Book Review – Running Away: A Memoir

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When journalist Robert Andrew Powell finished his first marathon, he cried, cradled in his father’s arms. Long distance runners understand where those tears come from, even if there are others who will never understand what drives someone to run 26.2 consecutive miles in a grueling mental and physical test. Powell’s emotional reaction to completing the race wasn’t just about the run, though. It was also about the joy and relief of coming back up after hitting rock bottom.
Running Away is the story of how one decision can alter the course of a life. Knocked down by a painful divorce and inspired by his father, Powell decided to change his mindset and circumstances. He moved to Boulder and began running in earnest for the first time in his life. Over the 26.2 chapters that follow, Powell grapples with his past relationships, gaining insight and hard-won discipline that give him hope for the future.

So reads the blurb that enticed me to read this book, intrigued as I was to find out how running had helped change the author’s life for the better. But the truth is, this review has been sitting in my drafts for ages. It’s not been sitting there because I had no time to finish it, it’s been sitting there because I just didn’t know what I wanted to say about this book. Learning more about what drives a particular individual to take on a marathon is exactly the sort of thing I should (and do) enjoy reading about, but I need to feel some sort of personal connection with the central figure in the book, and on this occasion I really didn’t take to him at all.

Robert Powell, in this memoir, just isn’t a terribly likeable figure. I suppose it goes in his favour that he’s honest about some of his failings (cheating on his wife, leading to his subsequent divorce and generally making a mess of his career), yet at the same time I didn’t really get a sense that he regretted these failings, more that he was, as one interpretation of his book’s title might suggest, running away from everything: responsibility, adult relationships, indeed being an adult at all. I might have felt more sympathy towards him had he tried to turn his life around by learning from his mistakes, pursuing a new career and “making something of himself” through discovering the joy of running, but he didn’t. Instead, the unemployed Powell cashed in his retirement fund and headed to the running mecca that is Boulder, Colorado, with the sole aim of qualifying for and running the Boston marathon within a year. Why? Because that’s what Powell’s father had achieved when, as a 39 year old overweight smoker, he decided to take up running and a year later completed Boston in under 3 hours! Powell’s life is very different to that of his steadfast, sensible father and his quest seems to be an ill thought through attempt to show that he, too, can measure up to those high standards.

And so we have what should have been a winning premise – a broken man using his life savings to undertake a massive personal challenge, reconnect with his father and, in many ways, save his own life. A premise that sets up scenes of hard graft, tough coaches and battles both physical and mental in order to attain that redemptive goal. You can almost hear the Rocky-esque soundtrack in the background as Powell slogs up hills, through mud and meets a cast of enthusiastic and supportive runners who help him to mend his ways.

But something somewhere went wrong.

For me, there was just too much about all the past mistakes, problems and difficult relationships that Powell was running way from. Too much to make me really dislike him as he often came across as complaining about situations he himself had created – a lot of the time he didn’t even seem to like running very much! I also found it hard to relate to someone who despite having little in the way of money (and who was effectively living in an old chicken coop!), had no desire to work. What I wanted was to read more about his “journey”. I wanted to root for him through the tough times as he sought to change his life. I wanted to see him atone for past mistakes. I wanted to care about whether or not he achieved his goal, and finding out whether or not he did was the main reason I kept reading. I had become largely indifferent to his success, but my innate curiosity meant I had to know what happened in the end.

In a nutshell, I wanted to find this book (and its central figure) inspiring, and I just didn’t. The blurb was certainly hopeful, but my lack of connection with a central figure I found to be selfish, negative and generally unpleasant (sorry) meant that I was disappointed. For me, Powell was just too lethargic, too ungrateful and too lacking in ambition to really get behind – while I understand the desire to run away from life’s problems, I was expecting a memoir in which Powell redeemed himself by facing up to those problems and making things right, when instead I got the impression that he felt the universe owed him something. As a result, this just wasn’t the book for me. A quick check on a well-known online retailer reveals that there are a number of people out there who enjoyed this book; I’m afraid I wasn’t one of them.

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