a quote in the book by Olympic coach Arthur Lydiard:

“Those sideways flexings of the ankles begin only when people lace themselves into these running shoes because the construction of many of the shoes immediately alters the natural movement of the feet. We ran in canvas shoes. We didn’t get plantar fascia, we didn’t pronate or supinate, we might have lost a bit of skin from the rough canvas when we were running marathons, but, generally speaking, we didn’t have foot problems. Paying several hundred dollars for the latest in high-tech running shoes is no guarantee you’ll avoid any of these injuries and can even guarantee that you will suffer from them in one form or another.”

Perhaps Caballo Blanco will just have to remain an enigma. But McDougall learned what he needed to know. Despite the fact that Caballo’s choice of actually living in the Copper Canyons was far more poetic than practical, McDougall can understand why that would have been enough for Caballo. Along the way, McDougall learned to trust himself and develop a light running technique. In the process of writing his book, he got his life back. He can run. He can run as much as he wants and not have to answer to anyone. That seems to have been all that Caballo Blanco ever wanted.

You can visit Christopher McDougall at his website here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Creative Living, Exercise, Feet, Fitness, Health, Running, Sandals, Sports