Review: Run to Overcome by Meb Keflezighi

by Anna Blanch on November 5, 2010

Running is like Life.
You start at the same place with your fellow runners. You all finish at the same place. How you do it largely up to you. If you win, you congratulate your team and yourself. If you lose, you evaluate how to improve. You can’t make excuses like “He didn’t pass me the ball” or “The coach didn’t put me in.” It’s on you. That’s the beauty of the sport.  – Meb Keflezghi

With a foreword by legendary marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson, and a back cover that reads like an introduction to this generation’s great American dream, I wasn’t sure quite how to approach this book. Let me share some of the PR text with you for context:

When Meb Keflezighi won the New York City Marathon in 2009—the first American to do so in 27 years—some critics questioned whether the Eritrean-born runner was “really” an American despite his citizenship status and representing the USA on two Olympic and several World Championship teams. Yet Meb is the living embodiment of the American dream. His family came to the U.S. to escape from a life of poverty and a violent war with Ethiopia; Meb was 12 at the time, spoke no English, and had never raced a mile. Yet he became an A student and a high school state and national champion. And when he stood on the platform as a silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics, Meb knew his hard work and determination had paid off. How could life be any better?
Then it all came crashing down. Meb, a favorite for the Beijing Olympics, fractured his pelvis during the trials and was left literally crawling. His close friend and fellow marathoner suffered a cardiac arrest at the trials and died that same day. Devastated, Meb was about to learn whether his faith in God, the values his parents had taught him, and his belief that he was born to run were enough to see him through.
Run to Overcome tells the inspirational story of a man who discovered the real meaning of victory, and who embodies the American spirit of overcoming the odds.

My biggest grievance with the publicity text, not so much the book, is the tendency to make this about the American spirit rather than about the universal human spirit, the desire for God and to push ourselves to our limits. This story goes beyond being one that has to be limited to an American context, especially in light of the discussions about globalisation and the gospel that permeated the recent Lausanne Congress in Cape Town.

Many quotes that speak about Meb speak about his resilience of spirit, his impact on those around him and on the distance running community, and finally the emphasis he places about family. It is rather unsurprising then to see that these are also the themes of the this ghost written (with Dick Patrick) autobiography. But in some ways this is less about autobiography and more about the way running is a metaphor for life. At the end of each chapter a “runner’s tip” and an “overcomer’s tip” are offered. If you can get beyond the cheesiness of the formula then you might learn something!

Born in the middle of war-torn Eritrea, Mebrahtom (meaning ‘let there be light’), his parents and siblings, endured an arduous journey first to Italy and then to the US. Meb explains simply his faith and the place of prayer in his life as a response to God’s majesty and faithfulness. This is a story about the value of education and not taking opportunities so prolific in the West for granted. There’s alot of race specific details with times for Meb and his competitors going back to highschool meets. If you’re a runner or a coach, this may well be fascinating, but for me, who was more interested in his story the book lagged a little at this point. The book is largely about relationships and those friends that helped him along the way; in that sense, its a testimony to his humility and respect for those who’ve helped him. I especially enjoyed the chapter sharing the story of how Meb met his wife Yordanos. Inspiring without being overly sentimental – it’s the chapter where I feel like I hear his voice loudest and clearest.

If you’re interested in training tips, including how Meb recovers from training, his diet and how he manages being a father and a professional runner, advice on training logs, then you will find much to interest you. Meb also expresses strong opinions on the necessity for out of competition drug testing and the realities of EPO use amongst distance runners. He shares in detail about the intricacies of reduction clauses for sponsored runners and how this has cost him income in light of his “Run to Win” attitude. The Run to Overcome mantra pervades the book, giving it cohesion.

As he talks about another one of his NYC marathon experiences he shares the heartbreaking story of the death of one of his training partners, and friends, Ryan Shay. A friend of mine (who’s also running the NYC marathon this year) fortuitously shared an article yesterday about Shay’s sister running the race this year to raise money for wounded veterans and in memory of her brother. Well worth a read, though have the tissues ready!

After this we see Meb face some of his toughest trials and alongside his family, deal with uncertainty and the realities of business and the fragility of life. It is for this part that the book is worth the effort. It’s where you see his true colours and his attribution of God’s faithfulness. The final two chapters are about his historic win in the New York marathon and the media storm, both positive and negative that followed. It builds up to that climax effectively, but it takes a really long time to get there.

This is a compelling book, but it struggles in patches to move beyond a training journal. When Meb’s passion for life is able to show we simply glimpses of the potential this story has. As an athlete, I enjoyed this book. As a literary critic, there’s much I would have liked to have seen improved.

For those interested in athletics, or trying to get teen athletes interested in a book, this one is accompanied by discussion questions. I’m sure Athletes in Action (the Christians in athletics organisation Meb was part of at UCLA) groups will find this particularly useful.

Finally — I have some exciting news to share – 

There’s a Run to Overcome contest happening!
One signed book is being given away per day from Nov. 1, 2010 – Mar. 31, 2011. There will be monthly grand prize winners that will receive a signed copy of the book, alongside other free Tyndale titles, as well as Sony and PowerBar products. You can find more information at http://www.runtoovercome.com.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book gratis to review by Tyndale. A Big shout-out to Kathy Young, a friend of mine from Baylor who’s running in NYC this weekend!

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