Running to Extremes
Ray Zahab’s Amazing Ultramarathon Journey
by Steve Pitt, with Ray Zahab
Penguin Group (Canada), 2011
$12.95, 120 pp., b/w photos, appendix, ages 11 – 16
There is an underdog in all of us: an insecurity we confuse as a truth. The story begins with “Old Ray,” self-described as “last to be picked,” who identifies with anything other than being an athlete. In 1999, after some personal losses, Zahab decides to change his ways and “New Ray” vows to start over with a fresh perspective of the world and of himself. Although Pitt’s words provide a multi-sensory depiction of the various extreme locations in which Zahab would eventually run, the book is not intended to focus on geography, travel, nor the sport of marathon running; it is an account of how a single person can overhaul their identity with perseverance and personal reflection. After three decades of writing, Pitt easily and aptly articulates a distinction educators aim for all youth to understand: interests do not define people, they are merely tools through which people can define themselves. What makes Zahab’s story both beautiful and believable is that he does not decide to become an inspirational ultramarathon runner so much as he decides not to continue being an uninspired smoker and drinker.
Classroom Connections: In ten chapters, Pitt’s narrative achieves an honest tone and an inspirational feel without sounding preachy (an important distinction when writing for adolescents). When asked about facilitating the telling of someone’s personal epiphany, Pitt expressed how “life fills us with self-doubt and false horizons” which is precisely the message young readers will take from his story. Perhaps with awareness of such threats today, students will be well-armed to battle them tomorrow. Notably, by not idolizing or glorifying Zahab, as many athlete biographies aimed at adolescents do, Pitt’s words convince readers they, too, are capable of pursuing personal passions and overcoming personal façades. As such, the book would likely inspire discussion and debate about self-efficacy, identity, goal-setting, choices, or ambition in any middle or senior years classroom.
Review by Kim Siwak.
This review is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2012 issue.