Friday, January 08, 2021

Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley

Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley got added to my reading list late last year, thanks to Alex Hutchinson putting it on his fall list. I had actually gotten in touch with the publisher via the author's agent but some mess happened in the background, partly due to which the paperback wasn't available in India until last week or so. So I never got the advance copy I was hoping to get. Eventually, I could hold out no more and bought an ebook (Thanks to Google Books!) and got reading. So I set aside a few books I was reading and decided to read this. And what a treat it was!

Michael is a social anthropologist, who also happens to an almost elite runner (~2:20 for the marathon). Due to a combination of circumstances incl a studentship and a fellowship, he ends up in Ethiopia for his doctoral thesis, which ends up leading to the book. He discusses how he chose Ethiopia over some other countries which have a running culture but are much less studied/written about. The book is fantastic from even before the time he sets foot in Ethiopia, while he describes his student life in France, etc.

But from the moment he lands in Ethiopia, the story is mostly about running. And Michael has a very keen eye. He talks about using what is called the observant participation technique as opposed to the participant observation as he goes about immersing himself in the Ethiopian running scene, mostly at the higher end. Among others, the running group he tags along with includes men* who have run around 2:05 for the marathon! He describes how Ethiopia has a better record at the Olympics than its rival Kenya and how Mo Farah has been beaten by athletes of Ethiopian origin at thr 5K and the 10K, even since he became a force to reckon with. He also mentions how due to cultural reasons (among others), he chose men as it would be much harder for a western guy to go and interview women in Ethiopia. Much like in Finn's Running with the Kenyans, he describes how hard it is to be a top athlete in Ethiopia when he marvels at the fact that the bus conductor of the bus he's in has run 30:05 for the 10K. And at various points, he tells the reader how Ethiopian domestic competitions are much harder to win than international races, since international races rarely feature more than half a dozen Ethiopias and maybe a similar number of Kenyans, whereas local races can have up to a hundred contenders. So most Ethiopians may consider the rest of the participants as fun runners :)

He discusses how Ethiopian runners rarely run alone, viewing running alone almost as an anti-social behaviour. Further they seem to believe those who run alone are running for health, rather than training for competition. Competition and money seem to be the twin motivations for elite athletes. So his fellow runners are somewhat befuddled by his running just like that. The appearance of his girlfriend at some point in his story, convinces them that he does have a life outside of running.

He also provides a map of Ethiopian running hotspots, travelling as he does with some of his group to various events and episodes of training. Some of these have local legends attached to their names - Haile, Bekele, Dibaba etc. He is frequently joyous and tired as they run at higher altitudes free of pollution and as Michael jokes, oxygen!

His immersive experience, especially with athletes of that level is sobering to the reader. While the Ethiopian men train hard, they don't necessarily seem to rest well, so far as sleep goes. There's lot of demystifying to me. While elite athletes are also human (obviously!), some of their behaviour (much like ours) is very endearing (finishing long runs early to watch their fellow runners race for ex). It is also quite moving to see their fierce commitment to pacing in groups, although the group mindset may be in the decline thanks to the brutal prizemoney-driven dynamics, esp in races like Dubai (a la Cadillac-steak knives).

There's a lot of everyday struggle depicted as-is, as the athletes try and justify their effort by the prospect of reward, summed by the paraphrasing a beautiful quote from Montaigne (The Game is worth the candle). And Michael is extremely self-conscious as he recognizes his status, despite his modest-by-comparison running talents (for context, Michael could be a contender for most city marathons in India!)

Amongst many reasons I love the book, it rekindled a certain pure love for running, that had been elusive for over a year in my life. It brought back memories of a time when I ran hard and had fun. And of course, be immensely grateful that I don't have to run for a living, unlike the amazing characters, not all of whom will see fortune favouring them in life.

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