Book Review: A Rebel and a Runner by ultra-runner Rory Coleman

By Andy Blow | 6 Minute Read

We’ve known Rory Coleman for quite a while now. It’s nigh on impossible to be involved in the Marathon Des Sables scene in the UK and not to have come across Mr Coleman at some point.

He's a very well known character in the ultra running world through his impressive tally of MdS finishes, not to mention the growing army of athletes he has mentored through it over the years.

Rory has also made a specific point of recommending that all the athletes he coaches come to see us for a Sweat Test before they embark on the MdS to nail their hydration plan and put it in the category of ‘one less thing to worry about’ when they ship out to the desert each April.

Rory holds the distinction of having completed ‘the toughest footrace on earth’ a staggering 13 times and is perhaps most famous outside the niche of the ultra running community for having trained and paced world-famous explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes for the event in 2015 (when Sir Ranulph was 71 and had suffered a heart bypass operation!).

If we don’t bump into him elsewhere, it's always good to see ‘Britains Most Extreme Runner’ at the excellent annual MdS Expo UK that takes place in London in October or November each year. The Expo is a gathering of wide-eyed future MdS competitors who come to listen to a range of talks on all aspects of the race; from training and equipment selection to foot care, heat acclimatisation and - of course - nutrition and hydration.

It really is an invaluable day for the athletes to tap into and it helps them to better understand the nature of the challenge they're taking on.

At the 2017 event, Rory was kind enough to stop by the PH booth and give us a copy of his recently published autobiography; 'A Rebel and a Runner'. Having literally just read it cover to cover on a long haul flight over to the US, I thought it would be a good idea to summarise and review it here on our blog.

 

Rory coleman book

 

The first thing to say is that Rory’s story is definitely somewhat atypical material for a runners autobiography! It’s in no way a mark of disrespect to say that his athletic ability is not ‘elite’ in the sense of the speed at which he runs (his marathon PB is just over 3hr 24min).

But he has completed some genuinely remarkable feats of endurance in the last 20-odd years, including running 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours in 2003 (never sleeping for more than 70 minutes in 6 weeks in order to do so!), running over 100 miles in 24 hours on a treadmill, running the 1,275 miles from London to Lisbon in 43 days (averaging ~28 Miles per day without a single day off) as well as a host of other truly epic challenges.

At the time of writing this blog he's 54 and he's fast creeping up on his target of completing 1,000 marathons in his lifetime. Yes, One Thousand.

However the stat that really blew my mind reading the book was that Rory reckons that over the last 8,000 days (~22 years) he’s averaged 6 miles of running per day. A truly remarkable achievement in consistency to say the very least.

 

Rory Coleman 1000th marathon

 

What’s even more incredible about Rory’s story though is that by now it could easily have been an obituary for a man who died tragically prematurely; obese and very ill...

At the age of 30 Rory was a 15 stone, 40-a-day smoker whose regular Sunday routine did not get anywhere close to including a long training run. Instead the Sabbath involved working through a 4-pack of Stella Artois after lunch, followed by another 4-pack after tea, and this 8-tin session merely supplemented a week day habit of heavy drinking and smoking in the course of closing sales deals in the print industry. In short, 30 year old Rory’s health and wellness prospects were not looking all that rosy.

One day though, with his marriage falling apart and his self respect basically at ground zero, a drunken Rory called the Samaritans and somehow started a process that uncorked the determination to turn his life around.

He went cold turkey on the booze and fags and initially tried running simply  to help with weight loss and as a positive thing to do with the spare time he suddenly had to fill when he was not going to the pub straight from work every single night of the week.

Having got started, his running soon escalated and - as Rory readily admits - became an all-consuming obsession. What is interesting is that he didn’t go down anything like the traditional route that most newbie runners would have done in the 1990s and early 2000s. That is, joining a club and starting with 5 and 10km races, trying to get faster and one day maybe having a crack at a marathon.

 

Rory coleman ranulph fiennes

 

Instead, and pretty quickly at that, Rory developed a penchant for running a lot of back to back marathons (often two each weekend), seeking the thrill of the finishing chute as a form of therapy and distraction from the rest of his unfulfilling life, or maybe just a substitute for whatever feel good factors he used to get from drinking and smoking.

Following this, he casually stumbled into ultra-running and started to latch onto that as an even bigger buzz at a time when the ultra scene was tiny and absolutely nothing like the more mainstream, trendy ‘lifestyle’ sport it is fast becoming today.

As well as competing in a lot of regular marathons and ultras, Rory has organised a significant number of ‘road trip’ challenges - as he calls them - usually to promote a brand, product or good cause - often involving the running of marathons or ultras every day for weeks on end completely on his own. You can tell from the way these projects are described in the book that they have been very moving, life-defining experiences for him on occasion.

Despite the author hailing from Stratford-Upon-Avon, the writing in A Rebel and a Runner is not what you would call Shakespearian by any stretch of the imagination, but it's extremely honest and unvarnished and I think that's a big part of what makes the book such an engaging read. He calls it how he sees it, that's for sure!

As an example, when reflecting on his personal life towards the end of the book, Rory says ‘I admit that running has had a detrimental effect on my family, my marriages and the amount of time I’ve spent with my children’. (He’s been married 3 times). Whilst others might have tried to gloss over times, events and actions that would be considered pretty major ‘failings’ in many respects, there's none of that going on in this book.

In another chapter, Rory describes his eventual transition from working in the printing industry and being a ‘part time’ runner, to retraining as a personal trainer and starting to coach other aspiring athletes full time - offering services that often include rehabilitating those with similar cigarette and alcohol dependencies that he himself overcame in the 1990s.

He seems to use a combination of tough love, daily support and long running miles with these characters who wish to 'reform' themselves and has achieved some successes from the stories he recounts.

In all it sounds like Rory is a man who truly feels like he has found his calling in life, after many years of being someone he really didn't want to be.

Having chatted with Rory on numerous occasions in the past and only picking up snippets of his back story, I found reading A Rebel and a Runner really fascinating. You feel like you do get a very genuine insight into his world and what makes him tick.

Running back to back marathons for weeks and months on end is not everyone’s cup of tea - and certainly no small undertaking from a physical and mental point of view. It inevitably takes a toll on other areas of your life but it’s also clearly something Rory believes has saved him from an early grave and it's got to be hard to argue with that point.

If you’re looking for a book from which to glean specific ultra-running training tips and other performance related nuggets ‘A Rebel and a Runner’ is not going really going to tick that box for you. However (to paraphrase the man himself) as an examination of what it takes to pull you life up from a very steep nosedive and to go on and achieve notable athletic success, it's definitely recommended...

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