If you ask me when I started running, I’ll generally say it was in the summer of 2000, when I was trying to lose baby weight after Nathan was born. But really, I started earlier than that—technically, I started running during a brief stint when I wasn’t sluffing class during my junior year of high school. I’d just left gymnastics and suddenly had to take a PE class, and modern dance was full so I took the running class. Which was mostly just walking around the track and talking to my friends, but I did run a little bit.
Sometimes I forget, though, that I really started running in 1993, while we were building our house. The longest I ever went was two miles, and I wasn’t very consistent, but it gave me a taste of how running makes you feel. It also gave me running dreams, one of which I really wanted to turn into a novel: I would dream quite often of myself running down the highway, which was totally deserted; I was on an urgent (although dreamily hazy) mission that the end of the world hinged on.
I never wrote that novel (I didn’t ever manage to invent a credible reason for how the world started to end or what my character would do to save it), but Adrian J. Walker sort of did, in his novel The End of the World Running Club. In this post-apocalyptic novel, the end of the world (at least, most of the western hemisphere) happens because of a rain of unexpected asteroids hitting the earth. It’s set in England and focuses on Edgar Hill and his family, how they survive the asteroid strike, what they do after it happens. His wife and children are taken via helicopter to a refugee camp, where people are gathering to board boats that will take them to South Africa, which is mostly unscathed. Edgar, however, misses the helicopter—and so must move himself about 500 miles across England to also catch the boat. Cars are not really an option, as the roads are mostly destroyed, and so he and his group of other survivors must get there via their feet. And they have to hurry, as the boats are leaving on Christmas day. So: running it is.
This novel is a great amalgam of tropes I enjoy: post-apocalypse and someone traveling the width of England (a la Harold Fry, although much more brutal) and a man who ends up being changed for the better by terrible circumstances and running. My one small complaint is that sometimes the story seemed too informed by The Walking Dead, minus the zombies; there were some vicious experiences that Edgar had to survive with characters who seemed like the British counterpart of Neegan. But I suppose there must be some other conflict besides just an overweight man figuring out how to run for hours at a time across a devastated landscape. The experiences fit within the scope of the story, they just weren’t my favorite to read.
Still, The End of the World Running Club was one of my favorite novels I read in 2017.
Novelists don’t always get running right in books, but this one got it exactly right. The exhaustion of going long distances and how you don’t really run, say, twenty miles; instead you decide 200,000 times to continue moving your feet forward. Sometimes that decision is easier than others; sometimes you can almost turn off your brain entirely, but you still chose to keep moving. I’ve only run through total exhaustion a few times, but I’ve done it (mostly at Ragnar relays) and it has this feeling that I don’t have a word for—but that I felt while reading. In the beginning, Edgar hates running, which is a feeling I cannot relate to, but I loved experiencing him discover that it is not all misery. Sometimes it is sheer miraculous beauty, and he manages to feel that despite running on scant calories and water from puddles. Finally, what I loved is how Ed, as he covers miles and miles and miles, begins to gain the philosophical knowledge that so many miles can give you. There’s a lot of time for thinking and your mind is also running its own trail, discovering new thoughts and truths. Ed gets these flashes of insight, too, and they were my favorite parts of the book.
I also really liked one of the supporting characters, Harvey. He is a long-time runner and has some great advice to help Edgar as well as the wisdom and patience that people build when they’ve run for years. He supports Edgar is a kind way, far different from the other members of their “running club,” who are disparaging of his speed and endurance. In fact, if I had one request of Adrian J. Walker, it would be that he write a novel about Harvey’s experiences.
Plus, it was really well written.
So maybe it’s OK that I haven’t written my own post-apocalyptic running novel. Maybe after reading this I never actually can, because it would always, now, be derivative. But I’m glad to have discovered and read this. And I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book, which might or might not’ve been uttered by Jesus. Sometimes you imagine things over great distances!
Do you know why people tell stories?...Because the truth doesn’t really have any words of its own. They’re not enough, see? Stories work—good stories—because they make you feel something like how the truth would make you feel if you could hear it.